The convenient magic of the Cup

As far as Brazilian football tournaments go, the country’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, ticks all the boxes.

Firstly, it provides a straightforward path into South America’s most prestigious tournament: the Copa Libertadores. Since the mid-1990s, Brazil’s bloated state championships have become more and more irrelevant, while the Libertadores, South America’s answer to the Champions League, is king. The four best-placed clubs at the end of the Brazilian championship gain qualification to the continent’s premier competition, but the easiest way in is by winning the Copa do Brasil. Earning a place in the national championship’s top four requires consistency and squad depth over 38 matches, while a club can reach the cup final with a brief spurt of investment and a successful run of only six or eight games.

Secondly, it offers something that fourth place in the league cannot: silverware. If there is one thing that Brazilian clubs crave above all else, it is trophies. With so many big clubs distributed among the country’s several big cities, only a small fraction of these equally traditional teams can be successful at one time, leaving an ever-present and sizeable demographic of upset Brazilian football fans.

Winning the cup serves to temporarily placate these supporters and quench their trophylust. According to Mauricio Savarese, journalist and co-author of “A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football” along with myself: “Between finishing second in the league and winning the Copa do Brasil, everyone prefers winning the cup.”

The cup competition also satisfies a basal desire of the neutral fan, which is decisive, winner-take-all knockout football. Since the beginning, the sudden death format (which is emphatically referred to in Brazil as mata-mata, literally “kill-kill”) has been deeply ingrained in the Brazilian football experience.

Before 2003, the national championship comprised a league structure followed by a deciding knockout phase to determine which club went home with the trophy. This was definitely counter-intuitive, as the idea of a long championship is to crown the team that has performed best overall, not just in the final two weeks, and the second half of the league phase was hampered by tiny attendances and equally poor television ratings.

However, mata-mata is so important to Brazilian fans, who revel in the spectacle and tension the games provide. So much so, that there are still many who defend the return of a knockout system to the national league. When the Brazilian championship made the switch to a straight points system, the Copa do Brasil grew in importance, providing the sudden death format loved by the fans without the obvious drawbacks.

Origins

Although those involved may tell you otherwise, the Copa do Brasil was created as a political tool. To fully understand why, we need to take a step back to the 1970s as Brazil’s military dictatorship’s iron grip on the country began to slip.

The generals’ ruling party, Arena, began holding local elections around Brazil which were inconsequential but gave the impression of a fair, democratic system to overseas onlookers. The plan began to backfire around 1974, as Arena were beaten at the polls in many regions. Aware of the popular power in football, the dictatorship attempted to appease locals in the areas they had suffered bad results, by building stadiums and promoting regional clubs to Brazil’s top division.

This process continued for some time and reached a critical mass as the Brazilian championship swelled to an incomprehensible size. In 1979, as democracy was about to return to the country, the tournament had an incredible 94 teams. When the generals were deposed, the championship returned to a practical number.

Although the military dictatorship was defeated, Brazilian football’s ruling body, the CBF (previously CBD), lived on and still craved these confederal relations in order for them to remain in power. With a number of upset associations throughout the country, the CBF created the Copa do Brasil to reclaim their favour, guaranteeing that major clubs from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre would travel Brazil, once again playing in these local stadiums against these smaller clubs.

Such interests are still very much alive, as was shown last year when a leaked fax showed Parnahyba Sport Club from the northern state of Piauí requesting that their state federation lobby the CBF so the club could draw Flamengo or Santos in the first round of the cup.

One leg good, two legs bad

A criticism often aimed at the Copa do Brasil is its insistence in having two-legged ties. With the Brazilian calendar incredibly crowded as it is, having all of these extra fixtures seems nonsensical. Furthermore, it makes life incredibly difficult for smaller clubs who, even if they manage a heroic victory over one of the biggest clubs in the country, are required to play a second leg, making progress to the next round even less likely.

