James Young on the game of thrones currently taking place in Brazil.
Though neither is renowned for their analysis of Brazilian football, both Alphonse Karr and Jon Bon Jovi hit the nail squarely on the head. Those hoping that an Arab Spring style wind of change might rush across the country’s footballing landscape following the self-imposed toppling of that great autocrat, Ricardo Teixeira, are likely to be disappointed. The handover of power to José Maria Marin has been more Fidel passing the baton to little brother Raul than epoch defining sea change.
Age is the first obstacle to the reform that is so desperately needed by Brazil’s potentially powerful, but underperforming, domestic game. Teixeira was 64 when he abdicated the throne. José Maria Marin is 79. The campaigning voice of today’s younger generation he most certainly is not. But his advanced years have helped him in at least one respect. The dubious democracy of the statutes that govern the Independent Republic of the CBF state that in the event of the exit of an incumbent president, his place will be filled by the oldest vice-president, namely Sr. Marin. Age before beauty, indeed.
The nature of the selection process itself caused minor ructions amongst Brazil’s individual state federations, and there was briefly talk of a “musical chairs” style solution, with the post being rotated amongst the organisation’s five vice-presidents. Since then, a number of states have opposed Marin’s mandate, including Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, all calling for fresh elections.
Meanwhile, the country’s top clubs have in general proffered guarded approval, and talked of respecting the protocols of the CBF. Behind the scenes, however, a watching brief has been adopted, and some club presidents will see the fragility of Marin’s position as an opportunity to demand reform.
“It’s time for change,” said the president of Atlético Parana, Mário Celso Petraglia, soon after Marin took the reins. “Our football is a wreck. Teixeira fattened the CBF at the expense of the clubs.”
It is an opinion that is hard to dispute. Brazilian domestic football is in a chaotic state. In a country with a population of close to two hundred million people, most of whom live in large urban centres close to the stadia of the leading clubs, Serie A average crowds hover around a puny 14,000. Despite the recent much trumpeted club-by-club TV deals and improved marketing awareness, teams are, generally speaking, financially unviable, and remain saddled with crippling debt. The calendar is a mess, squashed by the engaging but terribly overblown estaduais, leaving no room for international breaks or an anticipation-building interval before the start of the Brasileirão in May.
At the same time, the CBF and its deadening hand remains the governing body both of the Seleção and the national championship. And during the Teixeira era, the clubs grew steadily more impoverished while the CBF became as rich as Midas.
There are a number of reasons why the subject of positive change has rarely made it onto the agenda. One is the indolence and arrogance demonstrated by Teixeira during his 23 years in power. Another is the cronyism inherent in the relationship between the CBF and the state federations. Of the 47 votes in the organ’s electoral college, 27 go to the states, while 20 are held by the clubs that currently form Serie A. To ensure a strong power base, he who would be president must trade Seleção friendlies and other favours for votes from the state federations. It is a political environment becoming to deal making and fiefdom building, not reform and improvement.
If Brazilian football is to make the improvements necessary for its enormous potential to be realised, two things must happen. Firstly, the CBF needs to become a more effective and accountable governing body, and secondly, a streamlined, progressive-thinking union of clubs needs to emerge to govern the national championship.
The former depends a great deal on Marin, who must bring far greater transparency to the organisation and reduce the role of the state federations in the administration of Brazilian football (a tricky task, given Brazil’s entrenched federalist culture).
The second will depend on some cool-headed negotiating and a sense of common purpose among Brazil’s leading clubs. This may be asking a lot. The previous attempt at a breakaway sect, the Clube dos 13, formed in 1987, quickly revealed itself to be little more than a self-serving clique, with member clubs voting to keep their local rivals on the outside looking in. It was dissolved recently, riven by parochial disputes such as that between São Paulo and Flamengo over the Taça das Bolinhas, the trophy awarded by the CBF to Brazil’s first ever five-time championship winner.* It remains to be seen whether Brazilian clubs would be able to demonstrate greater maturity and togetherness as part of a new, improved Clube.
“The vanity of the clubs is a handicap. There has never been solidarity,” Flamengo and Brazil legend Zico has said on the subject.
Yet back in Cuba, despite Raul’s lack of instant reforming oomph, subtle change is creeping through society, sin prisa, pero sin pausa (slowly but steadily). And while José Maria Marin is no one’s idea of a buccaneering rebel leader, it may be that similar subtle change is coming to the corridors of the CBF.
For Marin is a glad-hander and a populist, for whom the warm opinion of others is of considerable importance. Somewhat different to the rampaging anti-publicist Teixeira, who once famously, and mockingly, said “caguei, caguei de montão,” (“I shit a pile”), when asked by a Brazilian magazine if he was at all concerned by charges of financial wrongdoing.
Events at Marin’s first round of meetings a couple of weeks ago demonstrated this. On the Monday, he spent over an hour with journalists, laughing and answering questions. He also spent time with the presidents of the twelve Serie A clubs from outside of the Rio-São Paulo axis, promising them that his door would always be open. He even, remarkably, found time to address Brazil’s chronic refereeing problems, reforming the referees’ commission, and announcing that goal line assistants and radio communication would be introduced.
Though there were still a few signs of the old cronyism. Marin, whose first few hours in office back in March were marked by the discovery of a video clip showing him pocketing a medal meant for a young Corinthians player during the award ceremony of this year’s Copa São Paulo de Juniores, anointed Flamengo president Patricia Amorim as the leader of the women’s football delegation to the forthcoming London Olympics. Delfim Peixoto Filho (president of the Santa Catarina Football Federation) was handed a similarly cushy role as leader of the men’s delegation. Both are Marin pals and supporters, Peixoto Filho having made the headlines last year when he banned anti-Teixeira protests from football grounds across Santa Catarina.
At the same time, the announcement will not have gone down well with former Corinthians president, and now head of the CBF’s selection committee, Andrés Sanchéz, who had previously said that such roles were unnecessary. It can also be assumed that neither Amorim nor the President of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, will have been entirely thrilled with Marin’s comment that at least the Flamengo boss “wouldn’t have to do any cooking” for the team when she was over in London (British cuisine being viewed with some disdain by Brazilian palates).
Still, the general feeling was that love was all around. And one victim of this new found tenderness may just be Seleção coach Mano Menezes. Under fire following last year’s Copa América debacle and recent uninspiring friendly performances, he no longer has the indestructible Teixeira (seemingly oblivious to public or journalistic opinion, as the cagão comment shows) as an ally. Marin is more eager to win public approval, even going so far as to state recently that he no longer speaks to Teixeira, “not even to say happy Easter.” And in Brazil, there are few surer ways of doing that than by firing an unloved manager.
As is usually the case after the removal of an unpopular, autocratic leader, there was widespread jubilation following the departure of Ricardo Teixeira. That jubilation has turned to sobriety now that the gravity of the challenges facing the Brazilian game is becoming clearer. It appears that in the short term at least, José Maria Marin may be a more palatable el president than his predecessor. It remains to be seen whether he has the stomach for the political machinations that will be required to bring about wider, long term reform.
* The dispute is between São Paulo, who won their fifth title in 2007, or Flamengo, who won theirs in either 1992 or 2009, depending on where you stand on Brazilian football’s never-ending story, the tale of the 1987 Brasileirão. Flamengo and Sport of Recife have disputed ownership of the 1987 title for many years, after Sport won the module amarelo (yellow module) half of the league, and Flamengo won the module verde (green module) half, with Flamengo then refusing to play Sport in a play-off final, officially giving the title to Sport by W.O.
James is a regular contributor to IBWM and World Soccer, among others. He can also be found on Twitter @seeadarkness.