The game went ahead on Wednesday night in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. But in the build up to the second-leg quarterfinal Brazilian Cup tie, there was a risk that Gremio would not take the field to face the local heroes Flamengo.
This would have been a disappointment to a large TV audience. And also to a few thousand fans inside the stadium — but they were the source of the problem. Because up and down the giant country, clubs are still playing behind closed doors.
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Mass vaccination has helped to bring the coronavirus pandemic under relative control. A daily death toll of around 600 is still horrific. But it is a considerable improvement on a few months back, when up to 4,000 a day were losing their lives. It is a question of time, then, before supporters are back in the stadiums.
But there are obvious complications in a country the size of a continent. Brazil is divided into states. Based on their own local circumstances, the health authorities in different regions have the right to move at their own pace. Fans could be cleared to return in some states, and locked out in others. This would clearly have an impact on the sporting integrity of the game. Clubs playing in front of their own fans would surely have an unfair advantage.
And so last week a meeting of the first division clubs decided that, for the time being at least, fans could only come back when they were cleared to return all over the country. The decision was unanimous. All 19 clubs agreed. But there are 20 teams in the first division. Rio giants Flamengo declined to attend.
As far as they are concerned, this is not a decision to be taken by Brazil’s FA or by football clubs. If the local health authorities agree, then that should be all that matters. They have gone to the courts and won the right to stage three home games with fans. On an experimental test basis, they can sell 35% of the stadium capacity — and at the first opportunity, there were a few thousand in the ground to watch them on Wednesday.
From the point of view of their opponents, this was clearly unfair. Three weeks ago Gremio had no supporters in their stadium in Porto Alegre for the first leg. So to them, it was not right that Flamengo could do it now.
In truth there was little chance that Gremio would carry out the threat of not turning up to the game. Flamengo won the legal battle. Gremio would lay themselves open to sanctions. And anyway, their protest was largely symbolic. After losing the first leg by the crushing 4-0 margin, they had no realistic chance of making it through to the semifinals — confirmed when Flamengo won the second leg 2-0.
But that does not mean that the issue is going to go away. Flamengo and Gremio are due to meet again in the Maracana on Sunday night in league action. It is the second game where the hosts have the right to have fans cheering them on. And this time Gremio will fight harder to stop them.
Sunday’s game is in the Brazilian Championship, which now moves into its second half. There is plenty at stake. Third placed Flamengo are fighting to retain their title. Gremio, meanwhile, are third from bottom, in the relegation zone. They have got off to a disastrous start, and are scrapping for every point available — and disputing any contentious point that might work to their disadvantage.
Gremio and sixteen of the other clubs are pushing for the entire round of the weekend to be postponed. The sports tribunal are due to debate the issue of fans in the stadium next Thursday. Until then, argue the clubs, the championship should be placed on pause. In time this particular conflict will blow over. Before long supporters will be welcomed back. A peace formula will be found — for this issue.
But new disputes will surely emerge. There has been much talk of late of the idea of a Brazilian Super League. As it stands, the championship is organised by the CBF, the local football association, who impose on the clubs a calendar which is clearly not in their best interests.
There is much to be said for the idea of the country’s most prominent clubs organising their own competition in similar fashion to the English Premier League, which would clearly have enormous potential. But such plans have a huge obstacle to overcome — the problems that Brazilian clubs have working together.
There could be significant changes in the next few years, with the possibility of a business structure replacing the current mode of organisation, where the teams are social clubs, with the president elected by the members. First, such changes are not a panacea — as Chilean football has discovered. Second, it will prove very difficult to change a culture of administration rooted in populism, where one of the easiest ways of playing to the gallery is to treat rival clubs as enemies rather than opponents and business partners.
The current Flamengo administration, for example, appear to see their mandate exclusively in terms of what is best for their club in the short term rather than the long term interests of Brazilian football as a whole. Their huge fan base gives them a political power which seems to make it possible for them to go their own way, and to force their will on the rest of the game.
This stance is highlighted by the club’s absence from last week’s meeting. If they can gain co-operation from the Rio health authorities, then why should they care what happens elsewhere? It is not a mentality that gives great optimism for the project of a Brazilian Super League. If the clubs are to organise their own championship, there must be give and take, there must be patience and the collective spirit must prevail.