In their book “Soccernomics,” written in 2009, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make “rosy predictions for Brazilian football,” including that the investments in the 2014 World Cup would help lift the country’s domestic game to a level similar to that of the major European leagues.
It is a rare false note in a fascinating work. A recent editorial in Brazil’s sports daily Lance! paints a truer picture of contemporary reality.
“Our club game is in the global third division,” it laments. “Brazilian football is today further behind the main centres than it has ever been, by any indicator.
“We are easily beaten in terms of average crowd, TV audience, income of the clubs and interest of the sponsors.
“Violence keeps people away from the stadiums. And we are exporters of talent, helping other leagues to be more attractive than our own.”
There are many explanations for such a state of affairs, in which the Brazilian game operates absurdly beneath its potential. Many of these explanations come back to leadership and organisation — in particular, a structure of football in which the tail wags the dog.
Power inside the Brazilian football association, the CBF, does not rest with the clubs. It lies with the presidents of the 27 state federations. They, in turn, owe much of their allegiance to clubs so tiny they barely, if at all, qualify as professional.
In order to reproduce itself, this structure is dependent on the maintenance of the state championships — one for each of the country’s territories. These are played in the first few months of the year. In their current form, they have long been obsolete and, until the grand final, attract tiny crowds and little interest. They condemn Brazil’s small clubs to an annual calendar that lasts just three months. And they overload the big clubs with meaningless, loss-making games.
As Lance! concludes, “The clubs and their fans are the biggest losers of our unhappy dynasty. Especially the big clubs — subjected to a disastrous calendar that obliges them to make a loss in the interests of those at the top.”
Quite why the clubs have yet to break away to form their own league is one of the major mysteries of Brazilian football. But the undeniable truth, the point overlooked by Kuper and Szymanski, is that there is little benefit in having 21st-century stadiums if they have to coincide with a 19th-century calendar.
The point is easily proved this coming weekend. The Brazilian first division kicks off. With the presence of at least 12 giant clubs of enviable tradition, the start of the championship should be one of the world game’s great events. But even in Brazil it attracts murmurs rather than shouts. The tradition in Brazil is for a club season that culminates in playoffs and a two-legged final. This is undoubtedly exciting. But it condemns the opening months of the season to near irrelevance, more prequel to the drama of the conclusion — drama involving very few.
Some 15 years back, the switch was made to a conventional league format, with the teams meeting each other home and away. All of the teams would be involved in all of the action throughout all of the season. This had obvious commercial advantages.
There was, of course, a clear potential problem: There is no guarantee of late drama. A runaway leader could have the title sewn up with a few rounds to go — as happened with Corinthians last year. But this could be compensated for by the heightened interest at the start of the campaign.
Anyone with real experience of a league format knows the joy of the big kickoff. It is a nationwide celebration. Up and down the country, fans flood to their stadium, hopeful that the campaign will end in glory for their team.
But for this to happen, there must be a pause beforehand. The force of the big kickoff is dependent on the absence of football beforehand.
There has to have been an interval since the end of the previous season. The club has some new players, maybe, and perhaps a new coach. The interval gives space for marketing, for the club to sell its games. And, crucially, the interval gives space for the fan to reacquaint himself with the magic of being a supporter — that frequently misplaced optimism that this year, come what may, his team will surprise the world.
Take that pause away, and the big kickoff shrivels from magic to mundane. And in the case of Brazil, there is no pause. The State Championships, with their big finals, came to a climax last Sunday. The league kicks off this Saturday. The supporter is already well aware of his team and its defects.
“Everywhere else in the world, football prepares itself for the start of the season with its national championship,” wrote football finance specialist Amir Somoggi.
“Season tickets, events with sponsors and partners are all planned and promoted beforehand. But the Brazilian league will once again kick off after months of meaningless games. And to make things worse, there is no big marketing or communication effort to involve the supporter and fill the stadium.
“The CBF does nothing to promote the competition, and the clubs, instead of uniting in the fight for real changes, prefer to stay silent, as if all of this had nothing to do with them.”
And so what potentially could be one of the planet’s greatest leagues gets underway with barely a puff of smoke to announce its arrival.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.