Brazilian football’s version of ‘Arab Spring’
In Argentina there have been demonstrations against Julio Grondona, AFA president since 1979. Meanwhile in Brazil a campaign is growing against Ricardo Teixeira, boss of the CBF since 1989.
In Argentina it seems the fans have been successful in their bid to halt a plan to merge the first and second divisions in a giant and unwieldy 38 club structure. So far the Brazilian supporters have not forced any changes. This is not just because the habit of collective protest is much more engrained in Argentine culture. It is also a question of politics.
In Argentina the balance of power in the AFA elections lies with the clubs – and the club presidents are dependent on the club members, who are much more representative of the supporters than is the case in Brazil. In this case, then, of the protests against the new form of championship, it was a wise course of action for the club presidents to pay attention to the voice from the streets.
Brazil is different. The structure is federal. The balance of power lies not with the clubs, but with the presidents of the 27 state football federations that comprise the CBF. And these state presidents need to pay attention to the views of their constituency, which by force of numbers is formed by the small clubs in their state.
It is for this reason that Brazil continues to play the State Championships, one for each of the 27 states, which generally run from mid-January to mid-May. These throw Brazil’s calendar out of sync with the rest of the world. They sacrifice the interests of the big clubs by obliging them to spend months playing against clubs so small they barely exist in a professional context. Earlier this year, when Flamengo signed Ronaldinho on a massive contract, one of Brazil’s most intelligent commentators, Jose Luis Portella, made an astute comparison. He said that paying Ronaldinho a fortune to play against tiny teams in the Rio State Championship reminded him of the rubber barons of Manaus who, during the boom time, would make a point of lighting their cigars with $100 notes.
The State Championships are an economic and footballing absurdity, but they serve the interests of the power structure that runs Brazilian football. The presidents of the State Federations are in favour of the continued existence of these championships – take them away and what would they do? – and so they keep voting for Teixeira, who ensures that they remain part of the calendar.
This relationship between centre and periphery has been made clear over the last few days, especially in the southern state of Santa Catarina. Last Sunday saw the derby in the state capital of Florianopolis between Figueirense and Avai. A group of supporters of both clubs were organising a protest against Ricardo Teixeira, along the lines of demonstrations that have taken place in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Extraordinarily, the Santa Catarina football federation announced that any such protest would not be tolerated, and that anti-Teixeira banners would not be allowed in the stadium.
Happily, the local authorities quickly stepped in to ensure that there would be no such blatant curtailment of the elementary right to free speech, and the protest went ahead. It is extraordinary, though, that the power structure of the Brazilian game appears to believe it is living in some feudal-dictatorial age where it cannot be criticised.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that the big clubs remain inside a structure that clearly does not serve their interests. Their participation in the State Championships, though it offers them the opportunity to pick up a cheap title, is basically an act of charity.
Brazilian football has reached its ‘1992 moment’ – the time when the big English clubs broke away from a structure based on the control of the small to form their own competition – the Premier League. You might have heard of it.
In Brazil the fans can demonstrate as much as they want. But, as it was in England, it is the major clubs who are going to be the biggest agent of change. But when? In addition to the unfortunate Brazilian habit of sucking up to power, there is also the question of the 2014 World Cup to keep the clubs in line. Ricardo Teixeira is not only the president of the CBF. He is also the boss of the Local Organising Committee, on which his daughter is a key mover and shaker. Clubs have been waiting for the golden rain to fall, for the investments needed to stage the World Cup to be directed their way.
But after the circus has left town we enter a new phase, and a fascinating moment. The top Brazilian clubs are in sight of a scenario when they can be competitive on a global basis. But if this is what they truly want, they will have to smash their way out of the current straight jacket. Brazilian clubs are paying top dollar, but in the current circumstances will not attract or retain the big stars in their peak years. No top player genuinely wants to play in the State Championships.
The fans have started the protest movement against the power structure of Brazilian football. Only the clubs can provide the killer blow.