Public perception (or at least Sky TV) would have you believe that the people of Brazil were filled with excitement at the prospect of a game against Italy. Sky Sports dubbed it a ‘mouthwatering’ clash, not to be missed. Gilberto Silva described it as ‘a massive game.’ Of course although it is a friendly, the ingredients are always there for an exciting encounter – high calibre players, two hotbeds of football, perennial World Cup rivals.
But in Brazil, if you were to ask people about their national team, the Seleção, and the game at the Emirates Stadium against Italy, many would be rather more ambivalent about the whole affair than you might expect. The dirty paws of the Brazilian Football Confederation, outside influences with private interests and the Disneyfication of the national team have all seen to that.
When last year I spent some time in Brazil, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Colombia at the Maracana stadium. Clearly, being a football fanatic, I was overjoyed.
The opportunity to mix with some of the most passionate fans in the world, in their own stadium, watching their own national team in a place that many consider the adopted home of football, was too good to miss. So after I secured my ticket I was keen to share my enthusiasm for the upcoming game with other Brazilian football fans. I spoke to many supporters prior to the match with an air of exuberance, clearly believing that anyone I spoke to would share the same passion for the green and yellow of Brazil.
I was wrong.
The enthusiasm for the Brazilian national team in its current state was far milder than I had anticipated. Though many were as ebullient as one might expect, many others were unconcerned, not at all bothered about the game or the team. Some even went as far as to say, incredibly, that they did not care about Brazil, or wanted them to fail. This sentiment was embodied by the fact there were over 20,000 unsold seats for a World Cup qualifier against Colombia, despite it being one of Brazil’s first games in Rio de Janeiro for years.
So why is it fans are becoming indifferent to a team that, traditionally, is very close to their hearts?
The CBF sellout
Well, the main reason is because of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and the way in which it has manipulated the national team in order to suit its own private interests and the interest of unrelated external parties.
The CBF is a private organisation, assigned to take care of the crown jewels of Brazil – its football team. As a private institution though it can handle its affairs however it sees fit, despite being responsible for something as important to Brazilians as their national team.
Handling business in a manner that suits them and them only is something the CBF are often seen as being only too willing to do, and consequently it has grown a reputation as a rather corrupt organisation. Pele himself went on record to allege as much in an interview in 1993. Between 1997 and 2000 for example, the CBF quadrupled its revenue but did not clear its debts. This despite directors, including president Ricardo Teixeira, receiving a payrise of over 300%. In the same period, spending on football decreased from 55% of the budget to 37%. Something there is not right.
Fans in Brazil feel that those in charge of the national team, the CBF, are abusing their position and exploiting the country’s footballing prestige and international renown for financial gain. The resulting bitter taste has left fans apathetic and even scornful about their national team.
Commercialising the Brazil ‘product’
Take the Brazil vs Italy friendly as an example. The game came about as a result of negotiations between a Swiss sports marketing agency called Kentaro, a Russian renewable fuel company (Renova) and ART TV, an Arabian TV network.
Kentaro own the rights to Brazil’s friendlies and have organised games as far-reaching as Sweden, USA, Germany, France and of course Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, where Brazil are playing for the fourth time. Conversely, between 2000 and 2007 not a single Brazil friendly was played in Rio de Janeiro. You can understand Brazilian fans’ frustrations.
Kentaro joint-CEO Philipp Grothe tried to explain away the deal, arguing ‘it is a compromise to the big clubs that players do not have to fly across the Atlantic, there are Brazilian fans all over the world, and it is impossible to generate the same revenue in Brazil.’
Despite his fumbling for legitimate excuses, the key idea there is the last one – revenue. According to the Brazilian media, the CBF receives somewhere in the region of $1.5 million per game from Kentaro. Which is enough money, it seems, for the organisation to be able to simply ignore its own people.
The allure of the Brazilian national team is clear. People worldwide associate Brazil with football as it should be played. They embody the beautiful game. They are the nation who created, ‘a flamboyant, thrilling and graceful style that has set an unattainable benchmark for the rest of the world,’ as Alex Bellos puts it in his excellent book ‘Futebol – The Brazilian Way of Life.’
However, many Brazilians feel that all this is simply being exploited, and that the team of golden-yell
ow clad superstars they consider idols have become packaged, Disneyfied and pawned off to the highest bidder by greedy business moguls seeking a quick buck.
The fact so many Brazilian footballers are now foreign-based is another factor widening the chasm between fans and their national team. Not one single player in national coach Dunga’s squad for the Italy game plays in Brazil.
Perhaps Dunga summed it up best in his press conference in London prior to the Italy game. ‘We would prefer to play the game at home,’ he stated. ‘It is in my country that I feel at home. Here I am a foreigner, just like Italy.’
Unfortunately for fans in Brazil, the distance between ‘home’ and their national team continues to grow ever larger.