Apathy and shady dealings combine to make life nearly impossible for Brazil’s small clubs

Rumor has it that Brazilian clubs Audax and Red Bull Brasil organize taxis, rather than buses, to transport their few fans to games. Neither club could be considered a household name, yet in the country’s state championships, they’re given time on the big stage against the big names. Welcome to the weird and rarely wonderful world of Brazil’s estaduais, where the great and good rub shoulders with the less than great and the not always good.

The debate over the future of the once influential, but now increasingly irrelevant, estaduais has rumbled on for years in Brazil. Supporters of the competitions point to their historic importance and continued relevance in more remote parts of the country, where local teams struggle to compete on a national level. Detractors accuse the estaduais of strangling domestic soccer by cluttering up the calendar and forcing big teams to spend months playing pointless matches against minnows – like Manchesters City and United pitting their wits against Altrincham and Chorley FC in league competition.

Yet the estaduais provide a revealing snapshot of the rich, if rather tattered, tapestry of Brazilian club soccer. In each league there are the state big dogs – sometimes four, like in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo; sometimes three, like in Pernambuco, where Sport, Santa Cruz and Náutico join battle; more often than not two, like in Minas Gerais (Atlético and Cruzeiro) or Rio Grande do Sul (Grêmio and Internacional). Then there are the middleweight outsiders, generally from Serie B, such as Ponte Preta in São Paulo or América in Minas Gerais.

And then there are the rest – a bizarre cast of small, poorly supported but at least authentic clubs; newly formed upstarts, often funded by agents, entrepreneurs or town councils; and the occasional former local “giant,” now fallen on hard times.

Red Bull Brasil and Audax straddle a number of categories. The former, backed by the Austrian energy drinks company, is part of the same group as New York Red Bulls and the Red Bull Racing F1 team. But if Red Bull Brasil, founded in 2007, lacks tradition, it at least claims to act like a proper club. “We’re not an agents’ team,” reads a message on the club’s website. “In soccer, profit is winning titles.”

The same can hardly be said for Audax. The club began as Pão de Açucar (a supermarket group) Esporte Club and rose quickly through the divisions of the Campeonato Paulista, changing its name to Audax in 2011 in a bid to attract more fans. In 2013, after Audax had been promoted to the top division of the Paulistão, Pão de Açucar sold the club to another team, Grêmio Osasco, itself formed only in 2007 and part owned by the director of Bradesco bank, Mário Teixeira. Conveniently enough, the newly formed Grêmio Osasco Audax assumed the old Audax’s role in last year’s Campeonato Paulista top flight.

Throughout its existence – the club played its first professional game in 2007 – Audax’s stated mission has been the development of young players. A noble aim, sullied only slightly by the fact that the desired result is likely to be financial gain rather than sporting glory. The plan worked to perfection in 2013 when Corinthians’ Paulinho was sold to Spurs for U$20 million – the midfielder had played for Audax in 2009, and the club held 50% of his economic rights.

There are plenty of “Audaxes” in Brazilian soccer. Clubs like Coimbra Esporte Club in Belo Horizonte, which held a financial stake in former Cruzeiro forward Ricardo Goulart (recently sold to Guangzhou Evergrande for U$20 million), despite Goulart never playing for the team. Such clubs have no tradition, no fan base and little interest in shaking up the sporting balance of power, but are backed by wealthy businessmen who have spotted the easy bucks available to those with a stake in Brazil’s production line of young talent.

Agents and investors, no doubt spooked by FIFA’s impending ban on third-party ownership, are now investing in established, if unsuccessful clubs. Pop crooner Alexandre Pires, Neymar’s father Neymar Sr., and agent Wagner Ribeiro have invested in Uberlândia EC, while the list of players who have or have had contractual or economic links with little Tombense, run by agent Eduardo Uram, would be the envy of many a Brazilian first-division club (needless to say, few of the players in question have actually played for the team).

In England or Germany such cuckoos in the nest would be easy to spot by the jarring contrast between their empty terraces and their on-field (or at least financial) success. In the shadowy netherworld of the lower divisions of Brazilian soccer, however, it is the clubs with fans that stand out, rather than those without. With TV and sponsorship money difficult to come by, Brazil’s smaller clubs, often without much tradition or history to begin with, are batted this way and that, the tennis balls not of the gods but of political and economic interests.

