Saturday, 11 December 2010

A virada de mesa

On Monday, the who’s who of Brazilian football gathered in the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro for the traditional curtain-closer to the Brazilian season, the Prêmio Craque do Brasileirão. Basically it is an awards ceremony, the player of the year (or Prêmio Craque) is announced, as are various other awards like manager and team of the year. Furthermore, the ceremony sees the first time the Brasileirão trophy is presented to the champions of that year.

This year’s edition belonged to Fluminense. Not only did the 2010 champions receive their third Brasileirão trophy in their long history, but midfield talisman Dario Conca was chosen as Prêmio Craque and Craque da Galera (fan’s player of the year), while manager Muricy Ramalho scooped the manager of the year award. However, not everyone was cheering for Flu.

Taking to the stage as part of his team’s centenary celebrations, Corinthians president Andrés Sanchez took the microphone and delivered a speech that seemed to be congratulating the Rio de Janeiro club. However, his words soon changed the mood amongst the audience. Here’s what he said:

“Quero parabenizar Fluminense, Coritiba e ABC, que foram campeões. Eu sei o que é cair para a Segunda Divisão, porque eu caí com meu time. Mas tenho orgulho de ter voltado a Primera Divisão pela porte da frente.”

Roughly translated, this reads: “I want to congratulate Fluminense, Coritiba and ABC, who were champions. I know what it is to fall to the Second Division, because I fell with my team. But I am proud to have returned to the First Division through the front door”. Now, those with knowledge of Brazilian football over the last fifteen years would recognise right away that this was a direct dig at the club in the spotlight Fluminense.

The sounds from the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro were truly superb. At first there was a collective (and somehow audible) cringe throughout the audience, the cameraman then focused on Corinthians left back Roberto Carlos, who had by now adopted a hilarious facial expression of complete surprise (see picture). Soon after a group of Fluminense supporters sitting in the upper tier began chanting “Sem ter nada” (meaning “having nothing”, a popular chant directed at Corinthians this year, a play on the word centenário (centenary), it refers to Corinthians being without any trophies this year, and without owning their own stadium.)

Roberto Carlos pulling the classic "arse-clencher" pose.

Now, even though this untimely slur smacked of sour grapes, and perhaps a little too much cerveja, what Sanchez said wasn’t untrue. So here’s a (hopefully interesting) history lesson about the bizarre story of Brazilian football in 2000, and the Copa João Havelange…

Before we get to 2000, we need a little background on Brazilian league football up to that date. From the 1970’s all the way up to 2001, the format of the league was constantly changing. These changes included some bizarre rule introductions, constant alteration of the number of teams in the top flight, and one year they even tried to do away with tied games.

This particular story starts in 1996, and our current champions Fluminense finished the season in 23rd position in the league of (at the time) 24 teams. This meant Flu were to be relegated, something that was unheard of in Brazil, a big team being relegated into the second tier. What followed were debates and arguments behind the scenes, resulting in the decision that 1997’s Brasileirão was to contain 26 teams, conveniently allowing Fluminense to avoid relegation and remain in the top tier.

The CBF were pretty happy with themselves, until the end of the 1997 season, where Fluminense managed to finish second from bottom once again. This time, not even the dodgy dealings of the CBF could save Flu, and they were relegated, eventually finding themselves in the Third Division by 1999.

The CBF were presented with yet another problem in 1999. As another measure to try and avoid large sides being relegated, they introduced a relegation system similar to the one used in Argentina (in Argentina clubs are relegated based on their cumulative performances over three years). This didn’t work as well as the CBF would have liked, because soon afterwards another Rio de Janeiro side Botafogo fell into real danger of relegation.

Near the end of the season Botafogo lost a match against São Paulo, in which it was later revealed that the Paulista club had fielded an ineligible player, Sandro Hiroshi. Botafogo contested the result in the Sports Supreme Court of Justice (STJD), and bizarrely they were awarded the points for the game. This brought Botafogo out of the relegation zone, and sent smaller side Gama down to Série B. Naturally outraged at the STJD, Gama took the case to the civil courts, who granted them the right to stay in the top division. Then to further complicate things, with clubs not being allowed to contest issues in the common justice system, FIFA stepped in and banned Gama from all competitive leagues.

Oh Sandro Hiroshi. Who knows what would have happened had he not lied on his birth certificate.

Ok so are you still with me? The CBF now had a major headache to contend with, FIFA had banned Gama from being included in any national league they organized, but due to civil court ruling, Gama had to be included in the top division by law. What followed was arguably the largest virada de mesa in Brazilian football history, and this is what Sanchez was referring to in his speech on Monday.

The heads of the most influential clubs in Brazil, a group known as the Clube dos 13, got together and created their own one-off national league; they called it the Copa João Havelange, named after the Brazilian former FIFA president. The Clube dos 13 took all 116 league clubs (including Gama), and split them into three ‘modules’. Essentially this gave them the freedom to put whoever they liked into the top division. So into the highest module, the ‘Blue Module’, went the teams of the previous Série A campaign (including Gama), and funnily enough, Série C’s Fluminense.

The Copa João Havelange was played out in haphazard fashion, with uneven fixtures, ending with a final between Vasco de Gama and São Caetano. Vasco eventually won that tie 4-2 on aggregate after a controversial two legs featuring violence and crowd trouble, but that’s another story. As the year 2000 ended, the CBF announced that they would revert to the original Campeonato Brasileiro format (if there ever was an original), and that all teams who contested the Blue Module would form the 2001 Série A, ‘to avoid legal disputes’. How convenient.

Nowadays it seems that the days of radical change in the Brazilian leagues are over, the CBF have established a stable and popular format, gaining viewers from all around the world. This obviously meant that when Corinthians were relegated to Série B for 2008, they had to make their way back the ‘honest’ way, winning the second tier at a canter to return to Série A for 2009. Or rather in the words of Sr. Sanchez, they had to do it pela porta da frente.

I hope you found this interesting, and if you are looking for some further reading in regards to the history of Brazil’s constantly changing championships, check out Marco Aurelio Klein’s Futebol Brasileiro, it’s also full of loads of invaluable stats and reference from Brazilian football history.