Reform in Brazilian football: where to begin?

The bomb has gone off and any illusions about the strength of Brazilian football have been obliterated. As the dust settles after Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany, there appears to be a consensus around the country’s football fans: something needs to change.

The federal government has made its stance clear, committing to actively instigate reform throughout the national game, proposing new laws and regulations and promising to put pressure on the Brazilian FA (CBF) and heads of the country’s big clubs and state federations. A complete clear-out of the CBF, something many have called for, is out of the question. Fifa law forbids government involvement in the operation of national football federations and we have just seen the Nigerian FA suspended for that very reason.

What is happening is the proposal of a new set of laws to tackle the obscene debts of Brazil’s major clubs, something approaching Fifa’s Financial Fair Play ruling, which will soon be voted upon in the Chamber of Deputies. The Law of Fiscal Responsibility in Sport (not as catchy as FFP) proposes the refinancing of clubs’ debts over the next 25 years (in 2013, Flamengo’s debt reached R$ 750,7 million, 11 times the tax bill that saw Rangers put out of business in Scotland), but only if they follow regulations regarding good business practice and responsible spending. Sanctions would be handed out to those who do not comply, including financial penalties or sporting punishments such as point deductions and demotions.

Its aim is to have better run clubs in Brazil and avoid the widespread reports of unpaid salaries we have seen for the past ten years and beyond. Of course, this is a noble initiative, although I would like to have seen more incentives put in place for clubs to develop infrastructure, youth development schemes and programs to benefit supporters attending the stadium.

Another point of contention is the premature exit of young Brazilian footballers to leagues overseas, which President Dilma Rousseff has addressed herself, saying Brazil is “letting go of [its] main attraction”.

Although Brazil’s citizens go to the polls in October to decide whether or not Rousseff gets a second term in office, these actions do not seem to be typical electioneering. Claims that football has the power to influence the Brazilian political system are false and insulting to many people here, who rightly point out Brazil is about much more than just its national football team.

Success begins at home

Of course, outside of the political sphere, the success of the Seleção is an important issue, considering it is a great asset to the country, a brand recognised and loved around the world. Forming a strong national football team is a group effort, requiring people at all levels to pull in the same direction. Problems have been growing for some time, but Brazil have often been able to fall back on their immense pool of natural footballing talent to pull them through in difficult situations. You can imagine a strong German team without Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer or Toni Kroos, but a Brazilian side without Thiago Silva or Neymar?

An important contributing factor is the weakness of Brazilian domestic football. The league has adopted an export model for some time, grooming young players and selling them to Europe for transfer fees that keep domestic clubs afloat, but this has reached a critical mass and the results are evident on the field. When Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, 13 of their squad played for clubs at home. This year, only four were Brazil-based: reserve goalkeepers Jefferson and Victor, and centre-forwards Fred and Jô, widely regarded as the team’s weak links.

Having players based at home is no guarantee of international success (just ask England and Russia, who crashed out in the group stages after selecting exclusively home-based squads), but it certainly helps and reflects the strength of a nation’s footballers. Only once in the history of the sport has the World Cup been won by a squad who had a majority of foreign-based players: France in 1998. Argentina could become another exception to that rule, but they have been able to count on the best player in the world, possibly the greatest of his generation, Lionel Messi.

The reasons for this exodus of young Brazilian talent are numerous, and they go beyond the national league’s model of exporting players. First of all, conditions for youth team players are woeful at many of the country’s big clubs, with no support given to the starry-eyed teenagers living hundreds of miles away from their families in housing that looks more like the workhouses seen in Georgian Great Britain.

Then, when these players become professionals, they have to face a whole host of new problems, from the aforementioned instances of delayed or unpaid wages to the crazy calendar of Brazil’s domestic leagues. Players at big clubs are forced to play all-year-round, twice or three times a week and often on poor and dangerous pitches, while those at smaller clubs may only have matches for two months of the entire year.

