To think about Brazilian football – at least before this summer’s World Cup – is usually to conjure a fairly joyous set of images. Perhaps you see Garrincha toying with a defender like a cat with a mouse, using full-body, drunken-master feints. Maybe it’s Pelé nonchalantly rolling the ball to Carlos Alberto or Sócrates gliding around the field, fuelled by nothing but nicotine and hope. If you’re a little younger, it might be Ronaldo’s half-moon redemption in 2002.

The alluring mysticism that has accompanied the glories and misadventures of the Seleção over the years is also present in the domestic game. The Brazilian league system exists happily under the weight of Technicolor nicknames, fable and allusions to histories half-told.

It is home to Tarzans, Flávio Rat-Catchers and Roberto Dinamites, to dry-leaf free-kicks and zebras, to players who claim to have netted 1000 career goals when the official record reads somewhere in the 600s.

At other times, however, it creaks for more troublesome reasons. For a country considered – not least by itself – as one of the heartlands of the game, Brazil’s footballing landscape is beset by lingering problems: from fan violence and shaky finances to poor attendances and a calendar that defies all reason.

The worries are such that last year a group of players led by experienced veterans such as Alex, Clarence Seedorf – then enjoying a crowd-pleasing Indian summer with Botafogo – and Juninho Pernambucano felt compelled to club together to form Bom Senso FC (Common Sense FC), a de facto union calling for root-and-branch change to the game. This was welcomed by almost everyone, with the notable – and predictable – exception of a few club owners and foot soldiers for a sporting establishment that has long reaped the benefits of the status quo.

But just as the times appeared to be a-changing (or at least beginning to), one of the great, unwanted traditions of the Brazilian game was resurrected. At the end of the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro season, Fluminense – champions just 12 months earlier – were condemned to Série B after failing to escape the relegation zone in the final rounds, only to avoid it by dint of a last-ditch courtroom appeal. Here are eight controversial cases in which on-field events in Brazil have been trumped by political chicanery, mismanagement and straight-up corruption.


O Rei do Tapetão

Flávio Almeida da Fonseca was the undoubted star of the 1969 Rio de Janeiro state championship. A striker blessed with killer instincts and thighs like concrete, he earned the nickname Flávio Minuano from broadcaster Geraldo José de Almeida, in reference to the bracing polar wind that sweeps through Brazil’s temperate south. 

After successful spells with Internacional and Corinthians, he pitched up at Fluminense looking to maintain the momentum. He did so in thrilling style, plundering 12 goals in his first 12 games in the Campeonato Carioca. Within five months of his arrival, Flávio was already a club idol in the making.

But history decreed that Flávio’s exploits that year would be overshadowed. 

Flu’s opponents in the 13th game of the campaign were Vasco da Gama, who were languishing between Bangu and Bonsucceso in the gallows of the eight-team league table. The clássico turned out to be anything but: the sides played out a goalless draw marred by four red cards. “Not much football, only violence,” was the verdict in the Monday morning edition of O Globo

Immediately after the match Fluminense officials began to kick up a fuss, demanding that referee Arnaldo César Coelho be relieved of his duties. He had had a shocker, by all accounts – “one man managed to have more influence than all 22 players put together,” sighed playwright Nélson Rodigues in his weekly newspaper column – but the protests came to nothing.

Flávio was among those dismissed and as such was hit with an automatic one-match suspension. He stood to miss the Tricolor’s game against América, the loveable younger brother of Rio’s footballing landscape. 

In the days that followed, the Flu hierarchy insisted that they would not dispute the ban. No fuss, no drama. But that public front proved to be little more than a smokescreen. 

On the day of the game – just minutes before kick-off, according to some reports – there was a knock on the changing room door of referee Amilcar Ferreira. Fluminense had obtained a court order that absolved Flávio. He was free to play. And play he did, scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory.

Details emerged after the game, with América leading the inquest. It turned out that José Carlos Vilela, a lawyer working on Flu’s behalf, had taken the matter to a court of common law, which had overruled the initial ruling by the Conselho Nacional de Desportos, Brazil’s highest sporting authority at the time.

