Brazilian Soccer

Brazilian Soccer Won’t Develop Into a Global Powerhouse Without Structural Reform

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This weekend, Brazilian soccer clubs Bangu Atletico Clube and Boavista F.C. faced off in the battle for the Taça Rio. Picture the Moça Bonita stadium, with its low-lying stands in Rio de Janeiro’s hinterland, filled with few fans, sweltering in the dry heat, watching a provincial soccer game.

The match was but a snippet in the drawn-out and archaic Carcioca championship, one of Brazil’s 27 state championships that may be holding back Brazil’s soccer development.

This is not to say that a club like Bangu is irrelevant to Brazilian soccer. The club has historical significance: it was among the first Brazilian clubs to feature black and mulatto players. Together with Vasco Da Gama, Bangu opened up the exclusively-white world of organized Brazilian soccer to Rio’s mixed races.

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But, in recent years, Bangu’s sporting accolades have been marginal, and its future prospects are grim. The state championships, then, become its moments of glory, with multiple chances to encounter and possibly defeat Rio’s big four clubs: Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco Da Gama, and Botafogo. From January to April, Bangu (and other minor clubs like Madureira, Resende, Macae, Volta Redonda, and Nova Iguaçu) can take the limelight in a self-indulgent procession of mismatches. For the big clubs, the state championships offer a chance of easy silverware, but they do little for their continental and global competitiveness with so many nonsensical fixtures.

“Brazil’s state championships must be improved and rationalized,” acknowledges former Flamengo president Luiz Veloso. “But they have tradition, they deserve to exist in a contemporary format and timing.”

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The state championships, however, reveal a simmering, institutional crisis in the Brazilian game. Clubs are mired in debt while 85% of the players earn little more than the minimum wage, and the soccer calendar is out-of-sync with the rest of the world. As a result, interest outside of the country is minimal, and even inside, the state championships are often overlooked.

Brazilian soccer is, at best, a protracted tragicomedy. At the international level, the Seleção always ensured a happy ending for fans, but that unforgiving 7-1 defeat by Germany demonstrated Brazil’s brittleness. The domestic game is paying the price.

“It is a state of affairs that benefits no one but a few power-hungry football administrators.”

It is a state of affairs that benefits no one but a few power-hungry football administrators. Unlike their European counterparts, the small clubs have little power of representation. They don’t grow, in a large part due to their inactivity; 90% of the clubs registered with the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) are only active for four months a season.

The antidote requires surgical change in the pyramid of Brazilian football, along with a revolution at the club level. The retrograde state federations are the CBF’s power base, and they are the ones that organize the state championships. You can see where this is going: with no personal incentive to change, the federations (and the CBF, in turn) do nothing, and the procession of David-vs-Goliath matches with no real beneficiaries rolls on.

So, it falls to the clubs to create any real change for the betterment of the country’s soccer infrastructure. “Brazilian clubs need to take responsibility for their own activities,” argues FIFA master alumnus Pedro Trengrouse, who is also a professor at the FGV. “The essence of the question is who can organize the league in the best way? The clubs.”

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Does Brazilian soccer need its own breakaway moment? In England, the biggest clubs broke away from the Football League in 1992 to create their own top-flight division: the Premier League, which has turned into the world’s most lucrative and watched league. Those clubs realized their massive revenue potential, and no longer wanted to defer to a league with old structures and differing interests.

In Brazil, a split was eminent in 1987, when the CBF, facing bankruptcy, was no longer in a position to cover the costs for running Brazil’s domestic league. The country’s biggest clubs formed the “Clube Dos 13,” organizing their own tournament, along the way generating profitable sponsorship deals with Brazilian TV behemoth Globo and Coca-Cola.

“In 1987, at last, the fat cats had decided that enough was enough.”

‘The Clube Dos 13’ back-pedaled as the group’s president Carlos Miguel Aidar reconciled with CBF boss Nabi Abi Chedid. Plans for a second independent competition in 1988 were quickly abandoned.

“In 1987, at last, the fat cats had decided that enough was enough,” explains Brazilian football expert Alexandre Gontijo. “They created their own league, but the CBF was politically savvy and they smothered the league. At the same time, the CBF improved its own Brazilian League.”

Recently, the Primeira Liga, established in 2015, has threatened to challenge the CBF’s monopoly, but the new tournament doesn’t have enough support.

There’s a monetary incentive for the big clubs to keep things the way they are, of course. Today, the state championships offer easy money to those clubs in the hotbeds of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, to the tune of $4.73 million a pop. That’s more than the prize money at stake in the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s second tier competition, and the bonuses on offer in the opening stages of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League.

“You can’t face globalization if you are attached to a small confederation like CONMEBOL.”

“But what are the opportunity costs?” asks Trengrouse. “There is a bigger problem here if you want to compete globally. Remember, Barcelona has a bigger audience in Brazil than the domestic clubs.”

Part of that, according to Trengrouse, is due to the country’s location and membership in the South American soccer federation, CONMEBOL (a decidedly “big fish in a small pond” situation). “Brazil is the only big market in CONMEBOL,” he says. “You can’t face globalization if you are attached to a small confederation like CONMEBOL.” 

The other part, however, falls to the country’s many ruling soccer bodies. While the clubs and federations all decide on how to best turn the country’s fervent passion for soccer into a global presence, the state championships will roll on year after year, giving clubs like Bangu the chance to win a trophy that costs more than its weight in gold.