The quality of football in Brazil’s top division has improved over the last few years, but this is largely down to clubs signing expensive foreign talent, making Argentinians Andres D’Alessandro and Dário Conca and Chileans Charles Aránguiz and Jorge Valdivia among the league’s main attractions, instead of developing Brazilians.

Players are leaving Brazil at younger ages: a quick glance through the Under 19, 17 or even Under 15 Brazil squads will show the majority of them already playing for European clubs. Since the turn of the century, stars of Brazilian football such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Kaká all developed into magnificent players while playing in Europe, but they all made a significant impact at a Brazilian club before leaving. This current Brazil squad has players such as David Luiz, Dante, Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Hulk, who didn’t stay at home long enough to make a name for themselves and instead came to the attention of the Brazilian public when starring at top European clubs.

Paulinho and Neymar are exceptions, but even then Neymar left for Barcelona at 21 years of age, while Paulinho had already left Brazil to play in Poland and Lithuania before returning and getting his break at Corinthians.

Players not at fault

It would be difficult to blame the players themselves for this trend. Considering the conditions offered to footballers in Brazil, when the opportunity comes to go abroad it is often too hard to refuse. We had two good examples of this in recent years with former Fluminense forward Wellington Nem and ex-Botafogo winger Vitinho.

Nem had been an important part of Fluminense’s youth setup, being groomed for a first-team place from a young age, working through the youth ranks and having an impressive loan spell at southern club Figueirense. He was an important part of the Fluminense side that won the 2012 Brazilian championship and was even knocking on the door for a call-up to the national team. In June of 2013, Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk came knocking with a transfer offer of €9 million. The player was hesitant to leave, he was playing well at home and still had plenty of developing to do, but he was under so much pressure from his family, his agent and his club, who were in a dire financial situation at the time. Fluminense told him in no uncertain terms that they wanted the money and Nem was forced to go to Donetsk, where he played only five times last season.

Vitinho’s rise to fame came so quickly, bursting on to the scene at Botafogo under the wing of Dutch veteran Clarence Seedorf. In the space of a few months he had gone from an unknown youth product to the team’s most important player. But before Botafogo fans could make him an idol, he was already on his way to Europe. Half-way through his first season as a professional, Russian side CSKA Moscow snapped him up for €9.5 million. Again, it is difficult to blame the player. Vitinho’s wife had just given birth to their first child and Botafogo had failed to pay him his previous month’s wages. CSKA arrived with money on the table, and not knowing if he would ever get the chance again, he accepted.

The future of Brazilian football may well lie in the hands of Bom Senso FC, a group formed by players to fight for better conditions throughout the game in Brazil. They have delivered their demands, they have met with influential figures and they have even staged protests on the pitch. Only a couple of days after the World Cup final, the Brazilian championship will restart with a full card of midweek fixtures. Now is the time for the leaders of Bom Senso to act, the eyes of the world are still on Brazil, the shouts of gol da Alemanha! still ringing in their ears, the government is behind them and they can count on another influential member with the return of Kaká to São Paulo FC. Now is the time for change.

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Time will tell

On Sunday evening, this year’s Brazilian championship reaches its half-way stage. Cruzeiro currently lead the way with 37 points, four clear of their nearest rivals. Regardless of their result against Flamengo this weekend, the Minas Gerais side has already won the symbolic title of “campeão do primeiro turno”, or first term champions.

Although there is no trophy or financial reward for being on top of the league after 19 matches, in Brazil, the “winner” of the first term usually ends up holding on to their place come the 38th round. In fact, in the last ten editions of the Brasileirão, seven of the first term champions have gone on to win the trophy.