Vilela had claimed that it was unconstitutional for any Brazilian citizen to be punished without the right of defence. Renato do Amaral Machado, a judge in Brazil’s second federal court, had bought the argument and issued the infamous writ.

More legal wrangling followed, with América demanding a replay of the match or points in compensation, but their frustrated cries fell on deaf ears. Fluminense went on to win the Carioca title, beating Flamengo 3-2 in the final in front of 170,000 souls at the Maracanã. Flávio netted the winner.

The affair left a bitter taste in the mouths of neutrals and helped shape the landscape for future incidents – not least in terms of vocabulary. This, according to common myth at least, was the birthplace of a new term to denote cases of footballing matters being settled in the courtrooms and other haunts of Brazil’s moneyed elite. 

The word was tapetão (literally ‘big carpet’ or ‘big rug’), an arch allusion to the ostentation present in the corridors of power, but with the added – if possibly accidental – connotation of dirt being swept out of view. It has been used ever since.

The Great Shake-Up 

In the early days, Brazilian football was a strictly regional affair. The state championships – which exist to this day, to the frustration of many – were the lifeblood of the game in a country whose vast proportions made a national league impractical. 

Yet after Brazil’s coming-of-age parties at the World Cups of 1958 and 1962, the ambitions of the country’s sporting authorities began to swell. The success of the Rio-São Paulo Tournament (played on an annual basis from 1950) had demonstrated that there was an appetite for competition beyond the confines of state boundaries, and the improvements in Brazil’s transport networks were making cross-country travel more feasible.

The Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa was born in 1967 and after four years segued into the creation of Brazil’s first Campeonato Nacional. 20 sides from eight states took part in the first edition, which packed in no fewer than three round robin stages.

Sensing an opportunity to win hearts and minds, the heads of Brazil’s military regime encouraged the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (forerunner of the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol, or CBF) to expand the competition. The CBD obliged, inviting six more sides – five from states with no existing representative – to participate in 1972. 

If that seemed rash, it was nothing on what came next: the 1973 competition featured 40 teams. The expansion should have spread the bounty of nationwide football further, but left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. With no formal promotion system in place and sporting merit not high on the list of the CBD’s priorities, a number of clubs in the second flight saw their hopes of a step up dashed. 

Sampaio Corrêa-MA, champions of Série B in 1972, were especially aggrieved at being overlooked, not least because their local rivals Moto Club – who finished 11th – got the nod. In fact, only three of the 14 sides added to the mix in 1973 had played in the second division a year earlier. So much for a level playing field.

Flamengo vs Sport 

By the 1980s, Brazilians had reconciled themselves to the ever-changing nature of their national championship. But controversy returned in 1987, courtesy of the most Byzantine format yet: the league was split into two ‘modules’ of 16 sides, each of which had two groups playing in two phases. 

The Módulo Verde (Green Module) involved Coritiba, Goiás and Santa Cruz, plus the members of the newly-formed Clube dos 13 (Club of 13). The latter was set up to defend the political and commercial interests of Brazil’s most powerful sides (imagine a more morally bankrupt Premier League) and had been threatening to break away from the CBF entirely and form a league of its own, only to be talked down at the last. 

The odious Vasco da Gama bigwig Eurico Miranda was not alone in considering this to be “the main group” but it was decided that the top two teams would play off against the top two from the Yellow Module – Sport and Guarani – to decide the overall winner. As such, the competition came to be known as the Copa União: the Union Cup. Yet it would prove to be anything but unifying.

The Yellow Module laid the foundations for the confusion ahead. After a two-legged final and extra-time had failed to separate them, Sport and Guarani played out a lengthy penalty shootout, which ran to 11-11. Rather than continue, the sides agreed to share first place, only for organisers to insist on a winner. Guarani graciously yielded and Sport were given the sectional title based on their better league record.

