For the big clubs in São Paulo, Brazil, Christmas shopping and the January sales mean cherry-picking time in Rio de Janeiro. In the biggest coup of the festive period, Corinthians took
Palmeiras, São Paulo's other major club, did not look to Rio for its reinforcements. Instead, it went north to bring in the highly rated
This accumulation of talent is not difficult to understand because, unlike the rest of Brazil, clubs in São Paulo are the only ones that can offer good players something worthwhile to do domestically for the first four months of the year.
With the national championship being played from mid-May to early December, Brazil stages its 27 state championships from late January until early May and, as the nation's industrial powerhouse, São Paulo alone is rich enough to stage a state championship of quality. Even clubs from outside the giant city have the structure and resources to maintain strong teams -- as São Caetano showed at the start of the decade when it came from nowhere to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores.
Elsewhere, the state championships pit giant clubs, with millions of supporters, against teams so tiny they could hire a small fleet of taxis to get their fans to the game. In a one-off cup context, this might have some charm, but in some convoluted mixture of league phases plus playoffs, it makes no sense whatsoever, in soccer or financial terms.
Well aware of this, players continue to vote with their feet and congregate in São Paulo. Little wonder, then, that São Paulo (with the last three national titles), Corinthians (2005) and Santos ('04) have established a Paulista monopoly of the Brazilian national title. Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte, winner in '03, was the last non-São Paulo champion of Brazil.
This internal imbalance is just one of the negative consequences of the state championships' continued existence; others are much more fundamental. But while scrapping the state championships would be the single biggest step forward Brazilian soccer could take, such a revolution is very unlikely in the short term.
The state championships have enormous tradition and the little clubs are the lifeblood of the Brazilian game, according to folklore, because they produce the stars of the future. Well, not anymore they don't.
These days, the only small clubs producing players are new ones set up by agents for this specific purpose, creating the anomaly of a club with excellent facilities but no real desire to pick up supporters or challenge for titles. But while the traditional small clubs are too poor to do anything about this, they do have a vote in the state federation -- which generally carries the same weight as the vote of the big clubs.
These small clubs thus hold the balance of power in the choice of state federation president, who in turn holds similar status in the election for president of the CBF, Brazil's FA. So you have two layers of mutually perpetuating bureaucracy.
So why do the big clubs go along with it? There was a timid breakaway attempt in 1987, but it was after '94 that the problems began to become apparent. That year, a financial-stability plan eliminated the hyperinflation which had corroded the economy -- but which also made many financial activities viable. Clubs that could meet their commitments in the past by merely by paying late now had to live in the real world, where debts were piling up.
In '03, a typical Brazilian compromise was struck. Previously, the state and national championships each took up half the year; now the former were cut back and the latter expanded -- which had financial advantages but created problems of its own. It threw Brazil out of sync with the calendar in Europe and South America, with the global transfer window in the middle of the national championship.
Perhaps the sad truth is that some big club directors are happy with the current structure for unscrupulous reasons. While domestic soccer operates below its potential -- an inevitable consequence of the state championships -- it is always necessary to sell players, with the opportunities this entails for money to be diverted into private bank accounts.
Last year, a record 1,176 Brazilian players moved abroad, a process which creates dangerous vested interests. And with the World Cup coming to town, there is no sign of the big clubs entering into conflict with the power structure.
In fact, the reverse is true. São Paulo loves to present itself as a well-run club in an incompetent industry, but even it is now falling into line. President
While everyone hopes for presents from on high -- such as investments in stadiums and infrastructure needed for 2014 -- no one will be challenging a system that obliges the big clubs to take part in the state championships.