Unlike Europe, Brazilian league preserves its competitive balance
In England, Chelsea and Manchester United are fighting for the domestic title. In Spain, it's Real Madrid and Barcelona. Inter Milan is out front in Italy, as are Bayern Munich in Germany.
It's the same old same old.
The fact that a season that lasts nine months always ends up with the same teams at the top would appear to be a problem. U.S. sports would certainly seem to see it as such, with their draft systems rigged in a bid to ensure competitive balance -- the club finishing last is rewarded with first pick of the best young players.
Though this has been carried into the MLS, it is anathema elsewhere in soccer, and could only conceivably survive in a single entity system. Elsewhere, the law of the market prevails, and the big get bigger. Manchester United, for example, have a much bigger catchment area than clubs from neighboring small towns such as Wigan, Burnley and Blackburn. Over time this advantage is transformed into tradition, which feeds on itself as the club's brand goes global, revenue pours in from a variety of sources, making it possible to attract and retain a quality squad, fight for more titles, attract more fans, open up more revenue streams and so on.
Losing competitive balance is the price the English Premier League pays for having such super clubs.
But there is one major domestic league where no artificial measures are in place to level the playing field, and the outcome remains gloriously unpredictable. That country is Brazil, and the 2010 version of its domestic campaign kicks off on May 8.
There was a forerunner in the 60s, but it is only since 1971 that Brazil has had a genuine national championship -- the Campeonato Brasileiro da Serie A or Brasileirao. Despite the relatively short life span of the competition, of the 20 first division teams, 14 have already won the title--- plus two (or three -- this wouldn't be Brazil without a dispute) others who have since been relegated. If you are looking for a league campaign with a dose of unpredictability, this is the place to be.
But is this dose healthy or unhealthy? Is the unpredictability the product of positive or negative forces? I would argue that it is both.
The big positive is the sheer scale of the country. Brazil is the size of a continent. Indeed, this was the reason that the national championship only started in 1971. Previously travelling around this vast space on a weekly basis was seen as too problematic. Starting a national championship was part of a conscious governmental effort to improve infrastructure and bring the country closer together.
The scale of Brazil and the size of its population -- closing on 195 million and rising -- means that there are a number of clubs with a gigantic support base. Flamengo in Rio and Corinthians in Sao Paulo can count on over 20 million fans each, more than the entire population of many European countries. And there are plenty of other mass teams -- Vasco da Gama in Rio, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras in Sao Paulo, Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte, Gremio and Internacional in Porto Alegre. Plus others with a glorious tradition -- Fluminense and Botafogo in Rio or Santos. There are ambitious relative newcomers such as Atletico Paranaense from Curtiba. True, large swathes of the country continue to be under-represented. Of Brazil's 27 states, only nine have clubs in this year's first division. The big clubs from the North East region have struggled to punch their weight at national level. Even so, the point remains -- this is a giant country capable of sustaining an interesting variety of massive clubs.
The other big positive point is the extraordinary number of players that Brazil produces. Soccer is the only genuinely mass sport, and the pleasure of playing it, mixed in with the dreams of making the big time, lead to the production of a conveyor belt of talent unrivalled elsewhere in the world. The championship, then, boasts excellent strength in depth.
But not everything is so worthy of praise. The size of the country and the quantity of good players force the general standard up -- but there are plenty of forces working in the opposite direction.
The obvious one is that the truly outstanding players are unlikely to stay for long. In the current realities of the global soccer market, Brazil is a seller, continually losing its stars to Europe. Even the biggest clubs have become dependent on selling players to balance their books -- indeed, the most successful clubs are often those who have the best sales policy, producing future stars for European audiences to enjoy. The constant selling clearly has an effect on quality. Major Brazilian clubs are unable to retain the continuity of roster that Manchester United, for example, take for granted. They exist in a permanent state of transition -- which makes it very difficult to meet the expectations of their fans. Playing for a big club in such a situation brings huge pressures -- when results are poor, supporters have been known to attack their own team. The smaller clubs can go about their business unhindered by such pressures, and this clearly helps to level the playing field.
Soccer all over South America is caught in this cycle of selling, but there is one problem that is peculiar to Brazil -- the calendar.
The national championship runs from May 8 to Dec. 5. It is out of sync not just with Europe, but with the rest of its own continent.
The action gets under way at the very point that the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, moves into the quarterfinals. Those Brazilian clubs participating will usually give priority to the continental title and field reserve sides in the early rounds of the domestic competition. And then when they are eliminated, they often go into a post-Libertadores depression, with league results suffering as a result. Fighting this battle on two fronts is a very difficult trick to pull off.
Furthermore, the national championship is immediately preceded by the -- entirely separate -- state tournaments, one for each of the 27 states. These sacrifice the interests of the big clubs by obliging them to spend months playing against tiny teams. They also generate crises for the big clubs -- only one team per state can win the local trophy. The others are all judged as failures, and will tend to react by sacking their coach. So there is a change of command just a few days before the national competition starts, and not enough time for the new man to build and prepare for a seven month campaign.
And, of course, the global transfer window opens up right in the middle of the championship. More players are sold, some are brought back from Europe and the Far East, and so the composition of the teams changes in mid-campaign.
With all these factors working together, it is hardly surprising that the Brazilian Championship is so difficult to call.
However, since the switch in format in 2003, when a league system replaced the previous playoffs, it's become a little easier to predict the winner. The longer the campaign, the more chance the big clubs have of coming through. Under the previous system Atletico Paranaense, from the provincial city of Curitiba, were champions in 2001. They gave themselves the mission of becoming the best soccer club of the Americas -- but little has been heard from them since the change to the league format. Instead, the title has gone to clubs from bigger cities, capable of sustaining stronger squads.
Also, as Brazil's economy grows and the club administration becomes more professional, opportunities appear -- but not for everyone. A club like Corinthians can attract a player such as Ronaldo and pay him either with money from sponsors of with a cut of merchandising sales. A smaller club without such a fan base could not offer a similar deal.
The giant clubs, then, should be increasingly able to pull away from the pack. But Brazil has so many giants that the race to win its domestic title is unlikely ever to become a European-style two horse race.