Brazil stubbornly clings to its past

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So it's Argentina against Brazil in the finals of the 50th Copa Libertadores. Estudiantes de La Plata and Cruzeiro meet each other over two legs to decide the destiny of South America's premier club title.

At the start of February as this year's competition got underway, I wrote a piece in this space suggesting that the Libertadores, for decades dominated by Argentina, was becoming a Brazilian show. Up to a point, results have backed me up. Three of Argentina's five representatives were knocked out in the group phase, Boca Juniors fell in the next round and, from the quarterfinals on, Estudiantes alone has been carrying the flag.

All of Brazil's five made it safely through to the knockout stages and, since then, only one has fallen to foreign opposition -- Palmeiras, eliminated in the quarterfinals by Nacional of Uruguay -- and even that was on the away-goals rule after two drawn matches. The other Brazilian clubs have eliminated each other until just Cruzeiro is left standing.

If Estudiantes wins the cup -- it will be their first since the three in a row from 1968-70 -- Argentina's all-time lead of Libertadores wins will be extended to 22 against Brazil's 13. If Cruzeiro win its third title (the previous two in 1976 and '97), the lead will be cut to 21-14.

But whatever happens this week in La Plata and next in Belo Horizonte -- and please remember that I'm only a neutral observer -- Brazilian soccer has demonstrated greater strength in depth. Including this year's clash, seven of the last 10 finalists have come from Brazil.

Back in February, I attempted to explain why Brazil, for so long isolated in its own continent, was awarding the Libertadores a much higher priority than before. One of the principal reasons has just celebrated its 15th birthday: the new currency, the Real, introduced in July '94 as part of an economic plan to stamp out hyper-inflation.

Some would argue that such monetary stability has come at a price, with high interest rates and sluggish growth. But there is no doubt that the conquest of hyper-inflation has changed the country radically. It has made long-term planning possible -- and also forced people to live in the real world.

In soccer, for example, under hyper-inflation, Brazilian clubs could meet many of their financial commitments merely by paying late. There was no incentive to develop a sound structure for the game. Brazilian clubs could live in fairy-tale world where being champion of their own state (the country is divided into 27 states, each with its own tournament) was more important than becoming champion of the continent.

With financial stability, priorities have changed. The state championships serve no financial purpose. For political reasons they have been retained, but the time awarded to them has been cut and their prestige reduced. The national championship has been extended, and winning it is not the only aim. Clubs are also fighting to finish in the top four places (the so-called "Group of Four," referred to as the G4) because this entitles them to compete in the following year's Libertadores. Backed by abundant TV money, the continental competition offers financial return and worldwide exposure. Qualifying for it and winning it is now the number one priority for Brazil's clubs.

As so often in life, the power of economics has brought about a mental shift. But like all such changes, not everyone goes through the process in the same way. Some are so slow to understand what has happened, others react against it.

Brazilian sports daily Lance! is an excellent newspaper, and glancing through it is an indispensable part of my routine. Last Sunday, though, the paper published a strange column by Valdomiro Neto which culminated in a call to arms: "Down with the dictatorship of the Libertadores! Long live the Brazilian Championship!"

His article was complaining about what he sees as "the boring syndrome that devastates Brazilian football -- that of Libertadores-ism. This pathology is present in the declarations of coaches and players. What matters is qualifying for the continental competition. If we're in the famous G4, great. That's the summit. Winning the Brazilian title has become a whim, a museum piece."

It is an extraordinarily perverse line of argument. If (and here we have to enter the bizarro world) the teams who qualified for the Libertadores were, say, the ones that finished eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th in the Brazilian Championship, then there indeed would be a contradiction between the national and the continental. But since it's the top four, there's no contradiction at all. Quite the reverse. The race to qualify for the Libertadores strengthens the Brazilian Championship, as it gives teams an extra incentive.

Everyone wants to be the national champion, whatever Neto might think. But if they can't, then there's a prize for finishing second, third or fourth, which ensures that the action stays dramatic and competitive to the last week of the season. As anyone with the slightest knowledge of European soccer is aware, qualification for the continental competitions is a vital part of the success of the domestic leagues, and the same process is now taking place in Brazil.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that behind this journalist's arguments, there lies, if not xenophobia, an indifference to the rest of the continent. The strong history of local rivalries in Brazilian soccer has bred some who believe the only true pleasure in the game is a victory over a club from the same city. If there are no co-workers or classmates to mock the next day, according to this line of thought, what's the point? The win becomes like the proverbial tree in the forest that no one saw fall.

Some cling to the perspectives of the past even as the world goes on spinning. Not all of Brazil will have broadcast TV access to the first leg of the Libertadores final on Wednesday, when Cruzeiro travels to La Plata to take on Estudiantes. Parts of the country will instead be following the domestic league match between Corinthians and Fluminense.

It seems a strange priority -- there's no doubt whatsoever about which of the games is the more important. But it's a snapshot of the country after 15 years of financial stability -- caught between the insular giant of the past and the continental leader of the future.