Why the end of this year’s Brazilian Championship was so unsatisfying
The Brazilian Championship ended Sunday. I’d love to be able to write a gushing post about what a great end the tournament had. Unfortunately, people in power in Brazilian soccer (and my stubborn insistence on knowing things and not forgetting them) ruined it for me. So here’s a warning: if you don’t want to see the filthy underbelly of Brazilian soccer, don’t read the rest of this post. I will make another post soon running down some of the good things about the 2010 Brazilian Championship, but this one contains some really ugly truth.
You were warned.
In a previous post, I mentioned that my favorite club team played Fluminense, one of three teams with any chance of being champ, in the next-to-last round of the Brazilian Championship this year, and that even though my team had nothing to gain or lose from the last few rounds, and even though one of the other two teams with a chance of winning the championship at that point was my team’s arch-rival, Corinthians, I really wanted my team to beat Fluminense. Many fellow fans of my team wanted Corinthians not to win the title, and were even rooting against their own team in the final games (we played Cruzeiro, the other team with a chance, in the final round) just because it might cost Corinthians the title. It may be at least in part because I’m a foreigner, but I just don’t hate Corinthians. But that’s not why I was hoping my team would at least beat Fluminense. I was hoping that because in this case, my sense of justice trumped any club rivalry. Let me explain why the final result of the Brazilian Championship’s Série A ended up being so unjust and, in the end, truly shameful for Brazilian soccer. In order to do so, we have to start by talking about some things that happened over a decade ago.
In 1999, Fluminense Football Club, one of the “big four” in Rio (Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama) and a member of the “Clube dos Treze” (“Club of Thirteen”), an organization of the most powerful teams in Brazilian soccer (now well beyond thirteen members, but the name has stuck) performed well enough in Brazil’s third (yes, I said third) division to rise to the second. So in the next edition of the Brazilian Championship, Fluminense was to play in the second division. In order to return to the top level, it would be necessary to finish the next “brasileirão” (Brazilian Championship) in one of the top positions in the second division. Obvious, right? Not in Brazil, especially when big teams from Rio are involved.
In 2000, the CBF, basically controlled by the same people as the Club of Thirteen, decided not to hold a Brazilian Championship. Instead, the Club of Thirteen decided to hold its own invitational tournament with four modules named for the colors in the Brazilian flag: blue, yellow, green, and white.
The Blue Module was the top level. It consisted of 25 teams: the 20 that would have legitimately participated in the first division of the Brazilian Championship, plus five other teams. Those five were América of Minas Gerais (there are teams called América in a few states), Bahia, Fluminense, Gama, and Juventude. I’m guessing the reader already sees where this story is going.
The Yellow Module was basically equivalent to the second division of the Brazilian Championship. It was made up of 36 teams: the 20 that would have legitimately participated in the second division of the brasileirão, minus the five mentioned above (cough, cough), plus an additional 21 teams invited by the Club of Thirteen, with the CBF supposedly giving its recommendations to the Club of Thirteen.
The Green Module and White Module were meant to be roughly similar to the third division of the Brazilian Championship, and if you think about it, you’ll realize how unrealistic that was, given the number of teams involved. The Green Module consisted of 28 teams from the north, northeast, and “midwest” regions of Brazil. The White Module consisted of 27 teams from the south and southeast regions of Brazil. The total number of teams in the top three divisions that year was 116. FIFA eventually got Brazil to standardize to 20 teams per division each year, but in 2000 there were almost twice as many teams as there should have been in the top three levels.
The whole tournament was a joke. Even as we watched the games, my friends and I criticized the stupid format and the outright dishonesty used to pull Fluminense out of the toilet, even if it was only for this tournament. You see, the justification used for putting Flu in the Blue Module was that the Copa João Havelange was NOT the Brazilian Championship, and so the Club of Thirteen was free to invite whatever teams it wanted to participate in whatever way it wanted. None of the rules of the Brazilian Championship had to apply. That’s not a hard fact to remember, and yet the Club of Thirteen, the CBF, the Brazilian media, and especially Fluminense expect Brazilian soccer fans to forget it.
I mentioned the stupid format. Allow me to go into some detail about just how stupid it was. I’m going to be honest here: I did not remember the details of the rules for each module and the playoffs. I had to go and look it up on Wikipedia. And you are welcome to do so, because when you read my description, I suspect you might think I’m making up the rules. It is with great sadness that I assure you they are completely real.
The Brazilian Série A, like so many other nations’ first division (due to FIFA efforts to standardize, I believe), now consists of 20 teams. Everyone plays everyone home and away, so there are 38 rounds. But even a quick glance at the composition of the four modules in the 2000 Copa João Havelange reveals that that format wouldn’t work. Imagine the 70-round tournament the Yellow Module would have had to play! And in a module with an odd number of participants, like the Blue and White Modules, somebody has to be off each round. What a mess.
After each team in the Blue Module played every other team once (half at home, half away, leading to grousing about easier and harder schedules), the top 12 qualified for the final phase, which would involve teams from all three levels.
The Yellow Module was split into two groups of 18 teams, within each of which each team played each other team once. You’ll notice that teams in the Yellow Module had even more reasons for grousing about unfair schedules and such than those in the Blue Module. The top 8 from each half of the Yellow Module advanced to the Yellow Module’s second phase, in which the 16 teams were narrowed down to a single Yellow Module champ by standard four-round playoffs (Round of Sixteen, Quarterfinals, Semifinals, Final and Third Place match).
