21 March 2010

Campeonato Carioca

Today’s lesson in the geography of the obvious deals with the phenomenon of state soccer tournaments in Brazil. Each of the 26 Brazilian states holds multi-division tournaments between January and April, with the winner of the first division tournament gaining direct qualification for the Copa do Brasil (Brazil’s version of the FA Cup or US Open Cup). It is only after the end of the state tournaments that the four divisions of the Brazilian National Championship begin.

Why the state tournaments endure as a central feature of the Brazilian football calendar is something that I talk about in chapter two of Temples of the Earthbound Gods. The state tournaments are remnants of an era of the relative geographic isolation of Brazilian urban centers. Brazil is the same size as the continental United States, but the lack of efficient road, rail, and air transportation between the coastal cities and the interior has the effect of increasing geographic distance (as long as we consider time and space to be mutually constitutive). Because it was prohibitively expensive and time consuming to travel between Brazil’s major urban centers for most of the 20th century, state tournaments made much more sense than a national tournament. Even today, the lower divisions of Brazilian football are organized on a regional basis because it is simply not possible for smaller teams to afford weekly air travel.

The advent of the Brazilian national championship (Brasilerão) in 1971 was as much a political project as a sporting one: the military government wanted a way to integrate the country through the popularity of football, using the Selecão’s third World Cup victory in 1970 to obtain political ends. That the Brasilerão changed its rules 31 times between 1971 and 2003 didn’t endear it to the general population and the state tournaments continued to hold more cultural importance for fans well into the 1990s.

The traditional state powers from the main urban centers were able to use the Brasilerão and television contracts to get bigger, while the teams that only competed in the state tournaments became relatively smaller, sending their best players up the food chain. So the situation we have today in Rio de Janeiro is that no team outside of the big four (Vasco, Botafogo, Fluminese, Flamengo) has won a state title since 1966, and only Americano, Volta Redonda and Madureira have managed to finish second in the last 40 years. Yesterday, Olaria managed to beat Vasco for the first time since 1971. This is front page news in Rio.

The state tournaments have turned into a training ground for the bigger clubs throughout Brazil. Attendances are abysmal, games are lopsided, and the influence of the OGlobo network on game times ensures that this situation will continue as mid week games can only begin after the novelas have ended at 10pm. Worse, the Rio State Football Federation can’t even make the Maracanã ticketing system work. They no longer sell tickets on the day of the game, and the stadium can no longer host clasicos because no one will take responsibility for managing the turnstiles. It’s a joke. The recent developments have highlighted the staggering amount of institutional change that is going to be necessary before Brazil is ready to host the World Cup in 2014.

After talking with Juca Kufuri about the insane state of affairs in Brazilan football, he suggested that the CBF and its corrupt puppet master Ricardo Teixeira intentionally keep Brazilian football in a state of chaos in order to valorize the Brazilian National Team at the expense of the clubs. If you go to any football store in the world, you will find jerseys of club and national teams from England, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Argentina. You will rarely if ever see a Brazilian club team jersey, but will always be able to find the CBF jersey. This is obvious but not accidental. The Brazilian football calendar is grossly out of synch with the International calendar, allowing European teams to poach Brazilian players in the middle of the Campeonato Brasileiro, further weakening the club game in Brazil.

Tonight there is a classico between Flamengo and Botafogo at the Fechadão. There won’t be many people in the stands, because the stadium accesses are terrible and potentially dangerous when two rival torcidas are arriving via the same transportation lines at the same time. The lack of planning on the part of the state and national federations is aggravated by the lack of concern shown by the city government and the absurd influence of the major television networks. All of these factors, plus the increasingly rapid decline of the smaller teams relative to the big teams in Rio has made for one of the worst Cariocas in recent memory – a situation produced by history, geography, politics, and economics that can only be relieved by the raw potential of football to transform the mundane into sublime.

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