It is not by chance that Cruzeiro are in front. They play some of the most attractive football in the country and have one of the most talented squads to back that up. Since Marcelo Oliveira (a forward for Cruzeiro’s bitter rivals Atlético-MG in the 1970s) took charge in January, he has implanted his successful playing style and tactical system: a 4-2-3-1 built on constant movement and quick passing triangles. This approach brought good results during Marcelo’s two years at Coritiba and now with a more talented group of players at his disposal, the Belo Horizonte-born coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

One impressive quality of this Cruzeiro team is the vast number of options they have in attack. For the line of three behind the centre-forward, there are nine relevant players able to occupy the three positions. Éverton Ribeiro, Dagoberto, Luan, Martinuccio, Willian, Lucca, Élber, Ricardo Goulart and Júlio Baptista. Their team is missing a craque to organise the play and serve as an attacking reference, like Seedorf at Botafogo or Alex at Coritiba, but by that same token they are not over reliant on one player to make the team tick.

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There have been some defensive troubles, however. Since joining from Vasco, centre-back Dedé has struggled to regain his form and has made several high-profile errors, while his defensive partner Bruno Rodrigo is little more than an average stopper.

The real issues appear to be in midfield, where first-choice pairing Nílton and Souza have only started together in half of Cruzeiro’s matches. When they are at full strength, the team looks solid and rarely concedes, but substitutes Leandro Guerreiro and Lucas Silva are not up to the job, as they demonstrated at home last weekend by allowing Vasco to score three times.

The only other team that looks genuinely equipped to challenge Cruzeiro is current world champions Corinthians. The Timão made a slow start to the national championship, but have now lost only one of their last eleven league matches.

While his starting eleven has been more or less constant for the last two years, Corinthians coach Tite has been varying his tactics a lot this year, trying to find a suitable balance in the wake of bellwether midfielder Paulinho’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur.

Their defensive solidity has remained however, thanks in part to the signing of former Cruzeiro centre-back Gil from French side Valenciennes. Corinthians have the most secure defence in the league by some distance, conceding only eight goals in eighteen matches. The second best defence is that of Santos, who have conceded fourteen goals after playing two fewer games.

Antithetical to the league leaders, Corinthians have been responsible at the back yet shy in front of goal. At times they seem content to stay strong in defence, getting bodies behind the ball, hoping that they can win the match on a stray counterattack or set-piece. This approach has worked for them before, namely in the 2012 Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup final against Chelsea, but when you are inviting pressure and not creating many chances it becomes an ineffective way to play.

Alexandre Pato has yet to live up to the expectation of being the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club, but at the very least Corinthians have got him playing and injury-free, something Milan were never able to do. Pato is a strange case, in that he is regarded as an elite centre-forward without having done anything in his career to properly merit such a status. Fame and his lengthy injuries have contributed to this, making us see something that was never there.

Behind Cruzeiro and Corinthians, there is a small group of outsiders comprising Botafogo, Grêmio and Atlético-PR.

Botafogo started the season extremely well, playing a modern, attractive style of play led by veteran playmaker Clarence Seedorf. The surprise departure of Vitinho leaves them a little sluggish in attack though, they will miss his direct threat.

21 year-old Hyuri made his debut for the club on Thursday night against Coritiba, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. I don’t know much about the player, who joined the club on loan last month from Audax after an impressive state championship campaign, but Botafogo’s knowledgeable coach Oswaldo de Oliveira seems to believe Hyuri has what it takes to fill Vitinho’s absence. Time will tell.

Renato Gaúcho has made a good start to his time at Grêmio, as has Vagner Mancini in charge of Atlético-PR. Both teams are organised and on a good run of form, Grêmio playing a 3-5-2 system that focuses on width and attacking support from their wing-backs, while Atlético have constructed a dangerous attacking unit, with plenty of speed and off-the-ball movement, spurred on by the evergreen Paulo Baier.

Copa do Brasil

The round of 16 of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, got underway this midweek. For the first time, clubs that were involved in this year’s Copa Libertadores have been allowed to participate, making this the Copa’s most cut-throat edition yet.

The idea of a national cup competition is a fairly new one in Brazil, down in part to the size of the country and the local importance once placed on the waning state championships. However, winning trophies is a fundamental piece of the Brazilian football fan’s psyche, and any competition that allows a club to lift some silverware after only a handful of matches will always have a place in Brazil’s football calendar.

