State of the Nation – The Brazilian league gets underway

The 2017 Brazilian football season is three months old, yet only now does the real action begin. Until this past weekend, clubs across the country have been competing in Brazil’s much-maligned state championships, where the biggest sides play against minnows for weeks on end, with little more than bragging rights and tired legs to show for their efforts come May.

The serious stuff starts on Saturday when Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro face off in the curtain-raiser of this year’s Brazilian national championship – the most prestigious tournament in the country. And the 2017 edition of the Brasileirão promises to be one of the most evenly-matched in recent memory.

The reasons behind Brazil’s insistence with state championships are manifold. Firstly, the history of Brazilian domestic football is one built on the foundation of state tournaments. The first integrated national football league in Brazil took place only in 1971, with state and regional play dominating proceedings until then.

 

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Regional matches, such as this one between Pelé’s Santos and Botafogo (of Garrincha, Nílton Santos, Zagallo and Didi), were the main attraction in the 1950s and 60s

 

The late arrival of a national championship came as a result of Brazil’s size – it is larger than the contiguous United States – and lack of adequate transport infrastructure linking states and regions. Accordingly, football in Brazil developed at a local level and even in the 1990s state titles were regarded as major honours.

Another explanation for the longevity of the state championships is Brazilian football’s pitiful national league structure. For a country with around 700 professional clubs, Brazil has only four national divisions and nothing to compare with the non-league pyramid structure found in England, for example. As a result, less than 20% of the nation’s professional teams play in one of the four national tiers, leaving the vast majority reliant on the state championships.

However, it would be naïve to suggest that either of these two justifications are what keeps the state championships alive. The overarching reason for their perpetuation is one of money and power.

Brazilian football is administered by the CBF, a confederation of 27 state associations whose sole modus operandi is that of self-preservation. With revenue from sponsorships, broadcasting rights and percentages of gate receipts, the state championships generate a considerable amount of money for these local federations (almost always to the detriment of the participant clubs). Any move to phase them out of the Brazilian football calendar, or even to reduce their size, would be political suicide.

As a result, Brazilian football fans have largely meaningless competitions forced down their throats for the first four months of the year, with supporters brainwashed into believing these trophies are still significant.

A cursory glance at a recent list of Brazil’s state champions debunks this claim.

Of the last ten Brazilian champions, only three (Flamengo in 2009, Fluminense in 2012, and Cruzeiro in 2014) won their respective state titles in the same year. Meanwhile, of the four clubs relegated from Brazil’s top division in 2016, three (Internacional, Santa Cruz, and América Mineiro) were reigning state champions.

 

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Despite winning the state championship, Internacional could not escape their first ever relegation. Photo: Fábio Motta/Estadão

 

In 2015, Vasco da Gama and Goiás went down after winning their state championships, as did Bahia in 2014. Evidently, positive results in state tournaments are not a reliable indicator of success later in the season.

That said, it would be a surprise to see either of this year’s winners of Brazil’s leading state championships (Corinthians in São Paulo, Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, and Atlético Mineiro in Minas Gerais) underperforming to such a degree in the national league.

After a torrid 2016 – mired by behind-the-scenes squabbles and stadium troubles, managerial swaps and on-pitch flops – Corinthians appear to be turning a corner of sorts (bearing left to exit at the next junction?), at least in footballing terms.

Former caretaker coach Fábio Carille, who was handed a permanent contract in December last year due to a lack of affordable alternatives, has steadily managed to bring defensive solidity back to the Timão. Over the last decade, Corinthians have cultivated a footballing identity of being a compact, stubborn side, a style implanted by former bosses Mano Menezes and Tite (now of the Brazilian national team). Under the watch of Cristóvão Borges (who replaced Tite) and Oswaldo de Oliveira (who in turn replaced Cristóvão four months later), Corinthians were unrecognisable and began leaking goals. As it turned out, their strong start to the league season, while Tite was still in charge, saved them from a relegation dogfight.

Carille, however, has been able to stem the bloodletting and restore Corinthians’ trademark obstinance. In attack, lanky centre-forward Jô has settled well into the side, supported from midfield by Rodriguinho and Jadson. Granted, they are hardly dazzling going forward, making the idea of a title challenge somewhat of a stretch. Their tactical organisation will serve them well, however, in what is an increasingly evenly-matched league. Carille agrees, declaring this week, somewhat enigmatically, that Corinthians “will go far, I just don’t know where”.

While many pundits are hasty in placing Corinthians among the favourites for this year’s Brazilian championship, there is nothing rushed about tipping Rio state champions Flamengo as serious title contenders.

