To paraphrase the famed English volante Carlinhos Dickens, it was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. The season of vacas magras (“skinny cows,” or hard times) is upon Brazilian soccer, and it shows no sign of ending soon.
Pride, optimism and hubris had allowed a blind eye to be turned to the on-field decay, but in truth, things have been on the slide for years. That legend of the 1970 World Cup, Tostão, who now writes a column for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, said recently that Brazil had not produced a world-class midfielder in 20 years. At the same time, and just as seriously, the weevils eating away at country’s ramshackle infrastructure have been vividly exposed.
There was the calamitous performance in the 2014 Copa Libertadores, where despite the massive financial advantages Brazilian soccer enjoys over the rest of the continent, not one team from South America’s most populous country made the semifinals. Then there was a certain afternoon in July, when a taut, well-honed German side boiled all the hysteria, jingoism and passion of Brazil’s World Cup campaign down to a single inconvenient truth – the country could no longer claim to be one of the world’s great soccer powers.
The depths of the clubs’ monetary woes are staggering. The Folha de São Paulo recently reported the country’s 12 biggest teams owed the federal government $580 million in taxes, and the majority of clubs have struggled to pay player wages on time at some stage over the last few seasons. Relegated Botafogo failed to pay its players for over three months last season and still owe Brazil goalkeeper Jefferson (above) around $800,000, while a number of players at Santos have rescinded their contracts after going unpaid.
This climate of instability has undoubtedly hastened the exits of a number of top players. First of the recent departures was Cruzeiro forward Ricardo Goulart, one of the league’s top scorers in 2014 and player of the year in a number of polls. Goulart went to Guangzhou Evergrande for $17 million, the highest transfer fee ever paid by a Chinese club. A few days later, it was the turn of Diego Tardelli, Neymar’s current partner up front for the Seleção, who left Atlético Mineiro for Shandong Luneng, where he will be paid a reported $385,000 a month, after taxes.
The exodus from Cruzeiro has continued, with defensive midfielder Lucas Silva snapped up by Real Madrid for $17 million. Forward Everton Ribeiro, the Brasileirão player of the year in 2013, is also seemingly on his way out, with Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates the favorite for his signature, despite a late flurry of interest from Milan. The picture is no cheerier down in Rio, where 2012 league title winner Fluminense has unofficially declared a fire sale after breaking with main sponsor and financial backer Unimed. Star Argentinian midfielder Dario Conca is another player on his way to China.
Silva aside, none of the above transfers are to traditional hotbeds of the global game. Part of that is a reflection of the talent on offer. Tardelli is a curious player, undoubtedly gifted and highly modern, but he is coming up on 30 and has had a checkered career. Goulart is fast, powerful and an effective finisher but not blessed with an abundance of technical ability, while Everton Ribeiro is skillful and quick, but a little one-dimensional. None of the above are likely to make anyone forget Neymar or even Lucas Moura, and with all but the top clubs in the biggest European leagues operating in reduced financial conditions these days (plus other factors, such as unrest in the Ukraine, long a reliable purchaser of Brazilian talent), the list of clubs wishing to buy Brazilian is limited.
But push factors convincing players to leave Brazil are arguably as strong as pull factors drawing them to their new clubs. Before his move, Tardelli (above) said the state of Atlético “left a lot to be desired for the players” and the club’s directors hadn’t “kept their word” – a likely reference to unpaid salaries and bonuses. While the Cruzeiro players have not suffered the same problem in recent seasons, chairman Gilvan de Pinho Tavares has admitted the club paid wages late this month, explaining “we have no income in January (the Brazilian offseason), so it’s difficult.” It was also recently revealed that the assistance of a local supermarket chain was required to complete a recent signing, that of Uruguayan midfielder Giorgian De Arrascaeta.
And there are plenty of other push factors, many of which the Bom Senso FC (“Common Sense FC”) players’ union has helped force into the spotlight. The country’s preposterous schedule, for example, which sees teams spend months playing in state championships, has long frustrated players. The estaduais mean players can play over 70 games a season and leaves no room for international breaks. In October, Tardelli played for Brazil in Singapore on a Tuesday morning, then flew home to play for Atlético in an important Copa do Brasil tie the following evening.
Violence is another issue. Scenes such as this ruckus between potential Arsenal signing Gabriel Paulista and fans of his former club Vitoria are common. In February, disgruntled Corinthians supporters invaded the club’s training ground and physically threatened staff and players, while Brazil striker Fred spent much of last season protesting against the threats and intimidation doled out by the club’s torcida organizada group (fan club or hooligan gang, depending on your interpretation).
With players departing in droves, clubs have looked to the rest of the continent to fill the gaps. Despite the debt mountain, the salaries paid by Brazilian clubs dwarf those in the rest of the continent. When at Atlético-MG, Ronaldinho earned the same as the entire team of Paraguay’s Olimpia, the club’s opponents in the 2013 Copa Libertadores final. Now, Atlético will seek to replace Tardelli with Argentinian striker Lucas Pratto (above, right), while Cruzeiro have signed the aforementioned De Arrascaeta (a standout in last season’s Libertadores with Defensor of Uruguay) and Chilean defensive midfielder Felipe Seymour. No matter how well the imports perform, however, as long as Brazilian soccer continues to lose its best players to soccer “backwaters” (as China and UAE are generally seen by local fans), their success can only ever paper over the cracks.
A glimmer of hope may be on the horizon, however. Long cocooned by historical and geographical isolationism (the country’s very size, and the fact that it is the only Portuguese speaking nation in a continent of Spanish speakers) and its achievements on the field, Brazil’s found it easy to ignore the changes in the global game. “What can the gringos teach us?” was the chorus from the CBF (the Brazilian FA) and large parts of the media when the half-hearted campaign to hire a foreign coach such as Pep Guardiola ended with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s appointment in 2012 (a scenario which was more recently, and even more insipidly, reprised during Dunga-gate).
The 2014 World Cup changed all that. Brazilians could see how far their soccer had been left behind. Worse, once the visiting teams and fans had gone home, those fans were left with the Brasileirão. “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,” wrote Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most respected sportswriters, last year. “[W]e’re just kicking the ball backwards and forwards,”
There’s a growing sense that fundamental change is necessary, and that such change will clearly not come from the decadent CBF or from corpulent club chairmen. That feeling has given strength to groups like Bom Senso, and was perhaps even a factor in Ms. Rousseff’s decision to rebuff those chairmen this week. If it is darkest before the dawn, as the cliché goes, a new day for Brazilian soccer can’t be far off.