Tim Vickery Column: Brazil's blind-spot
In hindsight I should have travelled, but at the time I didn’t know that Brazilian TV was going to let me down so badly.
It was not easy to cover the recent South American World Cup qualifiers. In the past, these games have been shown on TV stations in Brazil. But as the continent’s teams began the long journey that ends with the short trip to Brazil 2014, this time it was different. Only one game from the first round was broadcast - Argentina’s 4-1 win over Chile was on SporTV. And from the second round, no games at all were shown.
In order to do my work I was forced to follow the action on dodgy internet connections. It was a frustrating task, as anyone acquainted with trying to follow games on the internet will understand. Coverage was interrupted as channels were taken off air for infringing copyright restrictions. If that didn’t happen, the image was often stop-start. It was a stressful and highly unsatisfactory way to watch so many games.
It is worth recording the matches shown on Brazilian TV last Tuesday, the day of the second round of South American World Cup qualifiers. Games from Serie B were on, and there was plenty of choice of Euro 2012 qualifiers - there were live transmissions of Germany-Belgium, Denmark-Portugal, Sweden-Holland, Spain-Scotland and France-Bosnia. From elsewhere there was a game between China and Iraq, plus friendlies between Ghana and Nigeria and USA-Ecuador as well, of course, as the visit of the Brazil team to Mexico.
But this bewildering array of options did not include anything from the most competitive qualifying competition in the world. The losers here were clearly the Brazilian public, who were denied access to a magnificent round of action. There was Argentina’s historic defeat by Venezuela, Colombia’s thrilling last gasp win away to Bolivia, Diego Forlan becoming Uruguay’s all time top scorer only to see his side denied a victory by Paraguay’s stoppage time equaliser. And most breathtaking of all, there was Chile’s 4-2 win over Peru, a game so superbly open that the visitors hit the woodwork four times.
Exactly why Brazilian TV turned its back on all of this I am not sure. Perhaps the various channels thought the asking price was too steep. On the other hand, maybe they simply did not place a sufficiently high value on the World Cup qualifiers taking place in their own continent. Because Brazil at times has a tendency to have something of a blind spot towards its own neighbours.
It is not hard to understand. Brazil is a giant island, the only Portuguese speakers surrounded by a sea of Spanish. And the difference is not only linguistic. For all the immense differences between them, the nations formerly part of Spanish South America have similar narratives of how they achieved independence in the nineteenth century, radically different from the Brazilian path.
Nevertheless, all the South American nations, including Brazil, have more in common than that which divides them. Realisation of this has helped spark increased co-operation and economic progress.
In the light of this, it is highly regrettable that Brazilians continue to refer to other South Americans as ‘gringos.’ The word may not always be meant as a pejorative, but it carries much negative baggage, and its usage is rooted in ignorance - it is the perspective of a child to divide the word’s population into ‘Brazilian’ and ‘gringo.’ The term denies the very beauty of humanity - its diversity. Using it to refer to fellow South Americans is especially stupid.
But, as I have argued, Brazilians can at times have a blind spot towards the rest of the continent. One of the minor ways in which this manifests itself is in attitudes towards the organisation of football.
Last week’s column focused on ways in which Brazil’s domestic calendar is, in my view, inadequate. It is a controversial issue in Brazil. A few might be happy with the status quo. Many are not, but complain without seeking to make any suggestions. And some have alternative proposals, which invariably mean changing or scrapping the State Championships.
For what it is worth, I am in the third camp. But even there, I often find myself in disagreement with the majority opinion.
Many in this camp are unhappy that the Brazilian Cup does not include those teams who are competing in the Copa Libertadores. This, to be honest, I cannot see as a major problem. In fact, it might even be an advantage, in that it ensures a modicum of renewal - ie at least one Brazilian club in this year’s Libertadores will not have taken part in last year’s competition.
But those who see it as a problem invariably present a solution - they propose that the continent’s two international club competitions, the Libertadores and the Sul-Americana, be played simultaneously. I have even heard national team coach Mano Menezes come out in favour of such a proposal. After all, it is said, this is what happens on the other side of the Atlantic, with the Champions and Europa Leagues running concurrently.
The truth, though, is that there is not the slightest comparison. The two European competitions take place over the course of the entire season - starting in late July and going through until the second half of May.
This is entirely different from what it being proposed in Brazil, where the idea is that the Libertadores and the Sul-Americana should be squeezed into the same semester.
Such a move would indeed free the other semester for a Brazilian Cup including all the country’s top teams. But there is one small problem - it is utterly impractical. It might, arguably, benefit Brazil. But, beyond all argument, it would damage everyone else. As such, it has not the slightest chance of being approved.
Firstly, the other nations of South America are much smaller, placing much greater restrictions on their internal markets. They need international competition all year round - it is for this reason that the Sul-Americana was born, quickly brought to life after the collapse of its predecessors, the Mercosur and Merconorte, with the Brazilian clubs not taking part in its first year.
Secondly, both the Libertadores and the Sul-Americana are made for TV competition, carried all over the region (except Brazil, where Globo rules) by Fox Sports. Television money has bankrolled the action. There simply are not enough TV slots to run the two competitions together, and there is nothing to be gained from a situation where one is competing against the other.
The debate in Brazil, then, needs to forget about squeezing the Libertadores and the Sul-Americana into the same semester. As a means of curing the blind spot covering the rest of the continent, maybe Brazilians should lobby their TV stations to show next month’s two rounds of South American World Cup qualifiers.