Argument

Brazilian Soccer Takes a Tumble

Brazilian Soccer Takes a Tumble

A strange thing happened in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, this year: Not a single Brazilian side reached the semifinals. Instead, representatives from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia make up the final four. With all of the attention focused on Brazil for the World Cup, why has its national league suddenly come up short?

It’s quite a change from Brazil’s recent dominance. Each of the last four winners of the trophy was a different Brazilian team. Indeed, such has been the depth of the country’s soccer that this year was only the second time since 1994 that Brazil had just one team left among the last eight.

The failure to make the semifinals is even more surprising given the breakaway growth of the Brazilian league. "A financial chasm has opened up in the last few years between Brazilian clubs and those in the rest of the continent," wrote Tim Vickery on Sambafoot.com. "Revenue has been flowing in from sponsorship and TV rights."

The latest television deal in Brazil sees São Paulo club Corinthians bring in almost 14 times as much money as Argentine giants Boca Juniors. "My phone never rang so much," the Brazil-based Argentine agent Roberto Miguel told Placar. "The top foreigners can reach 700,000 reals (US$315,000) a month here…. At Boca, the best players earn that in a year."

Indeed, such high salaries can even compare favorably to wages at the best teams in Europe. As a result, talent has been flooding back into Brazil, with teams utilizing their newly acquired wealth to bring back national heroes such as Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho, as well as keeping hold of Seleção regulars like World Cup strikers Fred and Jô.

Perhaps even more telling for the relative strength of Brazilian clubs is the number of players from neighboring countries who have joined them rather than heading to Europe, Mexico, China, the Middle East, or the United States. From Chilean stars Charles Aránguiz and Jorge Valdívia to Uruguay’s Álvaro Pereira and Nicolás Lodeiro, the talent is in the Brasilerão.

By contrast, the squads of the current Copa Libertadores semifinalists are devoid of star names from home or abroad. Such are the vagaries of soccer that money does not always talk. But with such an enormous gulf in money and stars, the obvious question is still, "What has gone wrong?"

"The sky seemed to be the limit in Brazilian football," explained Brazilian writer Carlos Mansur in O Globo. "However, the limit seems to have been exceeded, and the pre-season market of 2014 bears the mark of recession."

If some clubs are worried about their finances in the future, despite the broadcast deal, then their coaches may be the first to leave the sinking ships. Atlético Mineiro’s Libertadores-winning coach, Cuca, left for a lucrative role in China, and Oswaldo de Oliveira of Botafogo — a club whose debts were five times its revenue in 2012, the worst ratio in the league — left for Santos.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned state championships remain a needless distraction in the bid for continental domination. Flamengo, a traditional heavyweight that sits 19th out of 20 teams in the national title race this year, has appeared weighed down by simultaneously fighting the battle for supremacy in Rio de Janeiro.

Cruzeiro, the Brazilian champions, do not have such problems in the less keenly contested state of Minas Gerais; they were the last to be eliminated from this year’s South American competition. "It’s a shame," said goalkeeper Fabio. "We’ll have to try again next time. The Copa Libertadores isn’t easy for anybody." But by almost any measure, it should have been a lot easier for Brazil.