Yet when the ‘quadrangular final’ came, the top two from the Green Module, Flamengo and Internacional, refused to take part and defaulted on their fixtures, meaning two further games between Sport and Guarani served as a de facto final. The former won the second leg after the first finished 1-1, and so were crowned Brazilian champions by the CBF.

That should have been that, but the Clube dos 13 maintained that Flamengo, as winners of the supposedly superior Green Module, were national champions. Thus began a bitter dispute that has rumbled on for almost three decades. Flamengo have always claimed the title as their own, including it in official trophy counts and agitating for official recognition in the courts, to the disdain of Sport.

That stubbornness appeared to have been vindicated when, in February 2011, the CBF announced that, “after considering new and convincing arguments presented by Flamengo’s legal team” it now considered Fla and Sport to be joint champions.

That conviction didn’t last long, with the federation forced to recognise a federal decision in Sport’s favour later that year. The matter then went to the Superior Tribunal de Justiça (STJ), Brazil’s supreme court. Finally, Sport were declared sole champions of 1987 in April after a four-to-one decision. 

Flamengo still contest the ruling.

Grêmio benefit from a virada de mesa

Relegated from the top flight for the first time in their history after a disastrous campaign in 1991, Grêmio were widely expected to bounce straight back – despite there only being two promotion places for the 32 teams in the division.

But Série B proved to be a tougher challenge than anticipated and Grêmio finished down in ninth place. Another year in the wilderness beckoned, only for the CBF to come to the rescue of the Porto Alegre side. It was decided that no fewer than 12 sides would in fact go up, forming a 32-side first division that would split into regional sub-groups.

Many cried foul, believing Grêmio officials to have thrashed out a deal behind the scenes to spare their blushes. While nothing was proved, the affair came to be widely regarded as a virada de mesa (literally a ‘turning of the table’), in which the rules were bent to further the interests of one of Brazil’s big clubs.

Fluminense in the spotlight again

The 32-team Série A was abandoned in 1994 in favour of a more modest set-up. The 1995 and 1996 championships both featured 24 sides; it looked like stability had at last been achieved.

Fluminense, who had managed to steer clear of controversy after the ignominy of the Flávio affair, enjoyed their best campaign since the 1980s in 1995. Under the stewardship of the jovial “Papai” Joel Santana and inspired by party-loving Renato Gáucho, Flu won the Rio state championship and finished fourth in Série A.

The following year promised much but the Tricolor failed to produce, slumping to fourth in the Carioca in the autumn. They would fare even worse in the Brasileirão, conceding 50 goals in 23 games and finishing second-bottom. That meant demotion to Série B for the first time in their history.

Except Fluminense – and Bragantino, who finished below them – wriggled their way out of trouble after a CBF investigation unveiled a bribery scandal. A recording surfaced of a phone call between the president of Corinthians, Alberto Dualib, and his Atlético-PR counterpart, Mario Petraglia, in which a payment of “1-0-0” was discussed. This was believed to refer to a bribe of R$100,000, with the head of referees, Ivens Mendes, the alleged recipient.

Rather than punish Corinthians and Atlético directly, the CBF instead simply cancelled relegation from the top flight, sparing Flu and Braga.

In a sterling piece of PR, the Fluminense president Álvaro Barcellos decided to celebrate the ruling by popping a bottle of bubbly. While Flu were not ostensibly to blame for the virada de mesa, the image – for many the perfect visual representation of the stranglehold the rich, white upper classes have always had on Brazilian football – has come to define the affair, implying guilt by association. “Thanks to that cursed champagne, no one remembers Corinthians, Atlético or Braga in the episode,” lamented Marcos Caetano in Placar earlier this year.

Flu did not get away unscathed in economic terms either: in 2008, a Rio court condemned both them and Bragantino over the case, retrospectively fining them 2% of their turnover from the 1996 season. It was hardly the most significant penalty, but served to rub salt in the wounds.

The Sandro Hiroshi affair

In Brazil, the giving of nicknames is rarely an exercise in subtlety. So it was with Sandro Hiroshi, a promising young forward from the state of Tocantins. Some called him ‘gato’ (“the cat”) for his agility, but mostly they called him ‘Japonês’.