The Green and White Modules were each broken into four groups of seven teams, except for one in the White Module that had six. It really does sound like the set-up for an elaborate joke, doesn’t it? Everyone played everyone home and away within each group, and the top three teams in each group qualified for the next phase. That phase, in both the White Module and the Green Module, consisted of three groups of four teams. Within each group, everyone played everyone home and away. The top team in each four-team group qualified for the third phase, as did the best second-place team. I swear I’m not making this up, and the only reason I’m not skipping a lot of the details is to emphasize how ridiculous the whole tournament was.
The third phase in the Green and White Modules mixed the two modules together. The eight teams were broken into two groups of four. Within each group, everyone played everyone home and away, and the top team from each group advanced to the two-game (home and away) fourth phase, the winner of which got to participate in the final phase of the Copa João Havelange with the “bigger” teams.
The final phase had sixteen teams participating: the twelve top finishers from the Blue Module, the top three from the Yellow Module, and the champ of the Green and White Modules. The final phase was set up in a standard four-round playoff format. The national consensus favorite emerged as São Caetano, a second-division team, got all the way to the final. Even so, the final ended up being worthy of the rest of this embarrassment of a tournament. After the first game, held in São Caetano, basically part of the São Paulo megalopolis, ended in a 1-1 tie, the funny business began. Eurico Miranda, then president of Vasco da Gama, insisted on moving the second leg of the final-final-final from the Maracanã to Vasco’s São Januário stadium in Rio. Just over 32,000 tickets were made available, but eyewitnesses on the day of the game reported many, many fans entering the stadium without tickets. The stadium was quickly overloaded.
It’s important to note that there was a rule that if one team’s fans were responsible for preventing a game from being finished, then that team would automatically lose the game, no matter what the score at the time of interruption. During the game, a fight broke out in the overfilled stands. Masses of people pushing each other around ended up breaking iron bars meant to divide different sections, allowing people and heavy objects to fall. Many Vasco fans ran on to the field, mostly to avoid being trampled or otherwise hurt. Many were hurt anyway. The referee correctly stopped the game. Eurico Miranda came on to the field to try to negotiate a deal either to play the rest of the game some other time or to end the tournament right there. After two hours, with injured people still being treated on the field, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro officially declared the game over. Under the rules of the tournament, created basically to benefit one of the members of the Club of Thirteen in Rio (Fluzinho), another member, Vasco, should have been penalized and São Caetano awarded the points for the game, making São Caetano the champion. But the Club of Thirteen and the Brazilian media have no shame, and so they simply decided to ignore the rules of their already stupid and shameful made-up competition and schedule a make-up game for early 2001, and never mind that some players on both teams only had contracts through the end of 2000, so the second leg of the final would be played by different teams than the first. In the end, everyone in power basically did everything they could to hand the title to Vasco, and they were successful. Vasco won the make-up game 3-1 and was named champ. And the saddest thing is that ten years later, things really aren’t any better.
You see, in 2001, the CBF started holding the Brazilian Championship again. And “mysteriously,” there was Fluminense in the first division, despite never having earned promotion from the second division of the Brazilian Championship. And Fluminense, never having been back to the second division it never deserved to leave, won the Brazilian Championship’s Série A this year. That title is at least as stained and shameful as Vasco’s title from 2000, which Vasco now claims as a Brazilian Championship title. I say Flu’s fresh title is shameful because as I stated above, the whole justification for putting Fluminense in the Blue Module of the Copa João Havelange was that the CJH was not the Brazilian Championship, and putting Flu in the Blue Module was not the same as putting Flu in the first division of the brasileirão. But then Flu was magically returned to the first division the next year, and we were expected to either forget or pretend we forgot that Flu was only in the top module of the CJH because it wasn’t the Brazilian Championship. Got it?
I was very pleased to see that I am not the only person who remembers this. The other night, at the awards ceremony for the Brazilian Championship, Corinthians president Andrés Sanches said “I want to congratulate Fluminense, Coritiba and ABC, who were champs (Mark sez: of the Brazilian Série A, Série B, and Série C, respectively). I know what it is to fall to the second division, because I went down there with my team. But I am proud to have returned to the first division through the front door.” This statement was considered very controversial. For reasons I can’t fathom, Fluminense fans were present at the awards ceremony. I think such a ceremony should be a quiet affair and that fans’ access to it should be indirect, through television and other media. Not wanting to hear the harsh truth that their team didn’t even deserve to be in Série A, much less be its champ, the Flu fans present at the ceremony vigorously booed Sanches. But did Sanches say anything untrue or unfair? Of course not. I’m sure he was bitter over the fact that just a couple of weeks ago, Corinthians was leading Fluminense, but let the title slip away, but that does not diminish the absolute truth of what he said.
When Palmeiras and Botafogo were relegated in 2002, the two finished first and second in the Second Division in 2003 and thus earned their return to the First. When Corinthians was relegated in 2007, it executed an outstanding campaign in Série B in 2008, not losing a single game in 38 rounds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team that deserved readmission to the first division more than Corinthians in 2009. Even Vasco, when it was sent down in 2008, did not cheat to return to the top level. It rolled up its sleeves and played well enough in 2009 to deserve promotion. Every one of these teams has been robbed by Fluminense, as has every fan of Brazilian soccer. The integrity of every Brazilian Championship since the shameful Copa João Havelange has been ruined.
As I stated in my post about Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Brazilians frequently say they can’t stand the corruption in their country. They say they don’t like corruption in the government, in business, in law enforcement, and in soccer. And yet they continue to tolerate it. The result is shameful pseudo-titles like that of Vasco in the Copa João Havelange and the completely illegitimate title Fluminense just took home. It’s too bad too, because there were some good things about this Flu team, things I’ll mention in a later post. If Flu had just returned to the top level of Brazilian soccer by legitimate means, I would be able to see a lot of good things in this title. But the way things ended up happening, I’m just disgusted and disappointed.