An impressive 2016 saw Flamengo keep up the pace with eventual champions Palmeiras right up until the final few weeks. They stumbled with the finish line in sight, but are back this year, with more experience and quality, to have another go. They have added to their squad – which already contained internationally renowned talents such as Paolo Guerrero and Diego – by bringing in Peruvian left-back Miguel Trauco, Spartak Moscow midfielder Rômulo, speedy Colombian forward Orlando Berrío and Argentinian playmaker Darío Conca, formerly the third highest paid footballer in the world.

 

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Flamengo’s Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero is in excellent form

 

The Rio de Janeiro state title gave some much-needed validation to the club, both for their young coach Zé Ricardo and Flamengo’s board of directors, who have implemented an impressive project to improve the club’s finances.

Winning the Minas Gerais state championship provided similar affirmation to another young coach: Atlético Mineiro’s Roger Machado. Signed at the end of 2016 as one of the most promising managers in Brazilian football, Roger was quickly able to stabilise Atlético’s previously erratic defensive unit, though doing so at the expense of their once deadly attacking line. The team have gradually found a suitable balance, playing a 4-4-2 system with two former Brazil players up front – Robinho supporting target man Fred, who is in terrific form.

At this early stage, Roger appears to have already brought order and purpose to a team usually associated with unpredictable, dicey football (so much so that Atlético are often called the Galo Doido, or “Crazy Roosters”, a play on the club’s nickname). Providing they avoid major injuries, Atlético could challenge for the title.

It would be remiss to discuss potential title winners without mentioning the current champions, Palmeiras. Despite losing Gabriel Jesus to Manchester City, the club began 2017 with an improved squad. Palmeiras pillaged South American champions Atlético Nacional, recruiting two of their best players in Colombian forward Miguel Borja and Venezuelan playmaker Alejandro Guerra. Meanwhile, they strengthened their midfield by signing former Brazilian national team duo Felipe Melo and Michel Bastos, giving more weight to their claim of having the strongest squad in the continent.

Despite their envious quality and strength in depth, Palmeiras struggled to get going at the beginning of the year under new coach Eduardo Baptista. The day after winning the league in 2016, the previous boss Cuca announced he was leaving the club to spend more time with his family and Eduardo was swiftly announced as his replacement. With a tough act to follow, Eduardo quickly lost the confidence of a large portion of the Palmeiras support after some unconvincing performances in the Copa Libertadores, which have seen the club splutter their way through a straightforward group stage. A loss away from home against Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann, at altitude, saw Eduardo axed and – surprise, surprise! – Cuca return. If the new (old) boss can reclaim Palmeiras’ 2016 form, they will be favourites to retain their title.

 

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Palmeiras coach Cuca (centre) looks, erm, delighted to be back. Photo: Cesar Greco

 

Elsewhere, this year’s Brazilian championship is set to be one of the most evenly-matched in recent memory. There is little to choose between a large number of potential top-half sides, ensuring the battle for continental places will be tight. Belo Horizonte club Cruzeiro had a promising start to the year but have recently suffered two disappointing results: losing the state championship final to rivals Atlético Mineiro and crashing out of the Copa Sul-Americana at the hands of Paraguayan side Nacional. Coach Mano Menezes’ job is already at risk.

Santos surprised many in last year’s championship by finishing in second place despite having a thin squad filled with young players. They could repeat the feat in 2017 but need to avoid excessive injuries. São Paulo deserve special attention this season after appointing former goalkeeper and club legend Rogério Ceni as their new manager. Ceni has found things difficult so far but will be offered as much time as he needs by the club’s board.

Big things are expected from Grêmio, though they appear to have stagnated somewhat and will do well to hold on to promising attacker Luan once foreign suitors come calling. Rio club Botafogo overachieved last year under coach Jair Ventura (son of 1970 World Cup winner Jairzinho) but are focusing their attention on the Copa Libertadores. It is unlikely they will be able to compete on both fronts. Also in Rio, Fluminense seem doomed to a season of mid-table mediocrity while Vasco da Gama will do well to avoid relegation.

The opening fixtures are as follows:

Saturday, 13 May
Flamengo x Atlético Mineiro (16:00)
Corinthians x Chapecoense (19:00)

Sunday, 14 May
Fluminense x Santos (11:00)
Palmeiras x Vasco da Gama (16:00)
Cruzeiro x São Paulo (16:00)
Bahia x Atlético Paranaense (16:00)
Ponte Preta x Sport (16:00)
Avaí x Vitória (16:00)
Grêmio x Botafogo (19:00)
Coritiba x Atlético Goianiense (20:00)

All kick-off times are shown in Brasília Time (UTC -3).

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