Global football had its watershed moment in England at the beginning of 1992. The country’s biggest clubs decided to break away from their national football association and form their own league, the Premier League, taking advantage of a massive television broadcasting rights deal in the process.

Clubs around Europe followed suit and the sport became richer than ever. Rights to broadcast England’s Premier League are today worth in excess of USD 17 billion. Six of the top ten most valuable clubs in the world are from England. Manchester United, in pole position, is valued at USD 3.7 billion.

Brazilian football has not followed the same path. The country’s clubs are comparatively powerless and the national championship is still organized by the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), an entity which has been the subject of three formal investigations in Congress on suspicion of corruption and mismanagement. Of the CBF’s last three presidents, each one has been indicted by the FBI for corruption, one is wanted by Interpol, another is in a U.S. prison, and the other has been banned for life from football.

Brazil’s missed opportunity

Brazilian clubs actually had the chance to blaze a trail and form their own league, five years before it happened in England. In 1987, with Brazil’s football administration in tatters and claiming it had no funds to organize the national league of that year, the 13 largest clubs of the country banded together to set up their own league, the so-called “Union Cup.” With sponsorships from Coca-Cola and television giant TV Globo, the competition was a success, attracting huge numbers of fans to stadiums and impressive television viewing figures.

Despite the profitable first season, the independent league only lasted for one year, as the clubs decided to make peace with the national confederation and scrap the idea of a competition run by the clubs. Juca Kfouri, renowned Brazilian journalist and a witness to the truce that saw the end of the Union Cup, called this event the “prevailing of the old Brazilian conciliatory spirit.”

“The league didn’t go any further because the superstructure of Brazilian football is profoundly conservative, reactionary, corruptive, and corruptible,” Mr. Kfouri told The Brazilian Report. “Brazilian football would be so much more advanced today if the clubs had stuck with that idea from 1987.”

The idea behind England’s Premier League was that the clubs and their players were the ones who were responsible for creating the spectacle, so they should have the largest say in how the league is managed. This is even truer in Brazil, a country where the biggest teams can count their fan-bases in the tens of millions of people. With proper administration, clubs such as Flamengo, from Rio de Janeiro, or Corinthians, from São Paulo, could be among the world’s biggest sides.

The result is Brazilian football clubs which rely on selling their most-talented players to the biggest leagues in Europe. There is not one major team in Brazil which does not count on selling players for its economic sustainability — for many, it is their main source of revenue. “Brazilian football doesn’t sell its spectacle, it sells its artists,” sums up Mr. Kfouri. “It’s as if Walt Disney didn’t sell his films, instead he sold Mickey Mouse.”

The CBF superstructure

The reason Brazilian football clubs are so politically weak is that power in football lies with the national and state associations. For decades, each Brazilian state had an equal say in all CBF matters, including the election for president. In practice, it means that the state federations of Tocantins and Roraima, small states with no football tradition to speak of, have the same decision-making power as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the home of the nation’s biggest clubs.

cbf brazilian football association

CBF headquarters, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: ABr

It means that to consolidate power within the CBF, officials have no incentive to improve the top divisions, instead, they remain in office by distributing favors and appeasing small states.
The entity’s statute recently changed, apparently handing more power to the clubs by giving them voting rights. First of all, the 20 clubs from the country’s top division were given one vote each, which would still leave them in the minority against the 27 state federations. In order to break this control, it was ordered that the 20 clubs from Brazil’s second division be included, in theory meaning the clubs would outnumber the states 40 to 27.

However, before the latest CBF election, in which Rogério Caboclo—an ally of previous president Marco Polo Del Nero, now banned for life by FIFA for corruption—was elected, the heads of the organization changed the statute in a meeting to which the clubs were not invited.

It was determined that the state federations would be given three votes each; the first division clubs would receive two each, and the second division sides would have one. Thus, the state federations’ majority was restored, giving them a total of 81 votes against the clubs’ 60.

Decades of this structure of governance have led the most part of Brazilian clubs to become subservient. The contested election of Rogério Caboclo showed somewhat of a Stockholm Syndrome effect: despite seeing their influence diminished in what is being called a “coup” by some observers, almost all clubs sided with Mr. Caboclo anyway. Of the 40 clubs in Brazil’s top two divisions, only three (Corinthians, Flamengo, and Atlético Paranaense) chose either to abstain or spoil their ballots.

Bolsonaro: the Great White(-collar) Hope?

Of these “rebel clubs,” the most vocal opposition to the current CBF administration is Mário Celso Petraglia, president of Atlético Paranaense, from the southern city of Curitiba. A fervent supporter of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, Mr. Petraglia was accused of using his club to campaign for the far-right former Army captain, sending his players out before a match wearing t-shirts adjudged to be pro-Bolsonaro. The club was fined BRL 70,000.

In a recent interview to major newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Mr. Petraglia dismissed the incident as a “demonstration of patriotism,” but expressed his belief that Jair Bolsonaro’s government could bring about improvements to Brazilian football. “I wouldn’t say that he could help specifically against X or Y, but [Bolsonaro could help] in a philosophical way, with his policy to end corruption in all sectors.”

“That’s what we want in football, a cultural heritage of the Brazilian people which cannot be in the hands of the same people and managed the way it is for so many decades.”

Juca Kfouri, however, is skeptical. “This could be true if you believe that the Bolsonaro government is going to moralize Brazil, but there is no reason to affirm that,” he says. “Jair Bolsonaro is far from the standard of honesty, while [Mário Celso] Petraglia’s history as a business owner in Paraná doesn’t justify this image as the great ‘moralizer’ [of Brazilian football].”

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SocietyNov 16, 2018

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BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.