The Wasteland: Cruzeiro’s Brazilian title triumph turns Rio and São Paulo into footballing tiddlers
Once surprise package Atlético-PR finally went gentle into the Brasileirão good night with a defeat away to Criciúma yesterday, the blaring car horn symphonies and firecracker fusillades could echo around the streets of Belo Horizonte in earnest. All that was left was for new Brazilian champions Cruzeiro to pop the champagne corks with a win against Vítoria in Salvador – duly accomplished in the team’s now customary swashbuckling style.
It is the club’s third official national championship win (though one of those, in 1966, was only recognised retrospectively) and its first major honour since 2003´s unprecedented “triple crown” of Serie A, Copa do Brasil and Campeonato Mineiro (the Minas Gerais state league) titles.
It has been a deserved, runaway triumph, built around a clutch of astute signings, ranging from the marquee (Vasco’s sometime Seleção defender Dedé) to the relatively unheralded (attacking midfielder Ricardo Goulart and goal scoring defensive midfielder Nilton) combined with the emergence of some bright young players (such as Nilton’s partner at volante Lucas Silva).
Throughout the year Cruzeiro have played quick, modern, attacking football, built on speed, mobility and lively forward thrust. It is a style not unlike that of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s evolving Brazil team, and also like Felipão’s meninos, the heartbeat of this Cruzeiro side is its attacking midfielders and nimble forwards – Goulart, Willian and the mercurial Everton Ribeiro, the league’s most dangerous player this year.
But while Belo Horizonte celebrates a Brasileirão title to go with Atlético-MG’s Copa Libertadores triumph earlier in the year (and who knows, maybe even the Club World Cup next month) covetous glances were being cast in the city’s direction from a few hundred kilometres to the south.
For Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the traditional powerbases of Brazilian football, it was not just April that was the cruellest month, but May to November too. If the Brazilian season was to end today, the two biggest cities in the country would be without a representative in next year’s Libertadores.
Over 55 million people live in the two states, more than a quarter of the population of Brazil. And according to a recent survey, 57% of the country’s approximately 200m citizens support one of the SP/RJ Big Eight – Corinthians, São Paulo, Palmeiras, Santos, Flamengo, Vasco, Fluminense and Botafogo.
In 2012 the combined wage bills of these clubs represented 62% of total Serie A salary expenditure, while their dominance of television income is even greater. Corinthians, Flamengo and São Paulo alone received almost a third of total Serie A TV money this year, and the gap will widen hugely over the remainder of the current deals.
While TV income for each of the smaller first division clubs will increase by 29% by 2015, Corinthians’ and Flamengo’s slices of the torta will jump 54%, leading Recife based journalist Cassio Zirpoli to write about the “Spanish-ization” of Brazilian football, with two financially dominant clubs riding roughshod over the rest.
This financial dominance has been reflected in the trophy hauls. Of the 55 officially recognised Brazilian national championships to date, only a mere 15 have ended up outside the Rio/São Paulo axis.
Football egalitarians, then, will be cheered by the current sorry state of football in the region. Five of the big RJ/SP teams are currently in or close to the bottom half of Serie A, while Palmeiras spent the year in Serie B after relegation in 2012. Botafogo briefly challenged Cruzeiro at the top earlier in the season, but are now a whopping twenty points behind the leaders, and the furthest any of the sides got in this year’s Libertadores was Fluminense, who were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Both Flu and Rio neighbours Vasco are currently in the relegation zone, and consolation prizes, such as Flamengo reaching the Copa do Brasil final and São Paulo the Copa Sul-Americana semi-finals, will provide only cold comfort, though the winners of both competitions are given a spot in next year’s Libertadores.
There are a number of reasons why these financial bullies have become such weaklings. Firstly, despite the advantages enjoyed by the Rio and São Paulo clubs, like all Brazilian teams they remain wracked by debt, as outdated marketing and ticketing strategies, combined with the reluctance of Brazilian fans to attend matches on a regular basis, stymy attempts to tap into those huge potential supporter bases.
Following recent rumours that Conmebol (South American football’s governing body) may insist on the ground-breaking policy that clubs pay player salaries on time, with exclusion from competitions such as the Libertadores as a penalty, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper announced that Flamengo, Fluminense, Palmeiras, Botafogo and Vasco would all have been kicked out at some stage this season.
Administrative incompetence is another problem, as archaic leadership structures help level the playing field for the smaller clubs. Long term planning is eschewed, with clubs treated like personal fiefdoms by their self-aggrandising elected presidents, whose main focus often seems to be to cover themselves in as much glory as possible before re-election time – Patricia Amorim’s recent reign of terror at Flamengo, which ended with Ronaldinho tearing up his contract with the club over unpaid wages, will not be easily forgotten by fans.
The desperate hunt for success, spiced by intense tribalism not just on the terraces but in the boardrooms, leads to managers being changed as often as socks and teams paying out more than they can possibly afford in transfer fees and wages – how else to explain Corinthians’ signing of Alexandre Pato, who has scored a grand total of nine league goals this season, about half as many as Atlético-PR’s unheralded Éderson, for £12 million? Or Palmeiras handing Felipão a contract worth almost £2.3 million a year to lead them to relegation just under a year ago?
The financial clout of Rio and São Paulo means that the natural order of things will undoubtedly reassert itself in the not too distant future. But for now at least, fans of clubs from Belo Horizonte to Belém will be treating themselves to a small glass of schadenfreude at the decline and fall of this footballing empire.
James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The Blizzard, World Soccer and The Howler, 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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