It was, of course, 30 years ago that the major clubs in England united to form the Premier League, with all the consequences this has had for the world of football. Less well remembered is that Brazil’s clubs tried something vaguely similar five years earlier — but their attempt, which did not last beyond 1987, was a damp squib. But the time has come — and is almost certainly long overdue — for Brazil’s top clubs to try once more.
The potential for a breakaway top-flight division, operating independently of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CFB), is huge. There is money on the table to help turn it into reality — but it will not be easy to achieve the degree of cooperation necessary for such an endeavor. Meetings have taken place and more will follow.
At this stage the major rift is economic — disputes over how the money will be divided. Six clubs — Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo plus the five first-division outfits from Sao Paulo (Corinthians, Palmeiras, Sao Paulo, Santos, and Red Bull Bragantino) — have proposed a structure and have set a meeting for Thursday. Another 23 clubs, 11 of them from the first division, have a different proposal, and want to meet on Monday.
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The first group proposes a financial split of 40-30-30; 40% of the money to be split equally, 30% according to sporting criteria, and the other 30% on market grounds. The second group proposes a division of 50-25-25. Even if figures are agreed, there is still plenty of scope and details for conflict. How should the criteria for the sporting and market division be agreed? How great should be the difference, for example, between the amount paid to the team finishing first and the side who come last? Should the best receive six times more than the worst, or should the split be at most three-and-a-half times, with a view to a Premier League-type figure of 1.6? And how should the “market” figure be defined?
Criteria include stadium attendance, social media followings, participation in free-to-air TV matches, revenue from streaming and paid TV, and size of a club’s support based on an opinion poll. How should all of these things be weighted?
Getting an agreement on all of these aspects will not be easy in a country where the clubs have more frequently looked upon one another as enemies rather than business partners. For decades, the teams have been run as social membership clubs, where the president is an elected position and squabbling with local rivals goes down well with the electoral base. But now, new business practices are coming in — Brazilian legend Ronaldo (Cruzeiro) and Crystal Palace’s majority stakeholder John Textor (Botafogo) are now club owners — but it is tough to change a century of culture.
And, whatever the model, there will inevitably be conflict between big clubs who want to maintain their advantage, and smaller teams who argue that the only way they can grow and compete is with a more equitable division of revenue. At the moment, then, the headlines are all going to the economic disputes. But if a “Brazilian Premier League” is to fulfill its potential, then it must become something far bigger and better than a mere distributor of revenue.
A fully fledged league, one capable of bringing about Premier League-type consequences, must do much more. It must, for want of a better word, take care of the overall product. In recent times, it is probably just as well that the Brazilian top-flight division does not count on a massive global audience. People would almost certainly be disappointed with the standard of the spectacle.
True, it would be unfair to expect a similar level of intensity to that of the top European leagues. For much of the year the climate makes that a tough one — and the sheer size of the country forces players into epic journeys that are unthinkable in a domestic league in western Europe.
There are, however, many areas of possible improvement. The quality of the pitches leaves much to be desired. This is an area that the English Premier League worked hard to improve, and one in which Brazil can surely do likewise. A better pitch makes for a much quicker, better game. As it stands, many Brazilian games are slowed down both by the pitch and by overfussy referees. Improving the officials and giving them a proper professional structure is another task that a mature league would have to take on.
But here there is an elephant in the room, which everyone at the moment seems to be doing their best to ignore. There are too many games in the Brazilian season, some of them meaningless. Brazil’s calendar is a constant quest to try to fit three liters into a bottle constructed for two. This is because of the state championships — one for each of the 27 that make up this giant country.
These tournaments are of immense importance to the history of the Brazilian game — the lack of travel infrastructure meant that a genuinely national championship did not fully come into play until 1971. But they have now outlived their usefulness, and largely survive for political reasons. They are played at the start of the year, from mid-January into April. They force the giant clubs to waste their time against tiny opposition, and their existence kills off the glamor of the start of the national league.
And they make no economic sense — apart from in Sao Paulo, the country’s wealthiest and most populous state. Unlike other places in the country, cities in the Sao Paulo hinterland are sufficiently wealthy to aim at supporting reasonably sized football teams. This, then, is a state championship that makes sense. The state’s biggest clubs see it as giving them a competitive advantage, and would not want to see it go.
How can this circle be squared? One of the consequences of a fully fledged league would be a year-long competition, with no space for the state championships that are currently constituted. But will the big Sao Paulo clubs go along with that? It is inconceivable that a league could go ahead without the likes of those four mentioned. The current hope is that the new league project will put so much money on the table that all concerned will find a way to forget their differences. But there will have to be a lot of meetings — and a fair few headaches — before that will happen.