Robinho's return highlights Brazil's issues
It was either George Santayana or Felipe Melo who said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Jokes aside, in Brazilian football at the moment, repeating the past is all the rage. The dumbfounding choice of Dunga as national team boss last month set the tone (with the surly Gaúcho stepping into the shoes of another retread, Luiz Felipe Scolari), and Brazilian clubs have been partying like it's 2010 ever since.
São Paulo have brought Kaká (32 years old) in on loan from Orlando City to keep old pal Luís Fabiano (33 years old) company, with Al Ain (via Roma) left-back Michel Bastos (31 years old) also about to join the South Africa World Cup squad reunion party at the Morumbi.
Down the road at Santos, Robinho, another member of the Brazil side who was eliminated by the Netherlands in Port Elizabeth, has returned to the club where he started his career, hoping to recapture the glories of the 2002 and 2004 Brasileirão title-winning campaigns. There are even unlikely rumours that Ronaldinho, perhaps due to a lack of lucrative offers from elsewhere, may be joining him. And the captain of that Brazil side, Lúcio (36), is at another Sao Paulo outfit, Palmeiras.
Nor is all this retro-chic the sole preserve of trendy paulistas. Coritiba's most influential player remains ex-Fenerbahçe legend Alex, while most of the attacking wit and wisdom of little Criciúma, also based in the south of Brazil, flows from the boots of much-traveled 39-year-old striker Paulo Baier. Up in the northeast, Sport´s enterprising start to the Serie A season is in large part down to the sturdy defensive work of central defender Durval (34), while another nordestino, Juninho Pernambucano (39) was intermittently a midfield force for Vasco da Gama last year.
Such valuing of age over beauty is hardly a new development in Brazil -- along with his partner-in-crime Adriano, Flamengo's then 36-year-old Serbian Dejan Petkovic was the league's best player in 2009, when the Rio side won the title, and legendary São Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni, now 41, has been a dominant figure in Brazilian football since God was a lad.
Until recently it was hardly surprising that older players could do well in Brazil -- deep defensive lines and a slower pace of play than in the big European leagues meant that the veterans had time and space to display the full range of their talents. Now, however, with Brazilian football mired in a tactical and technical depression, games are often gritty, crabby affairs. Attractive passing football is a rarity, practiced by only a handful of teams, among them last year's title winners and current leaders Cruzeiro, and closest challengers Fluminense. In the current climate of hurly-burly attrition, it remains to be seen how Robinho, Kaká and the rest of this most recent crop of veterans -- none of whom were exactly in demand among Europe's top clubs -- will fare.
"The tough truth is that ... [Robinho] was a reserve at Milan before he signed with Santos. ... In other words, he was on the bench at a team which at the moment is living on past glories. He had no prospect of getting back in the Milan team, and even less of attracting the interest of another European club," wrote ESPN's Jose Roberto Malia after Santos had lost to 1-0 to Corinthians in Robinho's homecoming game.
Why, then, the enthusiasm for the greybeards, who are almost always signed on fat, short-term contracts, and have little or no resale value? As usual in Brazil, a full understanding of the whys and wherefores of the situation can only be gained by peeping behind the green curtain.
Despite income levels that dwarf those of the rest of the continent, Brazilian clubs are in financial crisis, owing huge amounts (not least to the government). Many have been reduced to paying player salaries late, or in the case of perhaps the most troubled example, Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo, not at all. The situation is so grave that a law of sporting financial responsibility is currently being discussed between the clubs and politicians, with a view to restructuring tax debts in return for more rigorous financial management and inspection.
Partly as a result of such financial woes, it seems that talented young players are leaving for Europe with even greater haste than usual, with the days when Neymar and Lucas Moura chose to bide their time at home before big money moves abroad feeling like a long time ago. As a result, the talent cupboard is especially bare.
In such a climate, there is one guaranteed way for Brazil's football chairmen, elected on limited mandates and for whom short-term glory rather than long-term planning is usually the priority, to get the fans onside -- the repatriation of a prodigal son.
The vast majority of veterans who have recently returned from European football -- Fabiano, Kaká and Robinho, for example -- have headed back to the clubs where they made their names. When leaving Turkey last year, Alex was faced with the tricky dilemma of whether to sign with Coritiba (where he began his career), Palmeiras (where he was idolised and won the Copa Libertadores in 1999) or Cruzeiro (where he was idolised and won the Brazilian title in 2003). In theory, the deals make an askew kind of financial sense, at least in the minds of Brazil's vainglorious club administrators. A team might be unable to find money to sign (or even pay the wages of) a youngster or a journeyman, but then youngsters and journeymen rarely sell tickets or replica shirts. A Robinho or a Kaká, however, will potentially do both.
Signing a favourite son, even if he is past his sell-by date, excites the fans, tying in perfectly with the somewhat fickle mindset of the average football supporter in Brazil, where the average Serie A crowd was 14,000 last year, but where fans flock to potential trophy deciders or big occasions in their droves -- São Paulo pulled in a crowd of 46,000 for Kaká's planned home debut (which he ultimately missed through injury). Robinho's hefty salary of $220,000 per month with Santos, meanwhile, will be sweetened further by a cut of ticket and merchandising sales (it has also, according to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, not gone down too well with a number of his teammates, who as recently as last week, says the paper, were owed wages and image rights payments by the club).
To accept such logic, however, is to plunge headlong into the morality-free financial world of Brazilian football.
At a recent meeting between club chairmen and Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff to discuss those massive public debts, São Paulo president Carlos Miguel Aidar said that clubs wanted tax breaks "like Santa Casa [an underfunded public hospital network] and ProUni [a government organisation that pays university grants to students from Brazil's hard-up public school] get."
At the same time, with Luís Fabiano, Kaká, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Rogério Ceni, Alexandre Pato and now Bastos in the squad, São Paulo's wage bill of $4.6 million per month would, by Brazilian standards, make some European clubs blush. Perhaps, though, Brazilian football's love of greybeards makes a surreal kind of sense in the end.
It was only a few weeks ago that, with the country's media and fans crying for change after the 7-1 humiliation against Germany, CBF president Jose Maria Marin and his cronies at Brazilian football's governing body appointed a former player agent, Gilmar Rinaldi, as the country's new director of football, and soon afterwards, to the sound of jaws dropping everywhere, named Dunga as manager of the national team.
These "changes" (such as they are) showed that as far as Brazilian football's panjandrums are concerned, there is nothing much wrong with the game here, despite the World Cup debacle. Marin and his ilk exist in a world where it is forever 1974 -- things might not have worked out this time around, but it's surely just a blip and a new Pelé or Tostão or Rivellino will turn up in a minute. Seen in such a light, the signing of former idols, a rose-tinted, if short-lived, reminder of happier times, of packed stadiums and trophies thrust aloft, is another example of Brazilian football's leaders crawling back into their shells.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.