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Brazil hurt by its power structure


We don't yet know where the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 will be played. But some of the bidding countries have already worked out which cities they will use to stage matches if the circus does come to town.

It's unfortunate Brazil wasn't so quick off the mark. As far back as March 2003, it was clear the country would be awarded the 2014 World Cup. When FIFA announced the tournament would go to South America, CONMEBOL almost instantly declared Brazil its sole candidate. The official FIFA confirmation came in October '07 -- but it was only in May of last year that the decision was finally made on which cities would host the games.

This delay comes at a cost. Some important long-term projects, such as subway lines, have been cut from the plans. There's insufficient time to guarantee their completion.

Such an undesirable state of affairs is the consequence of trying to organize soccer in a country the size of a continent. Inevitably, there are problems. The difficulties in defining the 2014 host cities are an example of how Brazilian soccer can be hindered by its federal structure.

The giant country is divided into 27 states. Its footballing structure is based not on the clubs, but on the various state federations. They hold the balance of power in the election for the president of Brazil's soccer association, the CBF. Reluctant to alienate any of its support base, the CBF didn't want to take responsibility for excluding any of the cities that were eager to be part of the 2014 project. So, unusually and for purely political reasons, the decision was pushed to FIFA. And the more time all this took, the less time is available for infrastructure improvements.

These political considerations aren't just a hindrance to the 2014 World Cup. They have a huge influence in the day-to-day running of Brazilian soccer in a manner that prevents it from reaching its full potential. The state federations' main task -- the source of their power and prestige -- comes from organizing their local championships. These kicked off across the country last weekend, one competition in each of the 27 states, and will be contested right up until the national championship gets underway in early May.

In such a huge country, these state championships played a vital role in getting the game off the ground. Without them, Brazilian soccer wouldn't be the national force it is today. But they've outlived their usefulness. The big clubs have become bigger and have their sights set higher, such as winning the Copa Libertadores and becoming champion of the continent.

The small clubs have shrunk so much, they barely exist. That the big and small clubs meet in a league format makes no sporting or financial sense. It only makes sense from the point of view of the power structure. Take the state championships away, and what will be left for an entire layer of bureaucracy to do?

Last Sunday, I was at Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã stadium to watch local giant Flamengo take on Duque de Caxias. Flamengo, which last month won the Brazilian Championship, claims more than 20 million supporters. Duque de Caxias might struggle to raise 200. This is professional soccer without supporters.

Clearly, no ambitious player would want to waste his time playing in a series of these encounters. This was brought home to me 14 years ago when I interviewed Brazilian left back Branco, a World Cup winner two years earlier, who was at the time negotiating a move to Middlesbrough in England. He told me he was desperate to get away from the state championships, which at the time were even longer than they are today. They were poor competitions of low quality, he said. What surprised me wasn't his observation, which seemed obvious enough, but that he expressed it with such frankness. This line of analysis never seemed to appear in the local press. To the vast majority, the state championships seemed as fixed and natural as Carnaval and Christmas.

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Times are changing, and as is so often the case, the force of economics is leading the charge. Brazil's big clubs have learned they can earn much more money and acquire much more visibility from the Libertadores than they can from the state championships. As I pointed out last February, the mid-1990s conquest of hyper-inflation made all of this clear. Before, clubs could meet their obligations by paying late, and there was little incentive to seek a viable structure. With the end of hyper-inflation, the logic of the real world began to apply. And so the clubs gradually started taking the Libertadores much more seriously than the state championships. Like the man said, when you've got them in the pocket, their hearts and minds will follow.

Earlier this month Eduardo Tironi, executive editor of Brazilian sports daily Lance!, issued an attack on the state championships. "The small clubs," he pointed out, "are rented out by agents or maintained by local councils. Carrying on like this will condemn these clubs to eternal insignificance." Correct, but then a professional club without fans deserves eternal insignificance. What it doesn't deserve is a series of pay days against big clubs.

"Nowadays," Tironi wrote, "the state championships are a preseason, a summer tournament which, in a best-case scenario, serves to get the big clubs in form for the rest of the season, or for what really matters in the season."

Here he doesn't go far enough. Preseasons don't usually cost coaches their jobs. Nor do they confirm impressions of a team. A preseason is essentially non-competitive. Team and coach will only be judged when the real stuff starts.

This isn't the case in Brazil. Bad performances in the state championships frequently mean that coaches are sacked. They are competitive tournaments. Only one team per state can win. The other big teams are judged as failures by their fans. So when the national championship kicks off a few days later, it starts on a downer. Fans are already familiar with their team and its defects.

This is a laughable absurdity of organizational incompetence. Brazil adopted the league format for its national championship some seven years ago. The previous system, the playoffs, culminated in exciting finals but started cold. The big advantage of the league is that three points are at stake in every game. So, in theory at least, the action starts hot.

That's certainly the way it is all over Europe. The greatest day of soccer is the first day of the season, the big kickoff. But in order for this to work properly, there must be a pause in competitive action before the competition begins. During this break, new players are signed, perhaps a new coach is brought is and there's time for the magic of fandom to do its trick.

After three months away, the fan is desperate to return to the stadium, and he has managed to convince himself that this year, his team will do something special. So he goes to the early games, builds up identification with the team and then follows it, rain or shine. Without this break, the big asset of the league system is thrown away.

An old master of music in Argentina once said that in order to perform a good tango, the musician had to know how to do a good silence. Organizing a soccer calendar is similar. In order for the presence of soccer to make an impact, there must be an absence of soccer, a soccer silence. The existence of the state championships prevents this pause from happening, and therefore undermines the much more important national championship.

This point -- the importance of a pause before the start of the national championship -- is not widely understood in Brazil. The soccer public, after all, hasn't grown up with the league system. But the debate is beginning, and that can only be healthy. And change is on the way. It will take a while. At the moment, there's little incentive for the big clubs to challenge a power structure that works against their interests. Everyone is hoping for golden rain to fall from the 2014 World Cup.

But before long the big clubs will want to get the calendar right. And at the moment, Brazil is out of sync with everyone. It's difficult to see how the calendar can be brought in line with Europe and the rest of South America while the state championships are maintained. Brazil is changing. Giant and insular, it doesn't do it quickly. It can have the turning circle of an oil tanker. But if they really want to compete with Europe, Flamengo & Co. need to stop wasting their time against the likes of Duque de Caxias.