It is the most intoxicating time of the season, when the step quickens on the way to the stadium, or the beer sipped on the couch seems all the colder: the postseason in Major League Soccer; or, it’s the final stretches of league seasons in other parts of the world. While the big European championships are just getting started, the seasons in one of soccer’s most fabled churches, Brazil, and in one of its burgeoning hotbeds, the United States, are reaching their climaxes.
At first glance there should be little comparison between the Brasileirão and MLS. The former is the dominant sporting competition in a country with a rich soccer heritage stretching back to the Brazilian game’s first superstar, Arthur Friedenreich, El Tigre, in the 1930s. Soccer dominates the sporting landscape in a country of 200 million people, with legendary clubs such as Corinthians and Flamengo boasting around 30 million fans each. Brazil may be struggling to reach the heights of its own glorious past, but its production line continues to churn out talent. Seventy-six Brazilian players are registered to play in this year’s UEFA Champions League, second only to Spain.
MLS, on the other hand, is just 19 years old and is populated by teams with names which are still faintly comical to the rest of the world (Real Salt Lake?). Despite much recent progress, soccer remains overshadowed by the other big three professional leagues (the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball). Quality of play is never easy to measure, but the fact that Bradley Wright Phillips, a journeyman striker in England, is this season’s top scorer is not a tremendously optimistic sign.
Encouragingly for U.S. soccer fans, but troubling for Brazilians, the two leagues have more in common than might be imagined, both good and bad. And remarkably, MLS is in some respects in far better health than its southern equivalent.
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The comparison begins in the stands. While MLS recently announced this year’s average crowd was a robust 19,149, the Brasileirão continues to struggle to pull in the fans – the result of awkward kick-off times, expensive ticket prices, an overcrowded schedule, a fear of torcida organizada (fan clubs or hooligan gangs, depending on your perspective) violence, and a fickle fan culture where supporters only turn up when their team is winning or for big games.
This year’s average league crowd in Brazil stands at an underwhelming 15,774, nearly making a lie of the stereotypical image of terraces heaving as fans sway to the rhythm of the samba drums. The Seattle Sounders’ average attendance of 43,734 is some 15,000 a game higher than its Brazilian equivalent: São Paulo, watched by 28,110 a match.
Another area where MLS scores highly compared to the Brasileirão is financial management. While MLS’s single entity model and salary cap creates considerable frustration, not least in terms of low average player salaries and movement, the situation is surely preferable to the financial chaos that swirls around the game in Brazil.
Brazilian soccer is effectively bankrupt. According to last year’s report by sports marketing analyst Amir Somoggi, the country’s top 20 teams are an alarming $2.12 billion in debt, much of which consists of unpaid taxes and other government payments. If the tax laws that shut down Scotland’s Rangers in 2012 were applied in Brazil, not a club would be left standing.
As Brazilian clubs effectively operate as societies and not businesses, however, they remain largely immune to legal punishment, something which fails to address the lack of money in the game. Hardly a week goes by without players of one team or another complaining that they have not received their wages. Crisis hit Rio de Janeiro Serie A club Botafogo, for example, currently owe their players three months’ salary. And it remains to be seen what effect the promised FIFA ban on third-party ownership has on Brazilian clubs, many of whom depend on selling off “slices” (percentages) of their promising young players to pay the bills.
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In other areas, the two leagues share the same grumbles; or, different grumbles about the same issues. While MLS fans can ruminate about their overly long off-season, Brazilian soccer faces the opposite problem. The estaduais (state leagues that were historically the cornerstone of the club game in Brazil, but which today are increasingly archaic, forcing big teams to play meaningless games against tiny local rivals) take over the calendar from January to May, leaving just six months in the second half of the year to squeeze in the Campeonato Brasileiro, the Copa do Brasil, plus continental competitions such as the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana.
Such is the resulting fixture chaos that Brazilian soccer, like its northern counterpart, is unable to take a break on FIFA international dates, forcing clubs to lose key players for important games. This explains why Atlético Mineiro striker Diego Tardelli recently flew home to play for his club in a key game against Corinthians some 36 hours (including a 30 hour flight) after playing for Brazil against Japan in Singapore.
Turning to on field matters, Brazilian clubs and journalists make much of the fact that unlike the closed shops of La Liga or the EPL, the Brasileirão is a competitive, open competition. In the last five years the title has gone to four different clubs, and there are usually up to six legitimate challengers for the trophy.
That does not, however, mean Brazilian soccer has created some kind of democratic, egalitarian sporting paradise. The big clubs in Brazil are as financially dominant in a local context as their rivals in Spain or England, but a combination of their historic debt mountains, financial mismanagement, the hot-headed, impatient hiring and firing of coaches (a recent survey by the Mexican publication El Economista showed that the average Brazilian manager stayed in the job for just 15.2 games – the equivalent figure in MLS, the most patient league in the survey, was 88.4 games), plus the talent drain to Europe, tends to level the playing field. The result is that Brazilian clubs usually stumble, rather than sprint across the finishing line, as is the case with league-leading Cruzeiro at the moment. Visibly tired, the defending champion has won only three of its last nine games.
The net result often makes depressingly poor viewing. “Show the quality of the (Brazilian) championship to a German or a Spanish fan and they’d say that we aren’t playing football here, we’re just kicking the ball backwards and forwards,” wrote Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most respected sportswriters, last year. Needless to say, such criticism has grown in intensity since Brazil was destroyed 7-1 by Germany in July. Those looking for o jogo bonito these days should try Madrid or Munich, not Rio or São Paulo.
Similar quality issues dog MLS. Financial probity and the salary cap limits the ability of clubs to attract top players, youth development is not cohesive, and the playoff system, which sees half of the league’s clubs qualify for the post season, arguably promotes mediocrity alongside sporting socialism.
Interestingly, until the beginning of the pontos corridos (a round robin, points-based league system) era in Brazil in 2003, the league title was also decided on a playoff system. More than a few Brazilian fans, when the league race becomes too one-sided, pine for the good old days and moan that a points-based system just isn’t as exciting.
Both leagues also face a threat from over the water in Europe. While the televisual behemoths of the UEFA Champions League and El Clásico are possibly a greater threat to U.S. soccer, they may also soon spell trouble for Brazil. The country’s recent economic and social development has seen a huge swell in the Brazilian middle classes, eager to spend their money on cable TV packages and tune into the adventures of Messi, Ronaldo, and the rest. The resulting comparison with the local product does Brazilian club soccer no favors. “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!”
Brazil’s mauling at the hands of Germany, coupled with the U.S. national team’s hardworking, if technically limited World Cup campaign, made the case that the two sides are arguably as close as they have ever been on the pitch. In terms of the two nations’ domestic games, it may not be long before MLS surpasses its more storied counterpart.