In the underground boardrooms of the Hilton Hotel in São Paulo, Brazil’s top lawyers and businessmen convened for a two-day conference discussing the future of Brazilian football. Sports betting, fan violence, and NFTs were among the central items on the agenda for discussion at the CONFUT event, yet two words were almost certainly mentioned in every lift and every hotel corridor conversation: ‘SAF’ and ‘league’.
SAF is the latest legislative reform in Brazilian football which has recently allowed football clubs to become PLC enterprises; the mention of ‘leagues’ relates to the “inevitable” and imminent prospect of clubs breaking away from CBF to create a Premier League-type competition. These changes to the structure of Brazilian football will have a long-lasting impact on the ‘país do futebol’.
Though executives disagree over models to copy from Europe’s top leagues– given the two current rival league organisations proposed, ‘Libra’ and ‘Liga Forte’– there is a unanimous consensus that revenue levels in Brazilian football could more than treble over the next decade. There was a strong sense of optimism about the future of Brazilian football over the two days of CONFUT.
The economically liberal approach to reforms in football governance offers the country the opportunity to start anew, but it equally leaves Brazilian football more vulnerable and prone to falling for traps that European football previously fell for. As the likes of Gabriel Lima, CEO of Cruzeiro, and Carlos Amodeo, CEO of Gremio, emphatically pointed out, success will only come if these changes to football systems are properly administered in a cooperative way.
As I see it, there are five main challenges Brazil’s domestic football will need to overcome in order for it to excel: Rules and Regulation, Stadia, Geography, Calendar, and Quality.
Rules and regulation
A theme of CONFUT was to praise pre-existing European models of rules and regulation.
UEFA’s Financial Fair Play model was lauded in one talk by Carlos Aragaki of BDO Global. Graphs demonstrating the improving health of football finances in the continent constructed the argument that Brazil should first copy Europe and later adapt where necessary.
However, UEFA is now revamping its current FFP model, tackling late payments and cost control. The current systems in place are imperfect.
Furthermore, a gulf between “super clubs” and the rest of the football landscape in the continent saw 12 clubs make an attempt at producing the “Super League”. The overall detriment of financial sustainability across football clubs and the weakness of regulatory bodies is clearly concerning.
The damage to the football pyramid in England has resulted in the formation of an independent regulator, which will regulate finances, new owners, and core fan interests within the next parliamentary year.
Brazilian football must be proactive.
Financial fair play is firstly crucial to stop clubs from piling on the debt. CONFUT’s different speakers rightly agreed that new rules and regulations must ensure that sources of revenue are transparent and overspending is limited.
As of 2021, Brazilian football’s total debt stands at over R$11bn, equivalent to £1.6bn, so financial fair play rules will surely have to address the complex problem of debt repayments. Laws will have to clarify SAF clubs’ contribution to debt repayments and what other debt repayment processes in transition from debt to equity; as it stands, many of these laws are still partly dubious under the current terms.
If one there is one good thing about Brazilian football, it is its competitive balance, with 6 clubs winning the league over the last 10 years. The same cannot be said of European leagues. Any new rules should preserve this balance.
What seems most imperative of all for Brazilian football, then, is for any regulatory body to be robust. UEFA and other European bodies have been defunct in this aspect on many recent occasions. A number of allegations have been made against Manchester City, for example, but they have escaped severe punishments. In an ongoing court case brought forward by the Super League clubs (Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid), UEFA and FIFA have been accused of “conflict of interest” in being both tournament organisers and regulators. Such kinds of complications are already under question as multiple different courts of justice hold cases involving football clubs in Brazil.
Questions of ethics behind club ownership and commercial rights have also come into play recently. The case of Newcastle United with regards to “sportswashing” and the retraction of sports betting from shirt sponsors are but two key topics which have struck English football. In fact, the example of sports betting bodes an interesting comparison to Brazil, where the fairly recent legality of sports betting in the country means the industry is yet to fully take the Brazilian football world by storm.
Without proper and effective regulation amid the influx of investment, the new look of Brazilian football risks damaging the interests of not only investors or owners, but managers, players, fans, and other key football stakeholders. As Fred Luz, the former CEO of Flamengo FC and important consultant on various reforms, told me when I asked what mechanisms for due diligence are in place in Brazilian football, “we need to have three things: diligence, responsibility, and humility”.