Hiroshi’s ascent was startling. He moved from his boyhood club Tocantinópolis to Rio Branco in 1999, before pitching up at São Paulo FC later that year having impressed in the Campeonato Paulista. By that stage he had already represented Brazil at junior level and was being tipped for great things.

Only one thing stood in the way of further progress in his first season at the Morumbi: paperwork. Tocantinópolis alleged that they were owed part of the fee paid to Rio Branco by São Paulo. When those claims fell on deaf ears, the minnows insisted that Rio Branco had registered the player without their permission.

The side from Americana hit back, insisting that Hiroshi was still a youth-team player when he signed and thus they didn’t require permission to finalise the transfer. In the face of this impasse, the CBF opted to impose a “block” on Hiroshi’s move to São Paulo until the matter was formally resolved.

On August 4, São Paulo played Botafogo in the third rodada of the Brasileirão. Up front for the Tricolor? One Sandro Hiroshi, who scored his side’s fifth in a 6-1 victory. 

Confusion ensued, but it emerged that block on Hiroshi had not been lifted by the CBF; São Paulo had merely ignored the ruling. Botafogo thus sought to annul the result on the grounds that their opponents had fielded an ineligible player. The Tribunal de Justiça Desportiva (TJD)’s disciplinary committee agreed, docking São Paulo three points and awarding them to Botafogo.

Hiroshi continued to play for São Paulo, but oddly only Internacional followed Botafogo’s lead. The Porto Alegre side were given the point that was docked from São Paulo when a 2-2 draw between the sides was ruled void. (With Inter being retrospectively awarded a victory in that game, it would probably have been more consistent to award them two more points, but then the Brazil’s footballing authorities have rarely been sticklers for internal logic.)

The story did not end there. Relegation that season was decided on points won over the two previous campaigns, with the four sides with the lowest average going down. The last side to bite the bullet were Gama, who had managed 1.238 points per game. 

There was only one problem: the averages of Botafogo and Internacional would both have been lower (1.178 and 1.219 respectively) were it not for the TJD’s rulings. 

Gama felt, therefore, that Botafogo had escaped relegation unfairly. In their eyes, the decision to add the three points docked from São Paulo to the Rio side’s total made no sense, and had effectively cost them their place in the top flight. 

With the taste of injustice on their lips, they were not going to take relegation lying down. After their case was turned down by the TJD (which was never likely to admit its own error), Gama turned to the public courts and managed to obtain a writ that guaranteed their top-flight status.

The same court order also prevented CBF from organising the next Campeonato Brasileiro, so the responsibility fell to the Clube dos 13. The Copa João Havelange – named after another of Brazilian football’s less-than-spotless aristocrats – was born. 

True to form, the competition was a carve-up. 116 sides were split into four ‘modules’, which, despite the organisers’ claims, were clearly weighted to be rough representations of Séries A to C (with the lowest rung divided into two regional sections). 

Gama remained in the nominal first division (the Blue Module) but the real news was elsewhere. 

Fluminense, who had suffered the ignominy of playing in Série C in 1999, were due to play the second flight after finishing in the promotion places. But, being loyal Clube dos 13 members, Flu were invited to play in the Blue Module in 2000, leapfrogging a host of teams who should, by rights, have had priority.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

(Hiroshi, incidentally, would never hit the heights expected of him, going on to play out a nomadic career split between Brazil and South Korea. Still, at least his reputation lives on in lists of courtroom dramas in leagues no one really watches.)

The Whistle Mafia

In October 2005, news magazine Veja broke a story that shook the foundations of Brazilian football once more. “The Whistle Mafia,” read the front-page headline; “How a gang of gamblers bought referees to ‘fabricate’ results in the Brasileiro and Campeonato Paulista.”

The article centred on the referee Edílson Pereira de Carvalho, one of 10 Fifa-level officials in Brazil at the time, as well as a “group of businessmen, owners of casinos in São Paulo and Piracicaba.” All were under investigation by the federal police and a local organised crime unit when the article was published. 

