Brazil’s fortunes are fading. Since 2014 the economy of the world’s fifth most populous nation has been faltering, leaving millions unemployed, inflation rates soaring and GDP shrinking at unprecedented rates.
This economic collapse is going on amid a political crisis which has seen the suspension of President Dilma Rousseff on charges of violating the country’s law on fiscal responsibility before the last election. And, as if this was not enough, there is an ongoing corruption scandal of mindboggling scale, focussed mainly around the state oil giant Petrobras and involving more than half of the politicians in Brazil’s Congress.
Normally in times of political and economic hardship, which have been plentiful in the short history of this country, the Brazilian people can turn for solace to the one thing that they have always done better than anyone: football.
It is a sport that gives hope and identity to a diverse and disparate nation. But now even this national symbol is in disarray.
Football, and the once beloved Seleção, has fallen from grace in a way that mirrors the wider state of the nation and it can no longer offer relief from the hardship, joblessness and abject poverty that are the reality of so many Brazilian’s lives.
The 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in their home World Cup in 2014, a quarter-final exit of the 2015 Copa América to Paraguay, and last month’s group stage exit from the Copa América’s centenary edition to a hand-ball goal by Peru has left Brazil’s top footballers in a position as wretched as that of its law-makers.
Pride before the fall
During the decade leading up to these dual crises, times were seemingly good. Brazil’s economy grew by an average of 3.1 percent a year between 2000 and 2010. Thirty-six million people were lifted out of poverty and into the newly expanded and dynamic lower-middle class through the growing prosperity and social assistance programs initiated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party government.
On the pitch things were flourishing as well. A new generation of players had come to the fore that were capable of the sort of individual and collective brilliance for which the Seleção was known and loved.
The team would romp home to the 2002 World Cup, with Ronaldo scoring eight goals, including two in the final against Germany. It really was a country on the rise.
During the same golden years, Brazil would also go on to win two Copa Américas and two Confederations Cups. It was the most decorated period in the glittering history of the country that turned football into an art.
During this decadent decade, Brazil built its economic growth on the high primary product prices driven by the emerging economic might of China. The South American powerhouse benefitted from the growing Chinese middle classes’ demand for products such as raw sugar and oil, and the Chinese government’s need for iron ore to make steel for the myriad new construction projects.
Since 2011, though, commodity prices have fallen steadily and demand from China has reduced significantly owing to the far-eastern super-power’s own financial troubles.
Brazil’s failure to diversify and restructure the economy during the good times means they have been unable to weather the storm of the price-drop; as such its economy, and consequently its people, are suffering.
Like the economic successes of the time, the footballing triumphs of the 2000s were a castle built on sand.
The country’s football economy is one that relies on the export of primary products in the same way as the country’s wider economy. Only rather than coming in the form of oil, iron ore or sugar, these primary products come in the form of the legions of young boys that are shipped across the world to ply their trade on the pitch.
The Bosman ruling in 1996 said that EU players no longer counted as foreign, thus opening up many more places for South Americans in European squads. This hugely accelerated the rate of transfers of young players, a rate which has barely slowed down since.
This player export, and particularly the age at which they are exported, creates a series of problems for the game in the country and for the national team.
Just as Brazil would be richer if it diversified its economy to convert some of its primary products into secondary ones, its clubs would be richer if they allowed their players to become fully-fledged professionals before selling them off.
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Brazil fans haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years
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Leaving so young means that they are sold as unfinished, raw goods that still need to be transformed into useable products. As a result, clubs do not receive the sort of transfer fees that they could if they allowed the players to become the finished article that top European clubs are constantly searching for.
There would of course be dangers in this. Players can get injured or not fulfil the potential they show during their time in the youth ranks, but the transfer fees that are commanded by even mediocre footballers now would more than make up for those losses.
A second and culturally fundamental issue is that the exported players undergo the process that turns them from raw talent into the finished article in a variety far-flung lands, and in doing so lose some of the qualities that made them so attractive in the first place.
The Brazilian people complain that their football identity has almost been lost, with players returning from Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain with different ideas on how to play the game, perhaps losing some of the individuality that made Brazilian football so iconic.
Many of the players that get called up for the national team after playing abroad left so young that when they arrive back in Brazil to pull on the verde-amarelo they are seen as invading foreigners. Almost nobody in the country has heard their name, never mind knows what kind of player they are.
