On June 18, Rio de Janeiro clubs Flamengo and Bangu played the first football match in Brazil since March, when tournaments stopped as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Inside the city’s Maracanã stadium, there was no crowd to be seen. Meanwhile, in the ground’s car park, a coronavirus field hospital is filled with Covid-19 patients — one of whom reportedly died during the game.
While major European leagues have returned to complete their 2019-2020 seasons after a flattening of their respective coronavirus curves, Brazil is attempting to resume football while case numbers are still rising. Between June 14 and 20, the country had the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, with more than 29,000 new infections on average each day.
Flamengo — Brazilian and South American champions — are leading the efforts to get back on the pitch. The club president recently met with President Jair Bolsonaro, who is staunchly against social isolation policies and has long advocated for the return of football.
The Rio de Janeiro state championship was postponed once again soon after the Flamengo v. Bangu clash. Other major clubs in the city refused to return to action while the pandemic remained out of control.
Flamengo’s eagerness to resume play is driven by economic interests. The wealthiest football club in the country has massive revenue and expenditures and miss out on profit while they are not playing. Consulting firm Sports Value projects losses of around BRL 2 billion (USD 387 million) for the 20 biggest clubs in Brazil as a result of coronavirus stoppages. The biggest impact comes from the loss of gate receipts and TV broadcasting rights.
“There is a brutal reduction in revenue, and expenditure is not keeping pace. That is why the trend is that 2020 will be a year of deep deficits, clubs will end the year with huge losses,” analyzes Amir Somoggi, a partner of Sports Value.
Flamengo was the first Brazilian club to return to training, on May 20, despite not having legal authorization. In a country where testing levels are low, the club carried out its own coronavirus screening on players and coaches.
With the endorsement from the federal government, several other clubs returned to practice. However, rules in Brazil differ from state to state. On Monday, São Paulo club Corinthians announced that their own mass testing operation had found 21 positive results among 28 players. In 191 tests, including staff members, the club found that 55 people have had or still have the novel coronavirus.
But Corinthians and Flamengo’s financial power, with the ability to test their squads, is not the norm in Brazilian football. And the disparity impacts the situation in many ways.
Football clubs in crisis
Major clubs will suffer much larger losses, but it is the smaller sides that are put at severe risk due to the coronavirus stoppage.
Brazilian football is deeply unequal in financial terms. The following chart shows the revenue of 16 biggest teams in Brazilian football, as well as the winners of the second and third division in 2019 — the gap in revenue is gigantic, even within the top division.
Who wants to play?
In lower divisions, the reality of professional football is drastically different. Only a small percentage of clubs actually play in the national league setup, with the rest competing only in state championships, which take place at the beginning of the year. By June, they are often out of work until the following January.
The National Federation of Professional Football Athletes surveyed the opinion of Brazilian players regarding the return to football. The percentage of those who are in favor of playing increases as average wages decrease. The data indicates that those who earn less money are keener to get back to playing, presumably due to their need for income.
The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has announced a BRL 100 million interest-free loan to first division clubs, with BRL 15 million to be distributed among second division sides. The funds come from advanced payments of broadcasting rights — as such, third and fourth division clubs are not involved in the program, as they do not have television contracts.
These teams are in a group of 140 clubs who will have to share a BRL 19 million donation provided by the CBF. On average, each will receive just BRL 135 thousand. According to Mr. Somoggi, it is not enough or even close to what Brazil’s football association could provide.
“I don’t see anything important happening. CBF has BRL 700 million in cash and considered the possibility of helping football, but there are so many obstacles that the clubs will start to declare bankruptcy. Noroeste, a club from Bauru, for example, has already gone bankrupt due to not receiving support. There is no state championship, no support, no return, no ability to generate revenue, so they closed their doors,” says Mr. Somoggi.