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SPORTS | 11-10-2019 08:00

Brazilian football is on the road to self-destruction

A conspiracy of blunders and malfeasance by professional football’s elite handlers has squandered talent and left Brazil's cherished national institution in shambles.

If football is a religion in Brazil, a prayer might be in order.

A conspiracy of blunders and malfeasance by professional football’s elite handlers has squandered talent and left the cherished national institution in shambles. As a result, Brazil’s signature sport has suffered a drought of trophies (Brazil’s last World Cup title was in 2002), empty bleachers and abandoned stadiums, not to mention the dreaded “foot drain” that sends the game’s most promising players abroad in their prime.

Without thorough reform, the football system that put ballet on grass and captured five World Cups with marquee stars from Pelé to Ronaldo is headed for an international reckoning and almost certain insolvency.

Yet because Brazil is also a nation of believers, an elaborate rescue is in the works. Several plans to overhaul professional football are circulating in the Brazilian legislature. Leading advocates include President Rodrigo Maia of the National Congress and celebrated filmmakers and philanthropists, the brothers Walter and João Moreira Salles. Redeeming professional football won’t be simple or cheap – not least because of the sketchy bunch at the top.

Profligacy and flawed governance

This year, FIFA, football’s world governing body, banned former Brazilian football boss José Maria Marin from the sport for life following his conviction by a US court for taking bribes and fixing tournament media and marketing contracts. His alleged fellow miscreant, former head of Brazilian Football Confederation Ricardo Teixeira, dismissed accusations by international investigators that he too helped himself at the trough on grounds of Brazilian exceptionalism. “Is there any safer place than Brazil?” Teixeira famously told a reporter. “You know everything they accuse me of abroad isn’t a crime here.”

Still, corruption is a symptom of the wider profligacy and flawed governance encoded in Brazilian managerial culture. More than just another probe into the football underworld, what the national sport needs is a good shot of capitalism. The drive now is to convert the recreational associations that control football into businesses run by professionals who are committed to transparency and parsimony, follow rules instead of passions, and are held to account for bad calls or bad faith.

Fair enough, you might say. But the suggestion that Brazilian football needs professional help sounds almost ludicrous. After all, how many countries can boast Brazil’s record as an incubator of football talent and value? No other nation exports as many players: Brazil “expatriated” 832 footballers in 2018, for a net haul (that is, subtracting payment for imported players) of US$384 million (€348 million), according to the Central Bank.

All told, the top 27 teams raked in some 5.1 billion reais (US$1.37 billion) last year, according to an Itaú BBA report on football finances.

Yet because football is managed by amateurs and beholden to transient boards elected every four years, bad practices and opaque dealings prevail. Gauzy rules allow club directors, tellingly known as top hats, to use teams as cash machines and stumps for vanity projects. The Series A league that is the industry’s top money-maker has racked up some R$3.1 billion (US$825 million) in debt. “Many teams are on the brink of financial collapse,” says Itaú BBA analyst Cesar Grafietti.

Telling metrics

One telling metric is the turnstile for coaches. Barely a week passes without one team manager being shown the door even as the next is hailed as a saviour. I once foolishly mistook such hyper-mobility for meritocracy: deliver results or pack your duffel. In fact, it’s a metric for dysfunction.

Brazil’s top clubs fired 10 managers in the last three months alone. Rewind a decade, and the record is more alarming: The top 20 Series A teams have swapped coaches 472 times since 2011, three times the rate of the leading clubs in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The constant shuffling has devalued the national brand; once-coveted Brazilian managers have lost their luster in Europe.

Behind the firing frenzy and player trade is a failed management model. When a team starts to lose, club bosses sensitive to media and fan pressure, and with an eye on re-election, do anything to save the season, often raiding the team coffers for ringers they can’t afford. No wonder even the best-known clubs with huge fan-bases are broke.

And when the bills pile up, the top hats plunder the roster: Club receipts from exporting players have grown from 12 percent to 20 percent of total earnings since 2014, Itaú BBA reported. Trading players is a normal practice in professional football. But in Brazil it’s become a way to keep the lights on and pay monthly bills.

“It’s a vicious circle,” said Rio de Janeiro sports attorney Vantuil Gonçalves Junior. “Hire stars at exorbitant salaries and, when you can’t meet operating costs, you sell off athletes, only to contract others.”

Time bombs

The ruin is not recent. In 1998, with most teams staggered by debt, Congress signed a law sponsored by former football great and then-sports minister Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelé, to force tax-exempt, money-losing clubs to turn into for-profit businesses. But like many unpopular initiatives in Brazil, the Pelé law didn’t stick. Only repeated subsidies, debt amnesties and the occasional gesture by angel lenders have saved Brazil’s amateurish football from itself. Special mention goes to house speaker Maia, who once telephoned a top Justice Ministry official to expedite working papers for a Chilean midfielder to suit up for his favourite team, Botafogo.

Such headline-catching brinkmanship only encourages indolence, as hired club managers with no financial skin in the game rack up debts in pursuit of seasonal glory – or to avert an on-field disaster – and then leave the debt bomb to explode in their successor’s hands. Hence the Brazilian saying: “in football, the club’s money belongs to no-one.”

The current reforms want the buck to stop in the clubhouse. That means carrots (debt restructuring) for the willing, sticks (fines, penalties) for the incompetent, and the law for cheats. Most European leagues and even neighbouring rivals like Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico have already made the transition.

Going corporate won’t automatically revive failing clubs. But it may just help Brazil avoid the run of own goals on its most hallowed patch.

Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for 'Newsweek' and is the author of 'The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.'

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