This was made clear when, in 2015, diminutive Shakhtar Donetsk winger Fred made his debut for the Seleção. Before kick-off his name was announced over the speaker system and was greeted with a large chorus of boos. The crowd, most of which had never heard of this Fred, had mistaken him for the other Fred, the lamppost-like centre-forward who took a substantial portion of the blame for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup obliteration.
To make matters even worse, some of the players who go away don’t come back at all. At Euro 2016 there were several top-quality Brazilians playing for other countries, including Éder and Thiago Motta for Italy, Thiago Alcântara for Spain, and Pepe for Portugal who, ones imagines, would all have made it into the Brazil squad for the Copa América had they chosen to represent the nation of their birth.
Brazil is not just losing players of lower quality who chose to play for countries in Eastern Europe but players who would have had a genuine chance of pulling the famous canary yellow shirt. This has been happening for some time now with other notable defectors including Diego Costa, Deco and Marcos Senna.
The recently departed Dunga even went as far as to say, when Brazil were drawn in the same group as Portugal for the 2010 World Cup, that: “We’re going to play against Brazil’s B team.” Though to say that Deco and Pepe would not have got into Brazil’s A team is the sort of delusional conflict-seeking comment that ended up getting Dunga the sack from Brazil’s top job on two occasions.
In the red
Another problem with the early sale of players is that it weakens the domestic leagues and makes them an unattractive proposition for potential investors and sponsors, as well as fans. This leads to stagnant sponsorship deals and dwindling attendances at matches. The average attendance at top division games is lower here than in Australia. Who wants to watch or to be associated with what has essentially become a second-rate product?
Clubs in Brazil are in dire straits financially, with a majority reporting falling revenues and unsustainable debts. This in turn leaves less money for investment into those very players on whose sale the clubs rely to survive financially. There is little money going into scouting networks, academies, training facilities or player development at most clubs around the country.
When the economy was strong Brazilian football tried to cut back on the numbers of players exported – Neymar being the most notable beneficiary of this – and even to start repatriating some of those who had already gone to Europe. However this has proved impossible to maintain in the current financial climate as clubs desperately need quick-fix solutions to service their growing interest payments.
Santos, the most productive of all Brazil’s clubs, has even been accused of involvement in a scheme that makes families pay up to 80,000 Brazilian reais for a space in their academy. The minimum wage here is 880 reais a month. The scheme was allegedly run by one of Neymar’s closest friends and associates, known as Andrezinho, who used his connections in the Instituto Neymar to guarantee the places in the Santos youth ranks.
The new exodus
New markets have also recently emerged for Brazilian footballers, further increasing the numbers moving abroad and further decreasing the quality of both the leagues they are playing in and the domestic top division.
According to the CBF, 31 Brazilian players moved to China in 2014 and 2015, part of an attempt by the Chinese government to turn the country into a football superpower. Moving to the Far East is not something completely new for Brazilians; some second-rate players have been going to China for the last decade or so, and even the great Zico moved to Japan at the end of his career.
The difference now is that the best players in the Brazilian league are moving to China at the peak of their powers. They see it as a huge opportunity to make enough money to live comfortably in Brazil for the rest of their lives, many coming from poor backgrounds, and the Chinese clubs see the Brazilian market as great value for money owing to the weakness of the real.
At the end of the last Brasileirão campaign four players from championship-winning side Corinthians joined the Chinese Super League, including Brazil internationals Gil and Ralf, and the league’s best player last season, Renato Augusto.
Something must be done to stop this exodus if Brazilian football is to return to its peak; unfortunately the organisations best positioned to do something about it are incompetent, dishonest and ineffectual.
The rotten core
The problems with corruption and ineptitude that run so deep in Brazilian politics are also found throughout Brazilian football, from the top of the CBF all the way through to the state football federations and the clubs.
Bizarrely, the yellow shirt of the national team, with the mark of the CBF boldly emblazoned on the breast, became the symbol of the anti-corruption and pro-impeachment protests that have been taking place all across the country since 2013, something that seems to go against all good sense and logic.
The man who originally designed the now-iconic shirt in 1953, when it was decided that Brazil would change from their traditional white after the Maracanazo, said that in their protests against corruption, “these misinformed people wear the shirt of the most corrupt entity in the world”. It is difficult to argue with this assertion.