For the less superficial, the Copa do Brasil is still an inviting prospect for clubs. The winner of the tournament earns a place in the group stages of the following year’s Copa Libertadores, and the only other way for Brazilian teams to qualify for the continent’s premier club competition is to finish among the top four in the national championship, the Brasileirão.

Therein lays one of the main problems with the Copa do Brasil: its impact on the Brasileirão. South American football clubs have an inherent problem with juggling multiple competitions at once. Whether by choice or by lack of squad depth, South American sides in general can only focus on one tournament at a time. Mid-table or bottom half teams may well abandon their league exploits and go all in on the cup, a far-more realistic avenue towards Libertadores qualification.

This particular strategy has its risks, however. If a club was to ignore their results in the league in search of a cup win, one contentious red card or a late goal in the final could throw their entire season into turmoil. The Brazilian league calendar is extremely bloated and just a few weeks of bad form is enough to plunge teams into crisis.

Even winning the cup has its dangers. Palmeiras, last year’s champions, completely shifted their attentions towards the Copa do Brasil and away from the league. By the time their title celebrations had died down, they realised that they were entrenched in the relegation zone. More and more league fixtures came thick and fast and struggling to build up any momentum, the cup winners were relegated to Série B.

I was at the first leg of Palmeiras’ last 16 tie against Atlético-PR on Wednesday night and the mood on the stands was altogether positive. This year, Palmeiras are in the unique position of being able to prioritise the Copa do Brasil while standing a good chance of winning the Série B even with a reserve side.

With less pressure on their league form, Palmeiras could conceivably go far in this year’s tournament. Their defensive situation is troubling though and they are conceding far too many goals, especially from their left side. Left-back Juninho has had a good start to the season and his efficiency in attack has improved considerably, but he has never been a particularly good defender. He doesn’t track back well and often leaves vast spaces behind him for the opposition to exploit, and Palmeiras do not have any centre-backs sufficiently adept at covering these gaps.

Had Atlético been more clinical in front of goal, they would have won on Wednesday evening. As it was, Palmeiras scored early and held on to their 1-0 lead until the final whistle.

Later that night, Luverdense’s surprise 1-0 win against world champions Corinthians highlighted another problem with the Copa. Unlike the majority of domestic cup competitions around the world, each round of the Copa do Brasil is contested over two legs. The concept of a giantkilling, of the unpredictability of the cup, is unheard of in the Copa do Brasil, because upsets have been made virtually impossible.

Luverdense, a club less than ten years old from the city of Lucas do Rio Verde in the central-west state of Mato Grosso, sat deep in their own half, frustrated Corinthians and managed to win 1-0. But what should have been a heroic scalp will have been for nothing, as Luverdense are likely to be soundly beaten in Wednesday’s second leg in São Paulo.

The idea of a knockout competition is that the best team doesn’t always win. The cup should award daring and guts, not consistency. Brazil already has the Brasileirão, which determines the best team in the country over 38 rounds.

An honourable mention must go to Botafogo’s 19 year-old midfielder Vitinho, who led his team to a 4-2 victory against Atlético-MG in the Maracanã on Thursday evening.

With no Clarence Seedorf to organise the play (the Dutchman was ruled out through injury), Botafogo struggled in the first half and were picked off on the counterattack by their opponents. Vitinho then took it upon himself to drop deeper and play the “Seedorf role”, constantly looking for the ball and serving as a reference for Botafogo’s fluid attacking system. The teenager had a hand in all four goals, scoring the final one himself.

Vitinho has already made a huge impact this season and looks to be a magnificent talent. He is comfortable beating players on either side and he has a great creative instinct, able to cut in from the left and make things happen. He has been working hard on improving his technique and has developed a wicked shot from the edge of the area with either foot. Under the guidance of Seedorf, Vitinho could be about to fill the gap left by Neymar, Lucas, Wellington Nem and Bernard as the league’s next big thing.

For footage of Vitinho’s assists and goal from Thursday evening, check out I like football me’s Facebook page