One such example happened earlier this season, as fourth division Londrina played Santos in the third round. Londrina have built an interesting side and are dead certs for promotion this season, and in their home leg they managed an incredibly tense and well-deserved 2-1 win against the first division club. Such a result should have been rewarded with a place in the last 16, but a 2-0 victory in Santos cut them down to size.

Traditional cup competitions around the world, such as the FA Cup and the Coupe de France, are made richer by these rare moments of giantkilling, but the very format of the Copa do Brasil makes these situations near impossible.

This brings up an interesting topic however: do Brazilian fans actually like giantkilling? Leonardo Bertozzi, journalist and pundit at ESPN Brasil, doesn’t believe so. “The Brazilian television audience is interested in seeing big, well-known teams. There’s also a large slice of that population that is only interested in watching their own team.”

“Therefore, these big achievements of smaller sides aren’t received with much enthusiasm, especially from those who hold the television broadcasting rights, as invariably these matches see a decrease in audience figures.”

Teams from the second division have performed well this year, but ultimately, a final between national champions Cruzeiro and second division Bragantino would be seen as a non-event, not a spectacle. “Seeing the small sides is fun, but it takes away some of the weight of the title,” says Mauricio Savarese.

Furthermore, when these giantkillings do happen in Brazil, it is interesting to observe how they are remembered. The focus is always placed on the shame of the slain giant instead of the glory of the plucky underdog. “Flamengo lost the 2004 cup final to Santo André, and that has gone down as one of their biggest embarrassments in history,” recalls Savarese. The 2004 Copa da Brasil is not referred to as the one Santo André won, but the one Flamengo lost.

Intelligent itinerants

One of the underdogs in this year’s tournament, the aforementioned Bragantino, are entirely aware that the odds are stacked against them and after drawing some high-profile teams, they have decided to use their presence for their own financial gain. After being pitted against (and defeating) São Paulo FC and progressing to play Corinthians, Bragantino opted to move both of their home legs to other cities in order to make more money from gate receipts.

First, against São Paulo, the fixture was moved to the city of Ribeirão Preto and the 30,000-capacity Estádio Santa Cruz; then, against Corinthians, they went all in and took the game to Cuiabá and the Arena Pantanal, one of the 2014 World Cup stadiums. Such an attitude would be unthinkable in the FA Cup, for example, where home advantage and the cramped, noisy atmosphere of lower league stadiums can make all the difference, but the decision becomes more understandable when you consider Bragantino’s financial position.

In this year’s second division, Bragantino have an average home attendance of 732. They are not a newly-formed club without any tradition, having been founded in 1928. When going through such difficult times, smaller clubs such as Bragantino are forced to look elsewhere to make money. Aware that clubs such as São Paulo and Corinthians have huge pockets of support all over the country who don’t often get a chance to watch their club, Bragantino used that to their advantage.

Bragantino may well have the chance to earn even more money from gate receipts in this year’s cup, as they managed to win their first leg against Corinthians, 1-0 in Cuiabá. Tonight though, they will face Mano Menezes’ side in São Paulo for a much tougher test.

This year’s Copa do Brasil hasn’t exactly been one of giantkillings, but bigger clubs being defeated by lower-ranked, but still competent sides. The biggest surprises have been a pair of second-division sides from Brazil’s north-east: Ceará and América-RN. Their home cities of Fortaleza and Natal have always been difficult away trips for the traditional big clubs in the south-east, but both sides have been playing incredibly well, even away from home. Both are in action this evening, against Botafogo and Atlético Paranaense respectively, hoping to book their place in the quarter-finals.

Elsewhere, the biggest tie of the round was set to be Grêmio v Santos, but after the away side’s goalkeeper Aranha was racially abused by home fans in the Arena Grêmio during the first leg, the second leg was suspended and is unlikely ever to be played, with Grêmio facing expulsion from the tournament. That, unfortunately, is a story for another day.

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