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Read | João Havelange: the iron hand in an iron glove
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Last year the President of the CBF, José Maria Marin, was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the US as part the FBI investigation into corruption at FIFA. He was indicted on charges of accepting bribes related to broadcasting rights of international tournaments and the Copa do Brasil. Bail was set at US$15 million and he was put under house arrest in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower. The investigation is ongoing.
Marin’s predecessor, Ricardo Teixeira, and his successor, Marco Polo Del Nero, have also had their own run-ins with the judiciary related to this endemic corruption.
Teixeira, who was married for 30 years to the daughter of ex-FIFA president João Havelange, was president of the CBF from 1989 to 2012. He has been under investigation since 2011 for money laundering and falsification of documents, amongst other crimes, though was only formally charged in June last year.
Meanwhile, Del Nero, the current president, will not leave the country for Brazil’s away games for fear of being extradited to the US to face similar charges to Marin in relation to the 2014 World Cup. He’s often referred to in the country as the Marco Polo who cannot travel. Del Nero recently took a five-month leave of absence from his position in order to prepare the case for his defence.
Even the sports minister, Gustavo Perella, recently installed by interim president Michel Temer hasn’t avoided a brush with the law. In 2013 a helicopter registered in his name was seized by the federal police with 445 kilos of cocaine on board, though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
In December 2015 a large group of players, former players, managers, journalists and artists, including Pelé and the great samba singer Chico Buarque, sent an open letter that called for the resignation of Del Nero and a complete restructuring of the CBF. Tite, the new manager of the Seleção, was one of the signatories.
This has led some high-profile journalists such as Juca Kfouri to suggest that Tite should have stuck to his principles and should not have taken on the manager’s job whilst the federation is in the hands of these unscrupulous men. It would have been a big blow to the CBF to be turned down by comfortably the best Brazilian coach of his generation and would have piled more pressure on them undertake the necessary changes.
Nevertheless, pressure for reform is building, from the public, from journalists and from the players themselves. On the last day of the season in the 2015 Brasileirão, supporters across the country were taken by surprise as, for the first 15 seconds of the match, the players of all teams stood still, arms folded in protest against the poor organisation of Brazilian football.
This gesture was organised by a movement called Bom Senso FC – Common Sense FC in Englis – formed in 2013 by players sick of the repeated failures of the CBF, the state federations and the clubs that often do not pay their wages on time, and sometimes not at all.
They want professional players to have a say in the state and national football federations in order to start suggesting and implementing positive changes. Last year they too called for the immediate resignation of Del Nero and the restructuring of the voting process that chooses CBF presidents.
Bom Senso are also looking to change how the leagues are organised. Brazilian football is split into two phases, with state championships from January to April followed by the national league from May until December. Because of this, players for top teams can play up to 75 games a year when cup games are factored in, whereas at smaller clubs that only participate in the state leagues players are redundant for eight months of the year.
They have already had some success in convincing the federal government to take action on another front. Brazilian clubs, as part of their huge debts mentioned before, owe approximately 3.7 billion reais to the state. Bom Senso FC helped implement an agreement that allowed for the favourable renegotiation of the payment these debts in return for the clubs agreeing to various conditions including stricter managerial guidelines and independent auditing.
Recently there have also been fan protests against the state football federations, the CBF and the media giant Globo’s control over the game. At several games this year fans of one of the country’s biggest and most politically active clubs, Corinthians, have been revealing banners saying that the CBF and the São Paulo State Federation are an embarrassment to football and accusing Globo of holding football hostage.
It seems that the desire for political change that has engulfed the country over the last years and months is also starting to have an effect on football politics. The Brazilian people are sick of years of corruption and dishonesty and have mobilised – albeit rather incoherently – against it. This increased mobilisation and demand appears to have initiated a process of change in all areas of public life, though the public pressure will need to continue for this process to be completed.
With movements like Bom Senso and the fans’ and journalists’ protests starting to have some effect, there is a small chink of light at the end of what previously appeared a gloomy and interminable tunnel. There is, however, a long way to go to fix the plethora of issues that need tending to.
It is abundantly clear that the crisis for Brazilian football runs far, far deeper than a few freak results, some horrific performances and dodgy management over the last couple of years.
The powers that be cannot continue to rely on the sheer numbers of talented youngsters, produced by a country so in love with the beautiful game, to keep digging them out of the many holes they have created.
Just like the political and economic systems of the country, the entire structure of football is broken, and until that system is overthrown and completely and utterly reformed Brazilian football will continue to rot from within.
By Joshua Law. Follow @JoshuaMLaw