Football at its best

This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.

In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.

The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.

For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.

The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.

The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.

It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.

Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.

With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.

While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.

In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.

To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.

Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.

Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.

To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.

Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.

The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.

Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.

The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.

Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.


Juca Kfouri and the CPIs

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing Juca Kfouri, a living legend of Brazilian journalism. As editor of the iconic weekly (now monthly) sports magazine Placar and later of Playboy, Juca worked tirelessly throughout the 1980s and 1990s to investigate and expose corruption in Brazilian sport.

Being an investigative sports journalist in Brazil was a thankless task back then. Brazilian society treated the idea of corruption in sport as a wacky conspiracy theory, most likely due to decades of the public being sheltered from government corruption under the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and its tight grip on information.

This changed in 2001 when Congress opened two separate parliamentary inquiries (CPIs) into corruption in football. The first, in the lower house, aimed at the sponsorship contract between Nike and the Brazilian FA (CBF), leaked to the press in 1999 and suspected of “violating Brazilian sovereignty”. At the same time, another CPI was opened in the Senate, going after club presidents and the CBF itself.

Due to pressure from the so-called “football caucus”, the CPI in the lower house was not approved. Yet the Senate CPI survived and made a host of indictments of 17 important figures in the national game, including then CBF president Ricardo Teixeira, current and ex-presidents of Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Santos and even national team coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo. None of these accusations were taken any further though, due to what Juca calls the “slow, morose” Brazilian judiciary. The national team’s success in the 2002 World Cup also served to deflect bad press away from the CBF. Continue reading Juca Kfouri and the CPIs

(White Man) In The Maracanã

Speaking at the Paraty International Literary Festival (commonly known as Flip) on Sunday evening, iconic Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil made an observation regarding the ethnic composition of supporters at the recent Confederations Cup: “The place where the players ran to hug the fans didn’t have any of the ethnic Brazilian hue, it had been whitened.”

He has not been the only one to speak out on this issue. Renowned sports journalists Juca Kfouri and Antero Greco also expressed their disappointment at crowds that they felt did not accurately represent Brazilian society.

Image: O Globo

This problem is not exclusive to national team matches either. The “whitening” process has affected the domestic game as well. Although, while this may appear to be an issue concerning race, as inferred by Gilberto, it is more of a question of social class. However racial inequality is never too far away in Brazil and a study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) estimates that 69% of Brazil’s classe alta is white, while 69% of the classe baixa is black.

So what is making the working class stay away? There is a number of contributing factors, such as the scheduling of kick-off times (major midweek matches start at 10pm, after Rede Globo’s evening soap opera), fear of violence in stadiums and even the fickle nature of the average Brazilian fan. The most obvious reason, however, is the price.

Ticket prices in Brazil range from the slightly expensive to the downright offensive. The average ticket for a league match is R$ 38 (about £12) and rapidly rising, while the cheapest ticket for the Confederations Cup final came in at R$ 130. This may not seem like much for people outside of Brazil, but when compared to the average monthly salary of R$ 1,792 (around £530), it is easy to see why millions are being priced out.

The real tragedy of this exclusion is that the demographic being kept out is the one responsible for Brazilian football’s unique identity. Although the game was initially an elite sport, it was the contributions of players like Pelé, Zizinho, Tostão, Leônidas, Rivellino, Ronaldo and Romário that helped define the Brazilian footballer.

Perhaps the most symbolic example is Mané Garrincha – who gives his name to the newly renovated national stadium in Brasília, due to host seven money-spinning “home” games of the country’s most popular club, Flamengo. If Mané was growing up today, in a poor household in Magé, Rio de Janeiro, getting a ticket to one of these matches could mean a week without food or electricity.

Nevertheless, Brazilian football has reaped some benefits from the globalisation and monetisation of the game. Forty years ago, it would have been hard to see an individual like Kaká, an engineer’s son, become a professional sportsman. Football is now a feasible career path for the middle classes, opening the doors to different styles of player, namely those raised in more sheltered environments.

The Brazilian game is at a crossroads. The increased sponsorship and state-of-the-art stadiums brought by the World Cup will no doubt force a profound change on the match day experience, similar to what happened in England with the Premier League. However, putting class issues to one side, clubs are simply not getting enough bums on seats. The average attendance in last year’s national championship was just 12,983, lower than the J-League in Japan and Major League Soccer in the US.

Empty stadiums spoil the Brasileirão product, which reduces potential gains from television deals and sponsorships. The powers that be (whether that be the CBF or the clubs themselves) must act quickly in order to restore the wider audience.

Perhaps in the current climate of protest and public unrest, Brazilian football supporters can take the initiative themselves and demand fairer ticket prices, like what is being done in the UK with the Football Without Fans Is Nothing campaign.

New MirrorFootball blog

Good afternoon all. Just a quick post to point you towards my blog on MirrorFootball for this weekend.

In this week’s article, I take a look at the many Brazilian clubs who have not been able to play at there home stadiums this season.

You can find the blog here.

World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins

With just over 1,000 days until the Final in the Maracanã, CONMEBOL’s nine nations (excluding Brazil) begin their march towards the World Cup with the first round of qualifying matches taking place this week. With every side in action on Friday and again on Tuesday (even Brazil have friendly matches on those days) we have plenty of thrilling football to look forward to. Let’s take a look at Friday’s four qualifiers, and cast a quick glance over the 2014 hosts and their friendly in Costa Rica.

Continue reading World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins