“When he invented the bicycle kick, Leônidas da Silva invented modern Brazil in the same way as Villa-Lobos defined Brazil when he gave shape to modern Brazilian music. And just as the country was reinvented when Nelson Rodrigues brought the social reality of the streets onto the stage. Or when Gilberto Freyre and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda explained our roots, or Guimarães Rosa revealed us through prose, and Drummond through verse. Or when Mario de Andrade pioneered our popular culture. In full anthropophagic fury, our national heroes — players such as Friedenreich, Domingos da Guia, and Pelé — transformed a sport that was British, aristocratic and white into a passion that was Brazilian, popular and mestiça.”

José Roberto Marinho, Folha de São Paulo, 2008

Brazilian football reflects Brazilian society and Brazilian society reflects Brazilian football. Just as slavery was finally abolished in the country following the Lei Áurea (“Golden Law”) in 1888 and Brazil took its first decisive steps on the road to becoming a modern, free society, so a decade or three later black footballers began to establish themselves on the football fields that had previously been the exclusive redoubt of the white establishment.

Much later the descendants of slaves found themselves living in another type of penury, in favelas and the periferia (the sprawling, scruffy outer suburbs of Brazilian cities), which in their social exclusion are not far from being modern day urban equivalents of the quilombos, the old communities of escaped slaves. The only way out for many was and is to play samba or football.

Flavio Caça-Rato (‘Flavio the Rat Hunter’) is a striker for Santa Cruz, the time do povo (“team of ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’”) in Recife in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. Recife is one of the poorest, most violent and most thrilling of Brazilian cities. When Flavio was a kid he used to spend his free time in the rough neighbourhood of Campina de Barreto in the north of the city shooting rats with his catapult. Also as a child Flavio was attacked by his alcoholic father, who wound a bed sheet around his neck and hung him from a rafter. Only the arrival of his uncle saved him that day. Later, when he was older, Flavio was shot twice for messing with the girlfriend of a traficante (‘drug gangster’). He survived and went on to score the goal last December that took Santa out of Serie C and into Serie B. There were 60,000 standing on the mouldy concrete terraces of Arruda, Santa’s stadium, to see it.

The journalist Xico Sá wrote an essay inspired by Flavio’s life and by a photograph of a small boy swimming in the trash-infested canal outside Arruda, searching for recyclable cans, which caused revolt across Brazil. The piece, which was published in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, was entitled “In Caça-Rato Country.”

“In Caça-Rato country some, like Flavio, escape, thanks to football, funk or rap... but most are lost along the way, little Rat Hunters doomed to a life amidst the human refuse, or worse, ended by the bullets (nothing stray about them) of the police — almost always dead by the time they are 30.” 

This is the reality of Brazilian life for many. For Brazil is a country with not so much social divisions as social chasms. In every city, idyllic gated communities and glistening apartment buildings nestle cheek by jowl with ramshackle, crime-infested favelas. As bad or worse than the favelas are the periferias. Their distance from downtown or the middle class or business areas makes it easier for the authorities to forget about such neighbourhoods, which, lacking the edgy glamour and media spotlight of the favelas, become impoverished, neglected badlands.

It has always been thus, perhaps. At least it was in 1933 when Gilberto Freyre wrote his masterpiece of Brazilian anthropology, A Casa Grande e A Senzala (meaning “The Big House and the Slave Quarters”, but translated in its English version into “The Masters and the Slaves”). Freyre dissected Brazilian society, which was based in his eyes on the fruit of sexual relations between masters and their slaves. In doing so he revealed, much to the horror of his wealthy white readers from Brazil’s social elite, that they were neither so white nor so elite as they believed — “every Brazilian, no matter how blond his hair, carries in his body and soul a hint of the indigenous people or black Brazilians. In our gentleness, our excessive gesturing, our music, our gait, our way of speaking...”

“To Brazilians in the 1930s the image Freyre held up of their own society was quite startling. The Brazilians who shaped Brazilian institutions — the white Brazilians — had always lacked confidence in their racially bastard society. The blacks and the bastards were so many and the honourable white fidalgos so few,” wrote Peter Robb in his wonderful study of Brazilian culture and society, A Death in Brazil.

And yet in portraying Brazil as a happy, sensual melting pot (“in Freyre’s intricately documented study, every matter of life on the sugar plantations led subtly back to sex,” wrote Robb), A Casa Grande e A Senzala was criticised by some for being as saccharine sweet as the fields of sugar cane in the nordeste from which it sprung.

The book also revealed the great tragedy of Brazilian society, then and now. If Brazil truly was this great paean to miscegenation, the pot in which black African and white European and the indigenous peoples mixed and melted, their family trees and roots intertwined, then how could some Brazilians be so fabulously wealthy and many, many more so desperately poor? 

It’s the same today. From the gated communities of Barra de Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro to the beachside apartment complexes of Boa Viagem in Recife, Brazil’s haves are comparatively small in number but rich in money and in visibility — despite recent concessions to the country’s burgeoning classe C, the country’s TV fodder of choice, its novelas or soap operas, concentrate almost exclusively on the wealthy of Rio or São Paulo. The country’s have-nots, meanwhile, are vast in number but small in power and often almost invisible, at least in the media.

And it’s the same story in Brazilian football, where the disparity between the domestic game and the Seleção is as wide as the Rio São Francisco. As wide, in fact, as the social gulf between the periferia and the luxurious homes of Brazil’s upper social classes, or even between the Casa Grande and the Senzala itself.

Never will the gulf be clearer than this June and July, when the superstars of the national team, only three or four of whom play for Brazilian clubs, take the field in gleaming new World Cup stadiums, cheered on by happy, generally middle-class crowds bedecked in yellow and green, amid a sea of patriotic fervour and blanket Mundial-inspired TV commercials for credit cards and car companies.

It’s hardly news that the vast majority of Brazil’s top players ply their trade in Europe and that the domestic game is generally populated by kids on their way up, journeymen never asked to the European prom and veterans on their way back down. The talent drift to Europe has been established as a cruel financial reality of the local game since the floodgates opened in the late 1980s and early 1990s after Ronaldo and Romario moved abroad. But European spending power alone does not explain the current impoverished state of Brazilian football.

The relationship between a national team and the domestic league that feeds it is complex. Generally, especially in Europe, there is a not a huge gulf between the success of the national side and the quality and financial robustness of the championship back home, at least in broad-brush terms — think of the connection between Spain’s recent success and the muscle of La Liga, Italy and Serie A, Germany and the Bundesliga. The argument that the commercial starburst of the foreign superstar-driven Premier League weakens the England team is frequently heard, but at least both operate in roughly the same universe — for all England’s failings, they are rarely uncompetitive at international level.

Other national teams arguably punch above the weight of their domestic leagues — the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries, for example, while the USA national team is perhaps roughly equivalent to the profile of MLS: both are promising and industrious without ever being spectacular.

It’s not so in Brazil, or indeed in much of South America. This is borne out by a quick glance at the Copa Libertadores. In structure, perhaps it does mirror the Champions League – the top teams from countries in Latin America (the competition now includes teams from Mexico) compete against each other in a tournament that starts with a group stage before the fun really begins in the knockout phases. But, depending on what game you are watching, the Libertadores can often look like a very poor relation of Uefa’s commercial behemoth. Many grounds are substandard and often dangerous, pitches can be dreadful in quality, a large number of teams exist in a state of impending financial meltdown and violence — exemplified by the death of Kevin Espada, the young San José fan killed by a naval flare fired by Corinthians fans in Oruro in Bolivia — is an all too frequent presence.

It is not hard to guess at the reason why. South America is a continent of developing countries and by definition in developing countries there is not always the money, infrastructure or established social machinery that there is in richer nations. This socio-economic divide can even be seen on a microcosmic level within Brazil, where clubs in the poorer nordeste and norte cannot compete with teams from Rio, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte. Money talks loudly in football.

Yet at the same time South American national teams march on. While the Club World Cup has in recent years (Corinthians’ 2012 victory over a lacklustre Chelsea side apart) become an exercise in avoiding humiliation for South American clubs (think Internacional’s 2010 defeat to Mazembe, Barcelona’s annihilation of Santos in 2011, or Atletico Mineiro’s humbling by Raja Casablanca last year), the continent’s national sides have won nine World Cups to Europe’s ten, despite the fact that Conmebol boasts only 10 national associations. And six of the region’s countries (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay) will be at this summer’s World Cup. With a population of 407 million people compared to Europe’s 743 million, pound for pound, head for head, South America is the world’s most successful footballing continent.

There is a fairly simple explanation why South America breaks with the theory that a strong national team is based on a strong domestic league. If all your players play abroad then it doesn’t much matter how strong your domestic league is. In fact it may even be a positive — a weak, ‘selling league’ effectively forces players to play overseas, where they can blend the skills and strategies learnt at home with those of their new working environment.

If there is any truth at all in this theory, then Luiz Filipe Scolari and the rest of Brazil’s coaching staff should thank their lucky stars for the grim state of the Brazilian domestic game.

First, and most obviously, there are the crowds — or rather the lack of them. Last year’s Serie A pulled in a meagre average gate of just 14,000 — around the same as the Australian A-League and less than MLS. This in a country of almost 200 million people, 160 million of whom (according to 2010 census figures) live in urban areas close to football stadiums and where the sport has no serious rivals for public attention. The situation gets even worse further down the league: only three teams in last year’s Serie B could boast an average crowd of above 10,000, and 12 teams were watched by 5,000 people or fewer per game.

The anachronistic state championships, which run from January until April or May each year, are even less of a draw. The Campeonato Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) had an average crowd of around 2,000 in 2013 and 2014, and only 350 fans paid to watch Flamengo, the country’s best-supported club, play Bonsuccesso in March. “The crowd wouldn’t have filled a carriage of a Rio metro train,” said one match report.

Yet poor crowds can only ever be considered the symptoms of the struggles of domestic Brazilian football. The causes are rather more complex.

The fixture calendar is one. A team that wins or reaches the final of the Campeonato Paulista, Libertadores and Copa do Brasil will play a total of 79 games. Compare that to Bayern Munich, who in winning the treble of Champions League, Bundesliga and DFB Cup last year played a total of 53 matches. Nor is there much time to recover between seasons. Last year’s Brazilian league season finished on December 8, the state championships started in mid-January, and there was no break at all between the estaduais and the Brasileirão.

Such a fixture squeeze creates a number of ludicrous situations. No team has ever won the Libertadores and the league championship in the same year — as the knockout stages of the continental competition and the Copa do Brasil run during the early part of the league season, coaches desperate for a trophy to enhance their fragile job security tend to field reserve teams in the league. Even if this strategy proves successful and cup glory is achieved, a perilous position in the national championship is guaranteed until the champagne hangover has faded and sometimes long after it. In 2013 Copa do Brasil winners Palmeiras ended up being relegated after spending too long “concentrating on the cup”, while Atletico Mineiro, who won last year’s Libertadores, were in 16th spot, one place above the relegation zone, until the half-way point of the season.

This in turn affects gates. On July 7 last year, 60,000 watched Atletico win the second leg of the Libertadores final in Belo Horizonte. Just a month later, with nothing to play for in the league and the team disinterested, only 11,000 could be bothered to show up for Atletico Mineiro’s home game against Botafogo.

Another factor that affects crowds is kick-off times. Other than the traditional Sunday afternoon 4pm starts, games are played on Saturday nights at 9pm and midweek at 10pm — after the gripping drama of the nightly novelas has finished. It is not easy to get home using Brazil’s rickety public transport after midnight, and when they do make it to bed, most fans will have to rise for work again a few hours later. At the same time, every game in the country is broadcast on relatively affordable pay-per-view cable packages and shown in all but the most modest bars or restaurants.

Then there is the spectre of violence. According to Lance! magazine there were a total of 234 football related deaths in Brazil between 1988 and 2013, and 30 last year alone. Even if the majority of these killings were between warring torcida organizada1 factions, in a country which registered 50,000 homicides in 2013, ordinary Brazilian football fans are understandably concerned about their own safety and football stadiums are seen as no-go areas for large swathes of population. While higher ticket prices and better facilities at the new World Cup grounds have seen increased numbers of women and family groups attending games, even shiny new seats are not a cure for the hooligan disease, as the fighting during the Vasco da Gama v Corinthians game in Brasilia’s gleaming Mane Garrincha stadium in August showed. Even title-winning champagne does not slake the thirst of the organizadas for violence — a street party put on by Cruzeiro to celebrate winning the league last year was cancelled after rival gangs of the club’s own supporters brawled outside the Mineirão.

The authorities, footballing and otherwise, seem incapable of dealing with the problem. Although the fact that perpetrators of the sickeningly prolonged ruck between Vasco and Atletico PR fans in Joinville last December were identified and charged using TV footage was a welcome step forward, in general the official response to crowd violence is a ban on the clubs involved from playing a number of games at home, a slap on the wrist fine and, often, the exclusion of the torcidas organizadas from stadiums. Yet as individual members themselves are not prohibited from attending matches, such bans usually result in the same people going to the games, dressed in their normal clothes and all that the authorities manage to prohibit is flags, T-shirts and trumpets.

Then there is the culture of legal impunity that so scars wider Brazilian society. “Summing up, they were just angry. They’re loyal fans — it’s the team that should be embarrassed — they just wanted to make people pay attention, make the players earn their salaries and show some real Brazilian football,” announced a judge on releasing four Corinthians fans who had participated in a violent invasion of the team’s training ground earlier this year, during which players and club employees were physically threatened.

