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Football Reporting

Serie A

Fan unrest in Brazil serves as warning to Europe’s super league dreams

Some players in the Brazilian league may be relieved that games are being played behind closed doors at the moment, as it limits the opportunities that angry fans have to protest.

Even so, furious supporters can still gather at airports and training grounds, and it is not only teams at the wrong end of the table who can feel the force of the fury. Sao Paulo and Flamengo are the leading candidates to win the league table but, in the last few months, even players from these clubs have had abuse hurled at them or seen insulting slogans daubed on the walls of their training ground.

In part these are manifestations of an angry society. The old tourist myth of Brazil as a happy-go-lucky land of the contented has crumbled in the light of the political events of recent times.

But there is also something else, a factor intrinsic to Brazilian football, but something which should serve as a severe warning to those in charge of the European club game.

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Brazil is a country the size of a continent, a fact of geography with significant implications for the development of the game. For decades the transport infrastructure was insufficient for a genuinely national championship. Brazilian football, then, developed as a regional phenomenon. The focus was on the local. There were prototypes, but a national league only came into being in 1971. Until around 25 years ago, huge importance was still placed on the state championships, one for each of the 27 states which make up this giant country.

It was under this approach that so many clubs accumulated the titles and the prestige to be thought of as giants. The heartlands of the south east and the south — Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre — contain the acknowledged 12 giant clubs, a total that does not even include clubs from further north with mass support.

The last few decades have seen an important switch. Brazilian club football has moved from a regional to a national approach. The state championships still exist, but they have lost their shine. Their time has been cut back, and even so, they are viewed as tournaments which are now little better than unnecessary clutter.

This has led to a problem. Clubs are now aiming to win the national league or the domestic cup, or the continental Copa Libertadores. In a sporting culture that is obsessed with winning now that the state championships are an afterthought, there are simply not enough titles left for all of the so-called giant clubs to retain their giant status.

In a league that contains 12 giant clubs, someone is doomed to finishing no higher than 12th. And a club that consistently can aspire to nothing more than mid table mediocrity can hardly be called a giant.

Imagine the example of Botafogo. They supplied a succession of magnificent players to Brazil’s World Cup winning sides of 1958, 1962 and 1970, but they are now facing relegation for the third time this century. This is not a huge surprise. Their support base is comparatively small compared to that of their Rio neighbours Flamengo or even Vasco da Gama. In a national environment, when huge gaps have opened up in the amount teams are paid in TV rights, it is hard for Botafogo to be competitive. It is some time since they have gone into the league season with realistic hopes of winning the title — and that is a tough reality for those brought up on tales of Garrincha, Didi, Nilton Santos, Zagallo, Amarildo and Jairzinho.

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The transition from regional to national is one guaranteed to breed supporter insatisfaction.

Now let’s apply this to the hopes of some of Europe’s big clubs to set up a continental super league.

The parallels are very clear — it is just a case of imagining Europe as a single country and of seeing the national leagues as akin to Brazil’s state championships. And indeed, some of Europe’s leagues are already becoming like the state championships: Losing prestige as they lose competitiveness, becoming more predictable as financial chasms open up. A continent-wide super league would start with, say, 20 clubs, all of which would go into the competition with giant status, based on the fact that they win most of their games.

But in a 20 team league, someone has to finish 20th, and 19th, and so on. And a club which is losing the majority of its games is soon fated to lose its giant status, and be an intense disappointment to generations of fans who have grown up on titles and glory.

A European super league, then, would seem fated to please a few at the top, and prove a major source of dissatisfaction to everyone else.

The behaviour of fans in Brazil serves as a warning.

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