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More Wacky Races than Formula One as season heats up in Brazil

James Young
Flamengo’s “on tour” games  300x199 More Wacky Races than Formula One as season heats up in Brazil

Flamengo’s 'on tour' games at Brasília’s Mane Garrincha stadium (pictured) have been pulling in the crowds

With painful slowness, the Brasileirão season has finally worked its way clear of Confederations Cup snarl-ups and Libertadores bottlenecks and hit the open road that will carry it through to December’s finishing line. But those hoping for the thrilling roar of engines at full throttle may be disappointed. While much of the road has been slickly resurfaced (bringing with it eye-watering charges at the tollgates) many a nasty pothole and frustrating detour still lurks. No footballing autobahn this, at least not yet.

Increasingly, more and more of the Brasileirão traffic is made up of carros importados. Until Sunday, when he was passed by Ponte Preta’s William, Serie A’s top scorer was Argentinian Maxi Biancucchi (cousin of a certain Mr. Messi), and its best player so far has arguably been Botafogo’s imperious Clarence Seedorf, ably aided and abetted by Uruguay´s gifted Nicolás Lodeiro. There are currently 49 foreign players registered in the top flight, and a couple of weekends ago, nine of twenty-four Serie A goals were scored by gringos. Though a long way from rivaling the Premier League’s global community, the foreign visitors, who are almost all from South American countries (with a nod to Coritiba’s lively Angolan striker Geraldo) represent a growing trend.

Foreign or otherwise, the leaders of the pack after thirteen games have been gently aging but beautifully cared for classics. The 2013 Brazilian championship is definitely a country for old men, with Bentleys and E-Type Jags purring along in the form of the aforementioned Lord Clarence, Grêmio´s Zé Roberto, Vasco´s Juninho Pernambucano, Coritiba´s magnificent Alex, Inter’s Diego Forlan and of course, Atlético Mineiro´s Ronaldinho.

But while there is an undoubted thrill in seeing that class truly is permanent, it is a sobering thought that despite much recent crowing about its rude health (financial and otherwise), especially while Neymar remained with Santos, the Brasileirão has reverted to selling its crown jewels with indecent haste (in truth, claims about such progress were always optimistic, and almost every club remains mired in mountains of debt). While the talent production line means stocks are continually replenished, of all the juicy prime rib touted as the next big thing over the last couple of years, arguably only São Paulo’s Paulo Henrique Ganso (too gloomy), and Inter’s Leandro Damião (too injured or expensive, though at time of writing a move to Zenit is in the offing) remain. Off to (foreign) pastures new in the last few months alone have been Paulinho, Bernard, Fred (the Internacional version), Fernando of Grêmio, Fluminense’s Wellington Nem, and a raft of others.

Yet there are a few encouraging signs of, if not quite the wind, then at least the light breeze of change. Most notably at the top of the league, where the early “unfashionable” (at least from the perspective of the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo obsessed Brazilian media) leaders are Botafogo (carioca, true, but distinctly The Girl From Ipanema’s dowdier younger sister compared to its Rio rivals), Cruzeiro and Coritiba. If the three have anything in common, it is that all are managed by intelligent, for the most part unassuming managers, a breath of fresh air in a league that is all too often dominated by the same old braggarts.

Until Botafogo tempted him back from Japan, Oswaldo de Oliveira had not managed in Brazil since 2006, while Coritiba’s Marquinhos Santos is, at just 34, a year younger than his star pupil Alex. An idol of hated Belo Horizonte rivals Atlético in his playing days, Marcelo Oliveira was an almost universally unpopular choice among Cruzeiro fans upon his appointment just a few short months ago.

There are plenty of similarities between the sides on the pitch too, as former Brazil great Tostão, now the writer of a column for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, pointed out last week. “Botafogo and Cruzeiro are both modern teams, good to watch, with quick passing exchanges and triangles and changes in the attacking positions. They both have talented young players, such as Vitinho, Doria (Botafogo), Mayke and Vinícus Araújo (Cruzeiro).” It is to be hoped that last weekend’s results, when all three slipped up, does not signal a slide down the table.

No round up of the Brazilian season would be complete without a mention of crowds, or the lack of them. The new World Cup stadiums have boosted attendances to an extent, and the Serie A average currently sits at around 14,000, compared to just 11,000 at the same stage last year (attendances tend to start low and increase as the season reaches a climax). Interestingly, Flamengo’s “on tour” games at Brasília’s Mane Garrincha stadium, taking advantage of the club’s huge popularity across the country, have been pulling in big crowds (though the novelty value is likely to be a factor here).

More revealing is just how much people are paying to watch their football in Brazil. While attendances are about 25% higher than last year, average gate receipts are up a dizzying 78% on 2013 (from about R$287k (£81k) to R$513k (£144k) per match) as clubs have cheerily welcomed fans to their shiny new homes by jacking up prices to astronomical levels. Only a few weeks after reopening, it is already a common sight at stadiums such as the Maracanã or the Mineirão to see the “cheaper” (if still pricy) sections of the ground (most often behind the goal) full to bursting point, while vast swathes of the more expensive seats along the touchline lie empty. Unfortunately, while increased comfort and safety levels may be attracting more affluent Brazilians back to the grounds, large numbers of working class fans, the traditional lifeblood of the game, are being excluded.

Nowhere can the idiosyncrasies of the Brasileirão be more clearly seen than at Atlético Mineiro. Barely two weeks removed from lifting the Libertadores in spellbinding fashion, the club, which fielded reserve sides in most of its league games while the continental competition was in progress, is now stuck gloomily in the Serie A relegation zone. With little to play for in the league, striker Jô said recently that the short knockout fare of the Copa do Brasil would be the team’s priority for the rest of the season (plus the little matter of a potential Mundial de Clubes final with Bayern Munich in Morocco in December), and supporters have responded accordingly. As a sparse crowd of only 11,000 rained opprobrium down upon the heads of Galo’s underperforming players at a chilly and cheerless Independência during last Wednesday’s scrappy draw against Botafogo, those epic Libertadores nights felt like a very long time ago indeed.

James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.

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