“Because of the World Cup in 1962 and 1970, there is this idea that Brazil is the country of football, where everyone loves the game, but in truth it’s not quite like that,” said the 1970 World Cup-winner Tostão recently. “There are studies that show that the numbers of people who don’t like football is much greater than the numbers of supporters of Flamengo, the biggest team in the country. And it has got worse in the last 20 or 30 years, with violence increasing both in society and in football, and a lack of trust in those responsible for looking after the game, creating a feeling that football is all about business, that it’s immoral. Then there are the uncomfortable stadiums, a lack of safety. Average crowds lower than the USA or Australia? What kind of país do futebol is that?” 

The poor crowds caused by these and other problems, not to mention the often shoddy fare on offer on the pitch, clearly has a major financial impact on clubs, all of whom are burdened with tremendous debts and are often unable to pay player wages on time. Bom Senso FC (“Common Sense FC”), the player protest group that appeared last year to demand a restructured calendar and greater financial responsibility on the part of clubs, revealed in January that 13 out of 15 Serie A clubs surveyed had not paid players monies owed for salaries and image rights at some stage during the previous year. Atletico Mineiro, current Libertadores champions, were one such club and recently had their share of the transfer fee that Shakhtar Donetsk paid for Bernard withheld by the Brazilian tax authorities to settle (in part, at least) the club’s outstanding tax default.

Empty stadiums also lower the Brazilian game’s attractiveness as an international product — a study by the sports business organisation Sportpar in 2012 revealed that Brazilian clubs receive a modest US$4 million from overseas TV deals.

And the shoddy state of the domestic game faces a further threat — televised coverage of the Uefa Champions League and the top European championships. In April, Brazil’s two biggest TV channels showed the Atlético Madrid v Barcelona Champions League tie live, even though the game was played in the middle of the afternoon. The respected Folha de São Paulo columnist Paulo Vinícius Coelho encouraged fans to not feel guilty about enjoying the Champions League games on TV. “You’re a citizen of the world,” he cried. “It’s Brazilian football that isn’t!”

What is interesting is that while vestiges of the hardwired flaws of Brazil’s colonial past doggedly remain in wider society, especially behind the scenes, on the surface at least Brazil as a country has changed, becoming more inclusive and more democratic. Yet in Brazilian football those same flaws — a culture of vested interest and influence, of an entrenched and arrogant ruling class in seemingly perpetual power — speak as loudly as ever. The president of the Brazilian football federation (CBF), José Maria Marin, has achieved the remarkable feat of being even more complacent and shady than his predecessor, Ricardo Teixeira, and will be replaced next January by Marco Polo del Nero, president of the São Paulo football federation and effectively a Marin clone. Neither will do much to change Brazilian football, because for people like Marin and Del Nero everything works just fine: they can take the credit if the Seleção win the World Cup and their organisation banked R$360 million in 2012. Meanwhile Brazilian clubs, if they were businesses and not societies, would have long since gone to the wall.

Such is the dubious competence and effectiveness of the CBF that it has become almost common practice for clubs to challenge the organ’s decisions in the common law courts — Serie C was paralysed for over a month in 2012 as clubs argued over who should have been relegated and/or promoted the year before, and the season eventually kicked off with 21 rather than 20 teams. More recently, Portuguesa, relegated from Serie A in place of Fluminense after an onerous points deduction for fielding an ineligible player in a meaningless end of season game, spent months trying to reverse the decision in the courts. At various points in the saga it appeared that this year’s top flight would start with 21 or 24 clubs, or not at all.

While players, notably in the form of the encouraging Bom Senso FC movement, and journalists have become more critical of late, the power in Brazil lies not with its clubs, many of whom spend their time mired in petty tribal squabbling rather than thinking about the long-term good of the game, but with the CBF and the local federations that back it. Nowhere is this more visible than in the state of Roraima in the far north of the country, bordered by Venezuela and Guyana, where the local state championship consists of only six teams. The Roraimense Football Federation has been governed for the last 39 years by Zeca Xaud, who is now 69. “We were all surprised by how amateur Tahiti were during the Confederations Cup,” Adroir Bassorici, president of current champions Náutico, told the Folha de São Paulo recently. “But really Tahiti isn’t that far away. This is Tahiti, right here.” And Mr Xaud has the same number of votes — one — in the CBF elections as Corinthians or Flamengo.

“The state federations are to Brazilian football what the hereditary captaincies were for the colonial period, created by the King of Portugal and cluttering up Brazilian life for 225 years,” wrote the Folha de São Paulo journalist Juca Kfouri recently. For a nation often described as “o país do futuro” (“the country of the future”), it is striking how the past always seems to be present in Brazil — especially in Brazilian football.