State leagues are keeping Brazilian football from reaching its potential
The tweaks to the rules of the game -- no rebounds on penalties, no attackers in defensive walls, handball always given for attackers in the box, red and yellow cards for coaches and so on -- were due to come into effect on June 1. Instead, they are getting an early start in the Brazilian championship, which kicks off this weekend and rolls all the way through to early December.
So it is a case of new rules and old problems for a league that should be one of the most exciting in the world, but which consistently fails to live up to its potential.
So many of the pieces seem to be in place: a football-crazy nation with lots of urban centres, plenty of big clubs with glorious traditions and a level of unpredictability that is most welcome in the modern game. But some of the basics are missing, and the most basic of all is sound organisation of the calendar.
Brazil switched from a playoff to a league system some 15 minutes ago. The playoffs are exciting, there is the guarantee of drama at the end, but they inevitably leave the majority of clubs out of the action at the most glamorous stage; and an inevitable consequence is to devalue the importance of the preliminary league phase. A playoff format will inevitably start cold, and pick up momentum towards the end.
A league -- everyone playing each other home and away -- has the opposite characteristics, or should have. There is no such guarantee of late drama. The destiny of the title could be sorted out weeks in advance, although there is always something to play for at the end, such as a relegation battle or the fight to qualify for international competitions. But it keeps all the clubs in activity all the way through the campaign, and it starts hot. Three points in the first round is worth the same as three points in the last. Everything is at stake in every game, and the opening weeks are where this is felt more keenly and more widely.
The big kickoff is a magical moment in the football calendar. It is when fans all over the country flock to the stadiums. They have convinced themselves that, no matter how humble their club, this could be the season of glory. But in order for that to happen, there must be a pause first. The absence of football is a key component in the success of football. In the three months between the end of one season and the start of the next, the magic of fandom has done its work. After so much time away from the stadium, the supporter is desperate to return, and makes his or her way back into the ground with a heart full of hope.
None of this happens if there is no pause, and that is the way it happens in Brazil. The state championships -- one for each of the country's 27 states -- came to an end on Sunday, less than a week before the start of the league. There has been no time to market the league fixtures, no time for the magic of fandom to do its job, no time for the league to start hot. The supporter is already well acquainted with the team and its limitations.
Brazil's domestic calendar is a continually flawed attempt to force three litres into a bottle that can only hold two. Something has to give.
The pioneering and rising force of Athletico Paranaense have come to the conclusion that the state championships are no longer worthwhile, and take part in their local tournament with a reserve side. Others should have followed suit, and rid themselves of an excess of meaningless games -- and the wrath of angry club presidents. Three first-division coaches were sacked last Sunday after their teams lost in the final of local tournaments. With Atletico Mineiro also looking for a coach after a disastrous Copa Libertadores group phase, it means that 20 percent of the first division go into a long league campaign under improvised leadership -- a lesson in how not to plan.
The existence of the state championships mean that the games come thick and fast. Seven Brazilian clubs are taking part in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. This will take priority. Before big continental matches they will rest players in the league. And more reserve sides will feature before games in the domestic cup competition, which is given more importance than the league by most of the clubs.
Fighting on all these fronts requires a big squad. Last year Palmeiras were champions almost without wanting to be. Their number one target was the Libertadores, followed by the cup, followed by the league. Veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari used all his man-management skills and essentially divided his squad in two: one side for cup games, another team for the league. They fell in the semifinals of both cups, but won the league title.
Flamengo have followed the example, employing Abel Braga as an old-school, father figure of a coach, and assembled a squad with plenty of depth. This model, though, requires money. Very few clubs are capable of maintaining squads of such depth, and consequently the league is becoming more predictable. Many famous names -- Flamengo's traditional Rio rivals Fluminense, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo are the best examples -- go into this season's championship without any real hope of winning. They will almost certainly be delighted with a place in next year's Copa Libertadores. A debate rages about how many of Brazil's traditional giants can now be described as "ex-big clubs."
But if some of the old school are ailing, there are few new forces emerging. Despite the 2014 World Cup investments in the northeast, the region finds it very hard to punch its weight at national level. True, CSA from Maceio are back in the top flight after 30 years, and local rivals Fortaleza and Ceara are in the first division together for the first time since 1993. The region's other club, Bahia, finished 11th last year, which was considered a success. The league remains dominated by the south and the southeast, supplying 15 of the 20 teams.
For all the problems and the underachievement, there are plenty of reasons to follow the action. Along with Palmeiras and Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Gremio and Internacional look strong. Sao Paulo are bringing on some youngsters -- and the rising new talent on show in Brazil is always interesting -- and it will br interesting to see how high Athletico Paranaense can fly. Even with the recent process of concentration, there are far more contenders than in most European leagues.
Moreover, there is something of a battle for the soul of the Brazilian game going on. Santos have turned to an Argentine coach, Jorge Sampaoli, to implant his trademark attacking style of play. Fluminense are also going bold with Fernando Diniz. The general style in recent years has been cautious, reactive, waiting for the chance to launch a counterattack. These coaches seek to yank the trend towards something bolder, and it will be fascinating to see if they can play a part in helping the Brazilian championship live up to its potential for competitive and exciting football.