On-again, off-again Brazilian football league during Covid-19

. Sep 28, 2020
covid-19 football Palmeiras and Flamengo play. Photo: Cesar Greco/SEP

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, a tortuous tale of football, rivalry, Covid-19, and the court system. Flamengo eventually did play Palmeiras in the most controversial match of the year. Enjoy your read!

Football in Covid-19 times: The game that never was … but then was

The headline fixture of this weekend’s Brazilian league saw champions Flamengo travel to São Paulo to take on Palmeiras. As the two richest clubs in the country, with the most expensive squads, the pair have developed a bitter rivalry in recent years. Sunday’s confrontation was no different, filled with back-biting, twists and turns, bizarre decisions, and drama — all of this before a ball was ever kicked.

Indeed, Palmeiras v. Flamengo looked unlikely to take place when a Rio de Janeiro labor court issued an order to postpone the game, as the away side had a total of 36 members of staff infected with the coronavirus — including an incredible 19 players.

The outbreak among Flamengo’s employees got completely out of hand as the team returned from their Copa Libertadores win against Barcelona in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Seven players had already tested positive before the game, leading to fears that the match would be postponed. The game went ahead, Flamengo won 2-1, and returned to Brazil with 36 positive cases of the coronavirus.

With only 13 first-team players fit for the match against Palmeiras, Flamengo successfully petitioned for the game to be called off. But at the 11th hour — or, more accurately, 20 minutes before kick-off — the decision was overturned and the game went ahead.

Reap what you sow? Many have pointed out the irony that Flamengo has consistently been on the side of “playing through” the coronavirus pandemic. With the virus out of control and killing over 1,000 people a day in June, Flamengo lobbied the hardest for football to return. Disobeying social distancing restrictions put in place by the Rio de Janeiro government, the team trained in secret while all other clubs respected isolation rules.

On June 18, the club played a state championship match in an empty Maracanã stadium, with a Covid-19 field hospital set up in the car park outside. Flamengo won 3-0, and a coronavirus patient died in the adjacent hospital during the 90 minutes of play.

Getting their way with the resumption of football, Flamengo then turned their attention to getting fans back in stadiums, meeting with President Jair Bolsonaro and urging the government to allow 30 percent capacity at their home matches.

That Flamengo is now left without enough first-team players to field a full match squad due to Covid-19 infections has been seen by many pundits as a macabre form of poetic justice.

Not playing by the rules. Fueled by the sheer number of infections within the club, there have been accusations that Flamengo are not adhering to Covid-19 safety protocols. After the win in Ecuador, the club posted a photograph of their players on the flight home, with no-one wearing masks or obeying social distancing.

He said what? Flamengo president Rodolfo Landim played down the incident at first, saying that he also takes off his mask to take photographs. “When I go to take a picture, I take off my mask, I hold my breath, and I take the photo. That’s what everyone does.”

More than a slap on the wrist. Despite playing down the incident to the press, Mr. Landim promptly fired the employee who took the photograph, 26-year-old press advisor Matheus Grangeiro.

Common sense, or just desserts? It is clear that, with only 13 healthy players in their first-team squad, Flamengo certainly had an argument to have the game canceled on Sunday. They ended up having to call up youth players to fill up their substitute’s bench — and their defensive line — but that risked exposing them to what is clearly active transmission of the coronavirus within the club. However, as opposed to simply postponing the match, Palmeiras — along with a range of Brazilian pundits — called for the match to go ahead, forcing Flamengo to forfeit the game and award the healthy Palmeiras squad with the points.

Double standards. Health has to come first in Brazil’s return to football, yet there were strong suggestions that Flamengo were receiving special treatment by having their game postponed. Smaller clubs have been forced to play on through their own Covid-19 outbreaks, while only Flamengo’s case has received such a response from authorities. The court order to postpone the game was the result of a plea of the Rio de Janeiro football club’s union Sindiclubes, chaired by an employee of Flamengo. Unions have not spoken up in similar cases involving smaller clubs.

Deciding factor. In the end, it was pressure from Brazil’s other top-flight clubs that forced the game to go ahead. Alleging double standards, Palmeiras threatened that — were the game to go ahead — they would file a motion to the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) to have the 2020 national championship canceled. Their words were supported by executives of dozens of clubs, including some of Palmeiras’ most bitter rivals. In the end, their pressure worked.

And what about the game? In the end, the football was by far the least interesting or enthralling part of this story. Flamengo took the field with a rookie goalkeeper and defensive line made up of youth players, but Palmeiras’ uninspired football of late — and a wonderful midfield performance from Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta, one of Flamengo’s few uninfected senior players — kept the result at a 1-1 draw.

What else you should know

  • Stadium food. With empty grounds at Brazilian football — for the time being — top domestic beer brand Brahma has launched a curious initiative to try and recreate the matchday experience for fans stuck at home. Through a dedicated website, supporters will be able to order food deliveries from traditional bars outside their team’s stadiums, serving classic pre-football fare. In São Paulo, users can order the classic sanduíche de pernil, while fans in Minas Gerais can get a plate of feijão tropeiro sent to their house for half-time.
  • Formula 1. After TV giant Globo decided not to renew its contract to show Formula 1 from 2021 onward, broadcasting rights were bought up by intermediate company Rio Motorsports. The group will now negotiate with television stations to decide where next year’s Grand Prix will be transmitted. Meanwhile, Formula 1 announced that its F1TV streaming service is soon to be launched in Brazil.
  • UFC. Brazil’s Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa was dominated by middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 253 on Saturday night, leaving him with the first loss of his MMA career. Pundits and analysts were critical of Borrachinha’s approach to the fight, while at the same time gushing over the “masterclass” put on by champion Adesanya, of Nigeria.
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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