Some players in the Brazilian league may be relieved that the game is being played behind closed doors at the moment, as it limits the opportunity for angry fans to protest.
Even so, angry supporters can still gather at the airport and training ground, and it’s not just the team at the wrong end of the table who can feel the power of anger. Sao Paulo and Flamengo is a prime candidate to win the league table but, in recent months, even players from these clubs have been harassed or seen derogatory slogans plastered on the walls of their training ground.
Some of these are manifestations of an angry society. The old tourist myth of Brazil as a land of the lucky and the fortunate of the satisfied has crumbled in the light of recent political events.
But there’s also something else, an intrinsic factor in Brazilian football, but something that should serve as a stern warning to those in charge of European club play.
Brazil is a country the size of a continent, a geographic fact with significant implications for the development of the game. For decades the transport infrastructure was insufficient for a true national championship. Brazilian football then developed as a regional phenomenon. The focus is on local. There are prototypes, but the national league was only formed in 1971. Until about 25 years ago, state championships were still very important, one for each of the 27 states that make up this giant nation.
It is under this approach that so many clubs have amassed titles and prestige to be considered giants. The heart of the southeast and south – Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre – contains 12 recognized giants, a number that does not even include clubs from the far north with mass support.
The last few decades have seen important changes. Brazilian club football has moved from a regional to national approach. The state championships are still around, but they have lost their light. Their time had been reduced, and even so, they were seen as the current tournament as little better than unnecessary chaos.
This creates a problem. The club now aims to win the national league or domestic cup, or the continental Copa Libertadores. In a sporting culture obsessed with winning now that state championships are an afterthought, there are not enough titles left for all the so-called giants to maintain their status of giants.
In a league of 12 giant clubs, one is destined to finish no more than 12. And a club that can consistently only crave mediocrity in mid-table can hardly be called a giant.
Imagine an example Botafogo. They supplied a number of great players to Brazil’s 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup winning teams, but they are now facing relegation for the third time in this century. This is no big surprise. Their support base is relatively small compared to their Rio neighbors, Flamengo or even Vasco da Gama. In a national environment, when a large gap opens up in the number of paid teams in TV rights, it is difficult for Botafogo to be competitive. It has been some time since they entered the league season with realistic hopes of winning the title – and that is a difficult reality for those who draw on the stories of Garrincha, Didi, Nilton Santos, Zagallo, Amarildo and Jairzinho.
The transition from regional to national is guaranteed to create dissatisfaction from supporters.
Now let’s apply this to the hopes of some of the great European clubs of setting up a continental super league.
The parallels are clear – it’s just a case of imagining Europe as one country and seeing a national league similar to the Brazilian state championships. And indeed, some European leagues have become like state championships: Losing prestige due to loss of competitiveness, becomes more predictable when financial gaps open. The whole continent’s super league would start with, say, 20 clubs, all of which would enter the competition with giant status, based on the fact that they won most of their matches.
But in a 20 team league, one has to finish 20th, and 19th, and so on. And a club that loses a large part of its game will soon be doomed to lose its giant status, and become a major disappointment to a generation of fans who have grown up with titles and glory.
The European Super League, then, seems destined to please some of the people at the top, and prove a major source of discontent for everyone.
The behavior of fans in Brazil is a warning.
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