A premature return for Brazilian football?

. May 04, 2020
covid pandemic brazilian football Palmeiras locker room. Photo: Cesar Greco/SEP

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! With the Covid-19 pandemic reaching a critical stage in Brazil, government discussions over bringing back football have been criticized and seen as hasty. Also, we look back on the life of Ayrton Senna, Brazil’s Formula 1 hero. Enjoy your read!

Only fools rush in as Brazil plans hasty return to football

On Saturday, the 2020 Brazilian championship season was set to kick-off, with reigning champions Flamengo starting the season at home against Atlético-MG. Of course, no football was played this weekend, and the Covid-19 pandemic has cast doubt over the chances of the 2020 national championship taking place at all. However, with the support of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, recent talks suggest that Brazil could be the first South American nation to see a return to football. Whether that is a smart move is another discussion.

Covid-19. Brazil has now recorded over 100,000 cases of the coronavirus and 7,000 deaths — and one-third of these totals were registered over the last seven days. The situation is becoming desperate in many parts of the country, with local health systems collapsing left, right, and center. So, why on earth would a return to football even be discussed?

States under pressure. The national championship is certainly the biggest money-spinner in Brazilian football and is by far the most important domestic tournament, but the rush to get back to playing is not linked to the national league. The most pressing matter are Brazil’s state championships, held all over the country in the beginning of the year. While largely outdated and no longer regarded as major trophies, these competitions are absolutely vital for the survival of state football federations and medium to small-scale clubs.

Unfinished business. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Brazil’s state championships were already well underway, with most of the leading tournaments approaching their final stages. The knockout stages are the most lucrative games of the competition, and the associations and clubs are largely desperate to finish them. It is no coincidence that representatives of the Rio de Janeiro football federation were at the table for discussions with President Bolsonaro.

Is it possible? The spread of the virus has affected some parts more than others, meaning that a single nationwide return to football would be impractical. However, even in the least affected parts of the country, the government’s proposed return date of May 17 would be simply impossible.

Playing to the gallery? For President Jair Bolsonaro, football fans are a useful — if heterogenous and undefined — demographic for his electoral support. Akin to the leaders of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Mr. Bolsonaro has made it a habit of attending matches and gaining the plaudits — and jeers — of the fans in attendance. Advocating for the return of football could be a way of pleasing the fans who are also in favor of scrapping social isolation measures.

Ayrton Senna, 26 years on

ayrton senna
Ayrton Senna in 1989

Twenty-six years ago on Friday, three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna crashed his car into a concrete barrier during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Suffering massive head injuries, he died three hours later. The death of Ayrton Senna was one of the most tragic moments in Brazilian sport, and his memory will live on for many generations to come.

Formula 1 in Brazil. In the late 1980s and early 1990s in Brazil, Formula 1 was right up there alongside football in terms of popularity, thanks largely to Senna and his countryman contemporary Nelson Piquet. Football also had a lot to do with the sport’s rise to prominence. Brazil had not won the football World Cup since 1970, leading glory-hungry sports fans to turn elsewhere to get their kicks. With Senna and Piquet, they had it all: excitement, skill, rivalry, and — most importantly for the Brazilian audience — a chance of winning.

Glory. Ayrton Senna won his first world championship in 1988, the same year he joined the McLaren team, racing alongside his team-mate —and soon-to-be-rival — two-time world champion Alain Prost. With eight wins and 13 pole positions, Senna broke records to take the 1988 crown. When Prost left McLaren in 1989, Senna became the team’s number-one driver and took two championships on the trot, making him the youngest driver to win three Formula 1 world championships.

Death. The weekend of the 1996 San Marino Grand Prix saw an above-average number of crashes. During a Friday practice session, fellow Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello suffered a crash which very nearly cost him his life. Then, in qualifying, novice Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a crash, which cast doubt over whether the drivers would even race on Sunday. Reportedly, after Senna’s death, race stewards found a rolled-up Austrian flag inside his car, which he had planned to unfurl after winning the race, in honor of Ratzenberger.

On its final lap. While still gaining plenty of attention from television broadcasters, Formula 1 as a sport is severely dwindling in Brazil. Since Felipe Massa packed it in in 2017, Brazil has had no representatives in Formula 1, which hadn’t happened since 1969. At this rate, races are unlikely to be broadcast on television in five years’ time.

Nostalgia. On Sunday, however, millions are expected to tune in as TV Globo broadcasts a full-length re-run of the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, regarded as Senna’s most spectacular win. In the driving rain of São Paulo, Senna’s gearbox failed during the race, leaving him without his third, fourth, and fifth gears. As a result, he had to negotiate his way through the last seven laps using only sixth gear, meaning that all slow corners held a huge risk of stalling his engine. Physically destroyed by keeping his car on the track, Senna had to be lifted out of his vehicle after crossing the finish line and was transported to the podium by medical staff.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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