Title decider? No: league format wins headlines in Brazil

One round left and Fluminense kept the leadership under its arms to play the title decider against relegated Guarani at home on Sunday. However, discussion raging in Brazil nowadays is not over the qualities of the league. The intense debate in the country is over an old obsession: the format of the tournament.

Brazil adopted the national championship for the first time in 1971. As it may sound weird for Europeans, it is perfectly comprehensible for a country with continental proportions where football had been played for the whole 20th century regionally. The distance obstacle forced states to develop its own local leagues known as Estaduais (“state leagues”). The level of the Estaduais was far from even, with each one being set depending on the economical strength of the region. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, due to its early economic and political power, retained the strongest leagues and were the basis of the national squad since its creation, followed by Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul. These minor and anachronistic leagues left a fingerprint in the supporters of locally powerful teams as they felt they belonged to the elite of the Brazilian football due to so many state trophies, creating a widespread myth, the one who says that Brazil has 13 “big” clubs.

Approaching the 70’s, with several interstate leagues showing up, CBF, the Brazilian FA decided for the first time to create an official  major national league. Several of these competitions are said to be early versions of Brasileirao, but the statement is mostly done by the winning teams in these tournaments as proof of their pedigree. The FA had strong liaisons of the major clubs of each region – which in the end, were voters to their power. As a consequence, a small club from the distant state of Rondônia (3.000 miles from Rio de Janeiro) had the same political input as the most popular clubs.

The result was that the format of first editions of Brasileirao defied logic to fit clubs from all around. Irrelevant clubs like Amapá or Acre state champions may have had a point to demand they were to take part of the Brazilian elite – they had won an official state league, after all, and comparisons between different competitions were not possible. For an onlooker, the smaller leagues could be compared technically to Sunday league football, but one thing is to state your opinion, other it is to prove it. Other than the difficulties created by the Estaduais fingerprint, the eternally corrupt FA were also keen to satisfy the reigning military government party ARENA to accept clubs from its allies in the championship. The recipe took Brazilian Championship to have around 100 clubs in many editions, with early phases pitching Brazil National Squad players against amateur teams.

As time passed by, it was clear that Brazil had to squeeze its first division to form a decent tournament. The process took decades but even when the number of participants fell to less than 30, this cup format had left its DNA. TV Globo, the biggest TV networks in the country took part beside the FA most of the time. As the holders ov the TV rights of Brazilian football most of the time, it could comprehensibly be hostile to a league format where the biggest clubs could be eliminated early. So, a hybrid format with a first part in a league system and a second part with playoffs was born, keeping all happy. The FA, clubs from smaller states and TV Globo were happy. TV Globo because it could cash with advertisement in the playoffs; the regional ‘elite’ clubs from smaller states because as they could achieve the playoffs occasionally, they could keep the denial saying they were as big as Flamengo or Corinthians, the most popular clubs in the country; and the FA because it could please all its partners. The price to be paid was that attendances for the first part of the tournament were a laughing stock, so was its techical level. In other words, apart from the playoffs, the level was rubbish, with empty stands sometimes below 500 people.

In 2003, the FA gave up of holding the hybrid format as hardly the champions were the club with most points. Since then, the technical level increased consistently, clubs were forced to invest in organization and attendances rise year after year as the 1st and the 38th round are equally important. Expat players came back to play in Brazil in the period, like Roma striker Adriano, Villarreal’s Nilmar, former Real Madrid star Roberto Carlos and veteran and notoriously overweight Ronaldo.

Seven years after the adoption of the home-away league system, Brazil reaches the 37th round of the 2010 championship with three teams able to win the title after the last match, but the eternal debate regarding the format of the league keeps raging. Turning on the controversy is the fact that title contenders usually depend on results from its local rivals against other contenders to push for the title and, when these local rivals are no longer disputing anything, they comprehensibly do not put much effort.

In the last weeks, Corinthians players, directors and supporters have been moaning against the efforts spent by arch-rivals São Paulo and Palmeiras when they faced leaders Fluminense. Corinthians needed to see Fluminense dropping points to regain the top, but mid-table placed São Paulo and Palmeiras faced Nense with apathy. Last year, Corinthians, however, had done the same thing as lost to Flamengo 2-0 with keeper Felipe staying still during a penalty kick. The result took away the São Paulo chances and Corinthians president ironically admitted lack of interest. The main point here is to remind that in the lats rounds of all leagues, it is common to see uninterested big teams losing to desperate minnows battling relegation, for example.

Part of the press, TV networks and supporters of local elite clubs – which are set to never see their teams to win a national league again – claim for the reinstatement of the hybrid format, as they argue the title cannot be decided by teams giving up to play. The absence of a serious second-tier of the continental tournament doesn’t help. Copa Sulamericana, the south American version of Europa League, is rubbish and in Brazil clubs still see it as a burden instead of an opportunity. So, clubs crippled from the title or Copa Libertadores places dispute lose the interest in the competition unless they are not fighting against relegation opening space for the disgruntled becoming very vocal. Places in the Sulamericana are less valuable than nothing.

For the next year, the format is safe – and so is the controversy around it. The bottom line is that supporters of many clubs in Brazil are going through a painful process to admit that there are no 13 big clubs in any part of the world and Brazil will be no exception. A number of 4-5 clubs are set to keep fighting for the title often and a couple of others heading occasionally. This is a fact hard to accept to generations of fans who grew up seeing their beloved clubs lifting state trophies – by then, their most important competitions – regularly. The discussion in Brazil is not about the best format, but a sort of therapy for supporters who struggle to accept the new football order in the country. Pressure from TV networks to reinstate the playoff format – more lucrative for advertisement money – can be an extra problem as they are not ashamed to use the supporters denial to campaign for their interests. Football officials, as always, will follow the best paying part, from where they suck their breadwinners. Even if the process is unstoppable, some schizoid behaviour – like people preferring to criticize an universally accepted league format instead of tactics and matches – is likely to be seen. Hopefully, with this and some other some bumps, Brazilian domestic football will keep improving.

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