Brazil’s north and northeast are forgotten lands on the country’s soccer map

On Sunday, Dec. 7, as the sun dipped below the horizon of Brazil’s sprawling, African-influenced city of Salvador, fans of the area’s two big teams were experiencing a similar sinking feeling. With time running out on the final day of the Campeonato Brasileiro, both Vitória and Bahia were mired in the Serie A relegation zone. A few minutes later, the season was over. Both sides were down. Their relegation meant only one team from Brazil’s north half would be in next year’s top flight. Sport of Recife would be the lone representative for a region of 56 million people.

Not that such struggles are anything new to the soccer teams, or people, of Brazil’s norte and nordeste, regions that are often visibly distinct from country’s more prosperous south and southeast. “The northeast is different,” wrote Peter Robb in his glorious description of Brazilian culture and history, A Death In Brazil. “The past is present in the northeast. Rio and São Paulo destroy as they grow, but walk down certain streets in a northeastern city and you might be in the 1940s. There is the cream painted curved art deco cinema … there are the lean men with hats over their faces, asleep on the tray of a beat up old truck.”

Beneath such sepia-toned romanticism, however, lies a cruel, harsh reality. The nordeste is Brazil’s most deprived region. According to a 2011 study, 9.6 million people live below the Brazilian government’s definition of extreme poverty ($30 per month), while a more recent report found that the northeast is home to 52 percent of Brazilians who claim Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian government’s basic welfare program.

But in recent years, after decades of neglect, the nordeste has seen major economic growth and improvements in the quality of life of its people, mainly due to programs like Bolsa Familia, an increased minimum wage, and greater government and private investment. Any such benefits, however, are yet to reflect on the region’s soccer clubs.

Sport Recife v Fluminense - Brasileirao Series A 2014

Never has Brazilian soccer seen quite such a pronounced southwards tilt. Next season 18 of the country’s 20 top flight clubs will be from either the southeast (which covers Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) or the south (the states below that: Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul). Only Sport and Goiás, from Brazil’s midwestern flatlands, break the southern dominance.

Not that the sporting hardship of the north and northeast of Brazil is a recent development. Teams from the nordeste have won the Brazilian league championship only three times in the competition’s 55-year history – Bahia in 1959 and 1988, and Sport in 1987 (though the validity of this last title is viciously disputed by Flamengo – a story of Kafkaesque tedium and futility). When Sport lifted the Copa do Brasil in 2008, it was the first time a team from the nordeste had won a major title in 20 years.

While major teams from the southeast such as Corinthians, São Paulo, and Flamengo dream of winning the Copa Libertadores, those from the north and northeast often have lowlier ambitions. In three of the last five years Remo, one of the two big clubs from Belém, a city near the mouth of the Amazon River, has failed to qualify for even Serie D, the bottom tier of Brazil’s national championship. Yet according to market research surveys, Remo has around 1.5 million supporters.

There are plenty of good reasons why clubs from the norte and nordeste cannot compete with their rivals from the south. The most obvious is financial. Despite often pulling in large crowds, the straitened circumstances of the urban areas around them means that ticket prices in northern Brazil, and therefore gate receipts, are by necessity a fraction of what they are in the south. The same law of diminishing returns applies to sponsorship packages and other commercial activities. As a result, the wage bills of nordestino teams are dwarfed by the bigger clubs from the south and southeast.

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The financial divide is underpinned by another harsh fact of life for soccer in the north – the nationwide support enjoyed by clubs like Flamengo, Corinthians and Vasco da Gama means that very often teams from the norte and nordeste are not even the most popular clubs in their own states. Early radio broadcasts of matches of teams from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the vast backland regions of the north, from where even local state capitals could often feel as remote as France, captured large audiences. The practice continues today, with the giant Globo network supplying a steady feed of Flamengo games to the parts of regions where local soccer is weak. It is only in the capitals of the bigger northeastern states such as Recife, Salvador and Fortaleza where local clubs can offer any resistance. Whenever a Corinthians or Vasco comes to town, the visiting supporters end often covers at least half the stadium.

This, in turn, reflects on the money on offer from the TV companies. While in 2016 Corinthians and Flamengo will both make 170 million Brazilian real a year, Sport will be paid 35 million real.

Much nordestino optimism was invested in the gleaming new World Cup arenas that were built in northeastern cities such as Recife, Salvador, Fortaleza and Natal for last summer’s World Cup. The stadiums would result in greater revenues for the clubs, ran the theory, and bring about a modernization of the game in the region. But with Sport preferring to play the majority of its home games in its own Ilha do Retiro stadium — not the Arena Pernambuco — none of the new venues will be the permanent home of a Serie A club next year.

“Regional inequality exists all over the world, and it is often reflected in soccer,” says Sylvio Ferreira, chairman of the board at Santa Cruz, one of the three major teams in Recife. “In Brazil, there is economic inequality and prejudice between one region and another, an imbalance in economic development and concentration of wealth. And it is not just financial – in soccer the southeast dominates politically, and in the media too.”

Ferreira should know. Santa, the first club in Recife to field black Brazilians and as a result has come to be known as the city’s time do povo (“people’s team”), has endured remarkable levels of suffering in recent years.

The future had seemed bright in November 2005, when 70,000 fans (a conservative estimate) squeezed into the swaying concrete bowl of the Arruda stadium to see Santa, close to two titles in the late 1970s, beat Portuguesa 2-1 to clinch promotion back to Serie A after a four-year absence.

But the club was relegated after a single season, and again a year later, this time from Serie B to Serie C. In 2008, just for good measure, the club went down again, this time into Serie D, which hadn’t even existed the season before. After that, Santa would spend three years in Brazil’s bottom rung, pulling in average crowds of 40,000 in 2010, before finally escaping from the abyss in 2011. The team was then promoted from Serie C to Serie B in 2013, with 63,000 watching the deciding play-off win at Arruda. The club is currently in the second division.

Nonetheless, Ferreira is upbeat about the future of Santa, and the nordeste in general. “The philosophy of the club now is to make the most of its brand, and to break the habit of feeling sorry for ourselves all the time,” he says. Teams from the north and northeast have been swept off the map of Brazilian soccer. In a globalized world, the clubs have to find creative, inventive ways to valorize their brands to tackle this situation.”

Photo credit: RECIFE, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 23: Fans of Sport Recife cheer before a match between Sport Recife and Fluminense as part of Brasileirao Series A 2014 at Arena Pernambuco on November 23, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Renato Spencer/Getty Images)

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