Brazil’s football stadiums are inadequate. Mud patches on football pitches and lighting failures make for unpleasant viewing. Fan violence and homophobic chants discourages thousands of football fans from going to the grounds. Gentrified renovations to some stadiums like the Maracanã have equally rotted Brazilian football fandom’s essence and soaring ticket prices exclude millions of people from attending matches. The abundance of empty seats in football stadia unquestionably weakens the brand of the game in the country.
As at least two separate panel events at CONFUT highlighted that Brazil has a serious trouble with impunity. The laws are there, claimed lawyer José Francisco Manssur, but the state does not currently have the correct apparatus to arrest and charge offenders. Physical violence and verbal abuse (such as homophobia) has become the norm in Brazilian football; more effective measures must be implemented in education and policing.
Fans who attend Brazilian football matches do not sit in allocated seats, but rather stand in self-selected areas of the stadium with friends. It would seem sensible for stadiums to better divide stadiums according to needs, such as add safe standing rails to some sections and oblige seating in other areas for better inclusivity.
In the wake of the construction of several brand new World Cup stadiums and Allianz Parque or MRV Arena, Brazil’s football stadiums have the chance to ensure stadiums are inclusive and accessible, while also protecting heritage standards and quality levels.
In 2021 alone, Palmeiras played 91 times. The club competed in the state competition, the national league, the Copa Do Brasil, the Libertadores, and the Club World Cup. 6 other clubs played over 80 times. Liverpool played 63 games in the 2021/22 season for comparison, and calendar issues are similarly a grave issue in Europe as well. Paulo Calçade of ESPN called the current calendar structure “criminal”.
While more games may mean more money, more games also inevitably means more injuries, more tiredness, and greater dilution of excitement. Less training hours also makes for worse football matches. It is time for clubs to be decisive about what games are deducted from the football calendar.
State championships may appear to be the strangest and most out-of-date competition, despite its long history in Brazilian football. The Brasileirão league structure seems to overwhelm football clubs, though it mirrors the models of other leagues around the world, whereas the Copa do Brasil and continental competitions congest calendars and add more travel, in spite of their popularity. One possible solution may be to incorporate, for example, the state championships into a wider Copa do Brasil format.
Brazil’s land fits all of non-Russian Europe, its annual average temperature is one of the hottest at over 22 degrees celsius, and Portuguese is only the ninth most spoken language in the world. All of these geographic factors greatly impact the growth of Brazilian football both domestically and internationally.
It seems inconceivable that week-in-week-out clubs must travel hundreds of miles up and down the country to play league or cup matches. Needless to emphasise, travel only worsen fatigue levels and exponentially increases carbon footprints. An NBA-style division between the north and south of Brazil, for example, could help lessen fatigue levels and maintain a competitive balance across the country.
Kick off times must also be sensible, and take into account the needs of footballers just as much as the needs of its audience. 11am is a farcical choice for a kick off time in hot regions of the country, though this can often be the case.
Significantly, if Brazilian clubs wish to become global brands, they will have to establish a greater prevalence of foreign languages, specifically English and Spanish. For instance, like in the Champions League, some players or managers alike should be prepared to speak languages other than Portuguese at post-match interviews.
At one panel event titled “The Quality of Brazilian Football”, ESPN pundit Renata Ruel criticised the quality of refereeing in the country, as well as the lack of respect shown to referees when players crowd and abuse them. She also highlighted how disciplined drills from a young age limit creative potential. From referees to managers to players, standards of Brazilian football are increasingly stagnant and deficient.
Domestic football is so often dull to watch. Game intensity in Brazilian football seems a far cry from that of European football; tactical organisation is poor; the cycle of managers shifting between clubs is unstimulating; multiple stoppages time-wasting disrupt the viewing experience. Brazil’s cultural and structural issues must urgently be addressed over the next decade.
And of course, there is the idyllic world in which Brazil’s best players play in Brazil. Should Brazil substantially improve the standard of club management and other institutional matters, the country may succeed in keeping all of its talented exports who leave for Europe and other continents.