North east rising – why football in Brazil’s poorest region may be on the up
At around six o’clock on Sunday, with the sun slipping down behind the stands of the Amigão stadium in a blaze of crimson and ochre, referee Jailson Macedo Freitas blew his whistle one last time. As the simple concrete terraces shook under the weight of 20,000 wildly celebrating souls, the players of Campinense, from the town of Campina Grande, in the north eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba, sank to their knees in triumph. The home team had just beaten ASA, from the neighbouring state of Alagoas, to lift the 2013 Copa do Nordeste. It was the first time a club from Paraíba had won a regional, let alone national, CBF recognised competition.
As discussed in this column back in November, the nine state nordeste region, home to around 53 million people, is the wrong side of Brazil`s footballing tracks, a world away from the wealth and glamour of the big Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo clubs. Only once in the last twenty five years has a team from the area lifted a national trophy, and in recent years, all of the big nordeste clubs, which include Bahia and Vitória from Salvador, Ceará and Fortaleza from Fortaleza, and Santa Cruz, Sport and Náutico from Recife, have spent as much time out of the top flight as in it, often dropping down as far as Serie C or even D.
Despite this, clubs in the area are some of the best, most passionately, supported in the country. In 2011, while playing in Serie D, Santa Cruz boasted the biggest crowds in Brazil, an average of 40,000. And in 2012, no fewer than seven nordeste teams, all of whom spent the year either struggling against relegation from Serie A (in the case of Bahia, Náutico and Sport) or toiling in the lower divisions, boasted higher average crowds than title winners Fluminense.
The main reasons for the nordeste’s woes are financial. The region is officially the poorest in Brazil, for decades starved of private and government investment, where, according to the 2010 national census, 51% of the population earns less than the minimum monthly wage. As a result, while the clubs in the area may be able to put more bums on seats than their southern rivals, those bums pay much less for the pleasure. Similarly, local sponsorship and TV deals bring in a fraction of the income that teams from Rio and São Paulo can generate.
Nor do the Brazilian media help. Giant TV networks such as Globo can often seem like official subscription channels for clubs like Corinthians and Flamengo, their games and gossip dominating the schedules, while nordeste teams, on the rare occasions they’re mentioned at all, are treated like distant, slightly backward cousins up from the sticks.
But perhaps things are beginning to change. This year’s regional Copa do Nordeste, a popular competition back in the late nineties and early years of this century, was a success upon its return. Crowds were higher than Brazil’s traditional, though now archaic, state championships, the prize money was more than welcome, and cable TV viewers lapped up the din and colour that nordestino fans brought to the stadiums. The winners of next year’s competition will even earn a place in the ugly duckling of South American continental tournaments, the Copa Sul-Americana – a competition sniffed at by many clubs from the south east, but of not considerable value, in terms of cash and profile, to a team from the nordeste.
More importantly, economic conditions in the region are improving. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva is from Pernambuco, and did a great deal for the area, expanding welfare programs, increasing the minimum wage, and encouraging private investment. Pernambuco now boasts an enormous industrial hub at the port of Suape, and companies such as Fiat are building factories in the area. Although growth in the region and Brazil as a whole has now stalled, in recent years Pernambuco handily outperformed the national average, shrinking the economic gap a little. This increased investment and growing financial confidence can only benefit the city’s football clubs.
Such confidence will be apparent come 2014. While slugabeds in Rio and São Paulo dawdled, the rebuilt Castleão in Fortaleza was the first of Brazil`s “new” World Cup grounds to open, and three more are on the way in the nordeste – the Arena Pernambuco, the Fonte Nova in Salvador, and the Arena das Dunas in Natal. Footballing gentrification is a considerable risk in an area where not everyone can afford high ticket prices, but these new stadiums should mean improved revenue streams for the clubs. Not so long ago, a World Cup in Brazil would have been an entirely south eastern affair, while the rest of the country watched on enviously via their TV screens. In 2014 a total of 21 games will take place in the nordeste, including two of the quarter finals.
For now though, in Campina Grande, where the World Cup bandwagon will not be calling, there are more pressing matters at hand. For a club from a small (at least compared to sprawling metropolises such as Recife and Salvador) town like Campina Grande, in a footballing backwater like Paraíba, Sunday’s triumph will be celebrated at least until the region’s famous São João festivities begin in June.
Campinense were rank outsiders at the start of the competition, but as the clubs from the big cities fell by the wayside, those noisy home fans and a side built around the collective ideal (the team’s 20 goals were scored by 10 different players) carried the club to a two-legged final win. There is a long way to go, but the rest of the nordeste will hope Campinense’s underdog spirit is the beginning of a wider revival for the region.Tagged in: Brazil, football
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