Brazilian Club Soccer Has Fallen. Can It Get Up?

A dispatch from the unglamorous, unlovable, and largely unwatched Brasileirão Série A

It’s six o’clock on a chilly Saturday evening and Avenida Silviano Brandão in Belo Horizonte is almost deserted. The shutters of the used furniture stores that line the street are locked tight, and the few yellow and green Brazil flags that have survived post-World Cup flutter forlornly in the breeze. The cars move fast on the avenue, as if to say we are on our way to more interesting places than this.

It is hard to believe that on a sunny afternoon two weeks ago the world watched agog as Germany dismantled Brazil 7–1 at the Mineirão stadium just 10 or so miles from here. It is hard to believe, too, that in 30 minutes, a few hundred yards away at the Independência stadium, one of Belo Horizonte’s big two professional teams, Atlético Mineiro, will face Bahia, from the northeastern city of Salvador, in a Serie A league match. The World Cup is over, and the visiting teams and fans have gone home. But life in Brazilian club soccer—unglamorous, unlovable, and often largely unwatched—goes on.

By the time kick-off rolls around, only about 7,000 people of the 23,000 capacity have taken their seats. Or, rather, about 7,000 people are standing. It is an important distinction. The stadium was the scene of one of the greatest World Cup shocks ever when the U.S. beat England here in 1950. Then the Independência was rebuilt in 2012 and used as a training pitch at this summer’s tournament. But something went wrong during the planning process. The upper decks of the vertiginous stands require a safety barrier between each row of seats, and someone decided to place the top of the safety barriers at exactly the same height as the eye-level of a seated fan, meaning tickets bear the legend “restricted view” and anyone watching the game from the upper level of the stadium has little choice but to stand up. No one seems to mind, though. Brazilians like to watch soccer standing up. And it’s cheaper up here. Brazil is often like this: Things aren’t exactly the way they should be, someone will say, but it’s not the end of the world, is it? There’s not much point in complaining. Complaining won’t change anything.

This is Atlético’s first home game since the Brazilian league took a break for the World Cup back at the end of May. It should, in theory, be a celebratory occasion, with the fans welcoming back two bloodied but unbowed Brazil squad members, Jô and Victor, and the rest of the team. But there is often not very much to celebrate in Brazilian club soccer, which is trapped in a seemingly unrelenting crisis, financial and otherwise.

A hopelessly disorganized calendar forces the country’s big teams to play around five months of relatively pointless fixtures against minor local teams in the estaduais (state championships) between January and May, meaning the national league (the Brasileirão), the Copa do Brasil knock-out competition, and two continental tournaments, including the Copa Libertadores, won by Atlético last year, must be squeezed into the rest of the year, exhausting players and confusing fans. Every major club is effectively bankrupt (the country’s best supported side, Flamengo, is $340 million in debt, $170 million of which is owed to the government), and many are frequently unable to pay player salaries on time.

Fan violence is rife. There have been 234 (and counting) soccer related murders in Brazil since 1988 (30 last year alone), mostly the result of feuds between torcidas organizadas (organized fan clubs, or hooligan gangs, depending on your perspective). All the best players go to Europe. Only four members of Brazil’s World Cup squad (three reserves and lumbering striker Fred) were based locally. Ticket prices have increased 300 percent in 10 years, pricing out ordinary fans. The game is overseen by the CBF, the Brazilian soccer association, an organization that reeks of arrogance and cronyism, which last week appointed a former player agent, Gilmar Rinaldi, to oversee the country’s post-World Cup dawn. His first task was to nominate Dunga, deeply uninspiring as Brazil coach between 2006 and 2010, as the new manager of the Seleção. Amidst such chaos it is hardly a surprise that Brazilian fans are reluctant to stir from their armchairs or barstools and actually attend games. (The average top-flight crowd last year was 14,000, lower than Major League Soccer by 4,000.)

Those fans had barely enough time to catch their breaths after the splendor of the World Cup final before the Brazilian domestic season whimpered, rather than roared, back into life last week, with the Atlético-Bahia match providing the perfect example of why crowds are so low. On the previous Wednesday, Galo (the home team’s nickname, meaning rooster) played Lanus of Argentina in the Recopa Sul Americana (the annual game between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and its little brother, the Copa Sul Americana) final in Buenos Aires. The Recopa is not a particularly valuable prize, but that rarely matters in Brazil, where patience among fans is short and the job security of coaches is fragile. With the second leg of the final coming up in Belo Horizonte this week, manager Levir Culpi has decided to play a mixture of reserves and first-teamers against Bahia. The result is a horribly disjointed first-half display by the home side, although Galo improves in the second half.

Still, although the atmosphere among the fans is understandably muted, at least there’s music. A lively brass band hidden somewhere among the crowd tootles out Atlético’s rather Monty Python-esque anthem (“a strong and avenging rooster” runs the chorus) at regular intervals, and behind one goal, a small huddle of the club’s torcida organizada, Galoucura, hammer out pounding drum rhythms.

And then there are the fans themselves. As previously noted, patience is not considered a virtue among Brazilian soccer supporters. While there are a few throaty renditions of the aforementioned anthem at the beginning of the game, and the odd chorus of a lyrically unchallenging Galooooo, Galooooo, war cry, by about the 30-minute mark, the first boos start to tumble from the seats after another Atlético attacking move stumbles into a blind alley.

Booing, perhaps even more than cheering, is the vocabulary of the Brazilian terrace. As is swearing, mainly at either (a) the referee or (b) one’s own players or manager. The man in front of me, who is wearing a wooly Galo cap and a sleeveless Galo shirt, is very good at booing. He is also very good at swearing. Desgraça! he roars at Maicosuel, Atlético’s new signing from Udinese, who is not having a very good game. Filho da puta! he bellows at one of the Bahia players after a particularly robust challenge. Desgraça! and filho da puta! he screams at the referee after pretty much every decision that goes against Atlético. When Bahia take the lead through a header from muscular central defender Titi, his howl of anguish is magnificent—deep, ancient, and primal. Around him, small children reach fearfully for their parents’ hands.

Perhaps the man’s frustration is understandable. Bahia is the better team in the first half, pressing Galo back in its own half throughout. Luan! Luan! shout the fans at halftime, calling for a mop-headed young winger, who has been out injured for six months. Wisely, coach Culpi gives in. Suddenly, Atlético is more energized, and it is Luan who levels the score after 65 minutes. Then the game falls into a pleasant enough rhythm, with Galo doing most of the work and Bahia dangerous on the counterattack. When the final whistle blows, however, the man in front of me is not happy. Desgraça! he screams, seemingly at everyone, Filho da puta!

It may be that there is an underlying sadness beneath the man’s rage, a sadness that hangs across Brazilian domestic soccer like a storm cloud, a sadness that the game in the so-called país do futebol (“the country of soccer”)should be like this, populated by ordinary players, tiny crowds, and clownish, corrupt administrators. Things have become so bad, and the CBF so reluctant to change, that a player protest group, Bom Senso FC (“Common Sense FC”) has recently emerged, calling for a more sensible calendar and financial responsibility on the part of the clubs.

“Enjoy the game,” leading Brazilian sportswriter Paulo Vinicius Coelho encouraged fans before the UEFA Champions League final in May. “You’re a citizen of the world! It’s Brazilian soccer that isn’t!” Sadly for the fans of Galo and other Brazilian teams, it is a situation that seems unlikely to change any time soon. The World Cup has come and gone, but the Brazilian club game remains defiantly, underwhelmingly, the same.