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New day (slowly) rising – As Brasileirão gets underway, Brazilian football stumbles, rather than leaps into the future

James Young
maracana 300x225 New day (slowly) rising   As Brasileirão gets underway, Brazilian football stumbles, rather than leaps into the future

Brazilian football is in the process of receiving fourteen new or rebuilt stadiums, including the Marcana in Rio

Now that Brazil’s charming/charmless (delete according to taste) estaduais (state championships) are out of the way, attention can finally turn to the bump and grind of the Brasileirão. With the World Cup just over a year away, this is likely to be a Serie A season like no other.

The old problems remain. The calendar is a hopeless mess – the fixture squeeze caused by the estaduais means clubs, shorn of their best players, are forced to play during international breaks, and the Copa das Confederações in June will make this year even more cluttered (five rounds will be played before the league grinds to a halt for almost a month).

This confusion, coupled with blanket TV coverage, awkward kick-off times, and often wonky public transport networks mean the typical fan is likely to once again choose to watch his team from the sofa or bar stool. The average Serie A crowd last year was 13,000 – comparable to Australia’s A-League.

More aspirational Brazilians can at least comfort themselves with the knowledge that they are paying more for their football than anyone else in the world (ticket prices have increased by 300% over the last ten years). A recent survey showed that if the average English football fan was to spend his entire annual salary on Premier League match tickets, he’d be able to attend 911 games a year, while if the average Brazilian fan spent all his cash on Serie A tickets, he’d have the pleasure of seeing Criciúma or Náutico a mere 645 times. Even more affluent Brazilians may baulk at such prices, while less well-off fans are likely to find themselves excluded entirely.

Furthermore, with everyone’s favourite wannabe Sopranos villain, the noxious Jose Maria Marin (most memorable recent proclamation: “it’s slander and libel to suggest that I was responsible for the torture and death of the journalist Vladimir Herzog”) in charge at the CBF’s medieval citadel, things are unlikely to change anytime soon.

But if the tidings are gloomy in terms of such fripperies as fans’ rights and honest, decent leadership, there is at least good news from other quarters. Brazilian football is in the process of receiving fourteen new or rebuilt stadiums (the 12 World Cup arenas, plus new grounds for Grêmio and Palmeiras) and it will be fascinating to see how fans respond. Will people be willing to pay more for the pleasure of watching the game in greater comfort? Will the more salubrious surroundings persuade Brazil’s upper middle classes, scared off by a (sometimes legitimate, sometimes not) fear of violence, to return to the country’s football grounds? Early signs are inconclusive. While the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte has been embraced by Cruzeiro fans, and the Maracanã is likely to have a positive effect on the attendances of Rio clubs, those expensive tickets, and the travails of the local sides, have made the new stadiums in Salvador and Fortaleza look cavernously empty at times. One positive (if slightly upside down) benefit has been an increase in club membership numbers, as fans choose to pay a monthly fee in return for discounts on match tickets.

On the field things are looking rosy enough (less so behind the scenes, where epic debt mountains cast a shadow – the country’s biggest club, Flamengo, is an estimated R$750/£242 million in the red). The battle for Serie A promises to be as spirited an affair as ever. Last year’s champions, Fluminense, who have largely stood still since clinching the title, have not impressed much in the early part of the year, and are unlikely to find things as easy this time around. São Paulo, still reeling after a humiliatingly early Libertadores exit, has the talent, but a lack of cojones may leave the club flattering to deceive.

Once Neymar’s seemingly inevitable move to Barcelona is confirmed, Santos will spend a while eating too much chocolate, drinking too much chardonnay, and wailing “but he said he loved me!” to its girlfriends. After that, the club may emerge all the stronger. Neymar’s constant absences on international duty destabilised the team (through no fault of his own) and made consistency impossible, and fans stayed at home when the craque was away. Without him, Santos will be duller, but perhaps more dependable.

The real title battle may come down to a beauty and the beast showdown between Atlético Mineiro and Corinthians. The former are the country’s current sweethearts, orchestrated by Ronaldinho Gáucho, in turn ably supported by flying wide-men Diego Tardelli and Borussia Dortmund target Bernard.  The latter, meanwhile, steamrollered their way to the title in 2011 and the Libertadores and Mundial de Clubes in 2012, before momentum (and perhaps desire) wavered just a little in this year’s Libertadores, when the team were surprisingly eliminated by a pedestrian Boca Juniors. Question marks hover over both sides – can Alexandre Pato remain fit? How long will volante Paulinho be able to resist Inter’s manically fluttering eyelashes? For Atlético, what will happen if Ronaldinho gets injured, or suffers a drop in form? Is the team really ready to let go of its loveable losers comfort blanket? If Galo’s Libertadores dream does come true, it is worth remembering that no Brazilian side has ever won the continental competition and a full, round-robin Brazilian title in the same year.

Those seeking dark horses for a top four spot might look to Clarence Seedorf’s Botafogo, who have enjoyed a bright start to the year, the always spiky Grêmio, or even Cruzeiro, buoyed by the Mineirão and the arrival of titanic Vasco zagueiro Dedé.

At the other end, to the dismay of romantics everywhere, it might once again be a vale of tears for clubs from the nordeste. Náutico, who surprised last year, will hope the new Arena Pernambuco becomes as intimidating a home as their compact Aflitos ground. If it doesn’t, disaster surely awaits. Bahia and Vítoria have had woeful starts to 2013, with the former especially in the muck (a fan campaign is demanding the removal of president Marcelo Guimares Filho, the latest in a fine tradition of shady Brazilian football directors – he was recently accused of embezzlement, money laundering and criminal conspiracy). Another side tipped for the drop, Criciúma, from Santa Catarina, may be saved by their home form at a rowdy Heriberto Hülse stadium.

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