Italia 90 tends to be remembered as a cultural checkpoint in English football. One year on from the Hillsborough disaster, fan safety was but one item on the agenda for change from 1990 onwards, alongside TV rights, sponsorship, advertising, transfer rule reforms, the Premier League and the Champions League. The turn of the decade unleashed a blaze of commercialisation in the game.
Over the last 20 years, Brazilian football has seen itself limp behind the pace of European football. Match attendances have slumped, clubs’ finances are in ruins, and now there seems to be no conceivable world in which the best Brazilian players play at Brazil’s best clubs: Brazil’s overall football landscape can only be rendered decadent, degenerate, and dire.
Qatar 2022 could be Brazil’s Italia 90 checkpoint.
From a business perspective, feelings about the future of Brazilian football have improved. The landmark SAF legislation, passed in 2021, has essentially allowed clubs to run as profit-based businesses (or PLCs) if they would like.
This has allowed foreign investors to stake their claim in Brazil’s clubs. Crystal Palace co-owner John Textor bought 90% of Seedorf’s legacy club Botafogo’s shares; Miami-based investment company 777 Partners bought 70% of the working man’s Vasco da Gama; Phenomenal Ronaldo returned to Belo Horizonte and purchased his first professional club Cruzeiro; Red Bull have pulled a vintage Red-Bull by taking nobody club Bragantino (now Red Bull Bragantino, obviously) all the way to the Libertadores. Meanwhile, City Football Group has been strongly linked to EC Bahia.
The legislation was introduced as a solution to Brazilian clubs’ extortionate debt levels, but the impact is clearly far more wide-reaching. Club owners now want to go one further, by taking ownership of the domestic league away from CBF and into the hands of the clubs themselves.
However, clubs across the pyramid are split over matters concerning revenue distribution, resulting in plans for two separate breakaway leagues, which set out to copy the Premier League model. Liga do Futebol Brasileiro (Libra) is being headed up by clubs such as Flamengo, Corinthians, Palmeiras and Santos, whereas Liga Forte Futebol Brasil includes clubs such as Atlético Mineiro and Fluminense.
Revenue may now also be generated through monetised fan engagement. Since sports betting was legalised in 2018, companies have rushed to setting up sponsorship deals with Brazil’s biggest clubs. A legal framework is yet to have been made so company licences have not yet been formalised, but there is little doubt that market potential in the country is astronomic. While this revelation for Brazilian football could generate unprecedented levels of extra revenue for clubs, companies, and the government through tax, fans’ back pockets could be depleted of any spare cash. And, interestingly, as the crypto crash has affected almost every Premier League club, cryptocurrency seems to have similarly slithered its way into Brazilian football through fan tokens and Mercado Bitcoin advertisements.
Some of these novelties in Brazilian football act to emulate European models. An imitation of European football within football business mirrors Brazilian clubs’ new obsession with hiring foreign managers, given the success of Jorge Jesus at Flamengo and Abel Ferreira at Palmeiras more recently. With Tite set to leave his post at the national team after the World Cup, there is some possibility that the CBF will appoint its first ever foreign manager, as polemic as that decision may be.
The Seleção heads into the World Cup in a broadly different light to the way they did in both 2014 and 2018. The lone messiah Neymar is now in the shadow years of his career, having seemingly passed his peak. Qatar 2022 could be his last World Cup.
This all comes as O Rei Pelé struggles for health. While recent books ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: The Inside Story of the Legendary 1970 World Cup’ and ‘1982 Brazil: The Glorious Failure’ by Andrew Downie and Stuart Horsfield respectively nostalgically reminisce on better times in Brazilian football, a recent interview by Oliver Holt with Zico sees Paulo Cezar Caju call the national team ‘too defensive’, saying ‘I haven’t rooted for Brazil for years’. 40 years since Brazil arguably fielded its best tournament side ever, the country’s footballing veterans seem to look on the state of play in some dismay. The likes of Vini Jr., Raphinha and Endrick, as he surges through the youth ranks at Palmeiras, are tasked with upholding Brazil’s international supremacy as memories fade.
Brazil’s women’s team has already entered its new life without Formiga and, at least imminently, Marta. Yet the progress of women’s football in Brazil is uninspiring, as low salaries and lacklustre investment means the game’s potential for growth is not being taken advantage of. Though the CBF were the first federation in the world to announce equal pay between men’s and women’s football at a national level, the shame of Brazilian women’s football is yet to be properly put right by authorities in the country.
Opportunities for football in the country extend beyond the 11-a-side game. Futsal and Beach “Soccer” have proven to be particularly popular in countries like Iran and Spain. Brazil’s dominance in either football spin-off has stalled, particularly since Falcão’s retirement from futsal, but there is no reason as to why Brazil cannot renew efforts to pioneer each game’s rise through creative methods and innovative strategies, such as through intercontinental collaboration in academies. Futevôlei (foot volleyball), frequently played by legends like Romário or Arsène Wenger, is but one more game to add to the list.
The revival of Brazilian football must be appropriately managed in the context of other social issues. Climate change is but one world challenge that Brazilian football should be seriously concerned about. In a country the size of a continent, it is unfathomable to imagine the size of the carbon footprint of football clubs as they travel across the country to play league matches. Richer Brazilian clubs will inevitably have a key role in similarly contributing to other national issues, such as hunger and education. From October, clubs will have to be prepared to work with the next president’s political regime, whatever that may be.
Significantly, social issues must be quickly resolved within the scope of the football world. Instances of homophobia have recently spiked, whereas the Brazilian media has recently covered various instances of racism through monkey chants. Fan violence too remains high in the country. CBF has promised ‘radical’ action to combat racism and matches have been previously suspended due to homophobic chants, but clearly more has to be done across the board.
Hope flickers on. TikTok star Iran Ferreira has captured the essence of football’s simple beauty, whereas viral streamer Casimiro represents Brazilians’ ability to evolve in ways one consumes football. As Qatar 2022 flogs nearer, a new age for Brazilian football awaits. The duskier times of the last 20 years could usher a new dawn for Brazilian football; it’s up for the nation to decide its destiny over the coming decade.
Thanks to the Clive Taylor sports journalism prize I was awarded by Geddes Trust, I will be spending the entirety of July and August researching different football stories. I hope to publish those stories. If you are available to help with my summer project as a foreign sports reporter, please do send me a message. Any advice you may have on journalism, Brazilian football, or anything else you would like to talk to me about for that matter, please send me an email on [email protected] or Twitter DM me!