Edílson, it was alleged, had helped to fix a number of games in the early part of the year, allowing his partners to make over a million reais on betting websites that were illegal in Brazil at the time. The police had set up wires on phone lines between the parties, and believed that the referee was receiving R$10,000 and R$15,000 (roughly £2,500 - £3,000 based on today’s exchange rate) per match. 

Two linesmen and one other official for the São Paulo federation were also caught up in the scandal, but the main focus was on Edílson and Nagib Fayad, the head of the group behind the scheme. Both were arrested soon after the Veja piece was published, and although the criminal case would peter out in the following years (a civil investigation is still pending), there were immediate sporting implications.

The CBF suspended Edílson and ordered the 11 games he had officiated in the 2005 Brasileirão to be replayed. This, predictably, did not go down well with everyone, but complaints from Cruzeiro, Santos, Internacional, Ponte Preta and Figueirense were waved away.

The matches were played over a fortnight, with only two producing the same results as the original games. The main beneficiaries would be Corinthians, who beat Santos and drew with São Paulo, having lost to both before the scandal. 

Those extra four points proved to be crucial in the title race, with the Timão triumphing by three points ahead of Inter, who were livid.

The 39th game

And so, to 2013. Just a year after winning it, Fluminense finished 17th in the Brasileirão and faced relegation. But they were given the chance to earn an unexpected reprieve when it emerged that Portuguesa – who finished five places but only two points above them – had used an ineligible player in their final game of the campaign. 

The Tricolor pounced, calling in the lawyers immediately and demanding that Portuguesa be punished. The latter heaped the blame on their lawyer, the downtrodden Osvaldo Sestário, who allegedly failed to advise them that midfielder Héverton was suspended – although he insisted that he had told the club’s president and had the phone bill to prove it.

Inevitably, the matter wound up in Brazil’s sports tribunal. With the boisterous chants of Fluminense fans audible inside the court, the committee elected to dock Portuguesa points, condemning them to the second division and saving Flu. 

The matter rumbled on for some months amid claims and counter-claims, with Portuguesa even obtaining a court order that briefly threatened to force the CBF to stage a 24-team Série A in an already-hectic World Cup year. “They can’t have a league with 21 teams,” said the president of Náutico with amusing opportunism. “Either everybody is relegated or nobody is relegated. If Portuguesa don’t go down, then we don’t go down either.”

Eventually, the protests died down and the punishment stood. The moral inquest, however, was only just beginning.

By the letter of the law, Portuguesa clearly made a grave error and the punishment was in accordance with the rules of the competition. But that did not alleviate the feeling that the spoils had been doled out by lawyers rather than players, victories and points being trumped by legalese and lobbying. For non-Fluminense fans, it was a flashback to the bad old days.

It did not help that the game in which Héverton played was a low-wattage draw against Grêmio, which made no difference to Portuguesa’s survival. The CBF, too, had only confirmed the midfielder’s suspension on the eve of the game, which contributed to the confusion. 

With those considerations in mind, many felt that a one-point penalty would have been apt. “Anywhere else, a team that used an ineligible player would lose the point it won on the pitch,” lamented the Folha de São Paulo columnist Paulo Vinícius Coelho. But the tribunal meted out the maximum punishment, docking four.

Television presenter and avid Flu fan Jô Soares seemed to capture the mood perfectly. ”I love Fluminense but I’m against the relegation of Portuguesa,” he said. “There are things that are legally right but morally wrong, and this is such a case.”

The tumult around the affair was such that Héverton decided he had had it with football and announced his retirement at the age of 28. That feeling of exasperation in the face of an indifferent and often unjust administrative monolith is perhaps the real legacy of tapetão and hints at why these cases leave such a bitter taste. It is because they chime so tellingly with people’s experience of Brazil more generally: they echo the corruption and cronyism that are a depressing part of life in the country.

One hopes that the creation of Common Sense FC can help bring an end to such controversies once and for all. For these cases, and the culture they represent, are part of the reason Brazilian domestic football has yet to become the global attraction it could be.