One such sad story is Ipatinga FC, founded in 1998 and promoted to the top flight of the Campeonato Mineiro in 2000. It won the state title in 2005, the last team from outside the Belo Horizonte “big two” to do so. Ipatinga reached the semi-finals of the Copa do Brasil in 2006 and was promoted to Serie A in 2008. Without an established fan base, however, the club’s success could only ever be transient – decline soon set in, and in the midst of a financial crisis, the club moved to another Minas Gerais town, Betim, in 2013. The move failed to improve the fortunes of Betim (née Ipatinga), however, and in 2014 the team, now in Serie D, moved back to its hometown.

Brazilian soccer is dotted with such stories. Pity the few fans of Grêmio Barueri, founded by investors in 1989 and promoted to Serie A for the first time in 2009. Then a dispute between the club’s owners and the local council meant the team’s final home games were played in the city of Presidente Prudente, 300 miles from Barueri. The move became permanent in 2010, with the club becoming Grêmio Prudente. The team was sold to a group of Barueri businessmen a year later, but like Ipatinga, had already entered a seemingly terminal decline, and was relegated from Serie D last year, falling out of the national championship.

If things are hard for smaller clubs in the wealthier south and south east of Brazil, what must it be like in the poorer north and north east, where even the region’s big clubs struggle to compete with the spending power of the likes of Corinthians and São Paulo (themselves, lest we forget, burdened with enormous debts)?

In a word, grim. While a number of clubs in the northern half of Brazil boast huge popular support, many of their smaller rivals struggle to draw any kind of a crowd at all, and are reliant on the dubious largesse of local politicians and businessmen to survive. And given the financial hardship of the region, such investment is inevitably on a rather different level to that provided by the likes of Red Bull or Pão de Açucar. One of Recife’s most historic clubs, América, six times winners of the Campeonato Pernambucano, was recently served with a court order demanding the repossession of its headquarters, while the local championship in Brazil’s most northerly state, Roraima, featured only six teams in 2014. And as has been documented at great length, crowds at games in many other Brazilian states are hardly big enough to fill small stadiums – let alone the giant World Cup arenas of cities such as Manaus, Brasília and Cuiabá.

English soccer diehards have long cursed the existence of Surrey (or Cornwall, or Ireland) based Manchester United fans, but enough English fans support their local clubs for such clubs to survive, just about. The club with the lowest gates among England’s 92 league sides is Accrington Stanley, watched by just under 1,500 fans per game. In Brazil, a country with over three times the population of England, 37 of the 101 clubs that played in Series A, B, C and D last year drew smaller crowds than Stanley, while 27 teams were watched by less than a thousand people per match.

Many Brazilians’ apathy towards their local clubs is remarkable and depressing, but the reasons are simple enough. Whereas the industrial towns of the north and midlands of England grew and developed at the same time as the game did, giving provincial sides such as Preston North End and Sheffield Wednesday the chance to establish a strong local fan base long before London asserted its dominance, modern Brazilian society emerged later, with soccer spreading out from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the early 1900s. Not long after that the popularity of radio began to grow, allowing the broadcast of games of teams such as Flamengo and Vasco da Gama across the country. That made it considerably more tempting for fans in the remoter parts of Brazil to cheer for a glamorous team from Rio or São Paulo than for the local team – if there even was one.

Economic migration also played a part. The construction of a new capital, Brasília, and the “March to the West” program, which encouraged Brazilians in the south east to move to younger western cities such as Goiânia, may have drawn thousands of settlers to the midwestern flatlands – but by and large they were settlers who already had a favorite soccer team from back home.

The national dominance of the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo clubs is perpetuated today by Brazil’s huge TV networks, based in the same southeastern metropolises – Flamengo or Corinthians matches are broadcast live every Sunday to parts of the country where the local game is weak. There are pockets of resistance – Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul are dominated by the giants from the state capitals, and in northeastern cities such as Recife, Salvador, Fortaleza and São Luis support for local teams is strong, but everywhere else in Brazil, soccer is spoken with a Paulista or Carioca accent.

The lack of support – and subsequently, cash – for Brazil’s smaller clubs is heightened by the country’s soccer calendar. After the state championships finish in May, only a few teams will qualify for Serie D, the bottom rung of the national championship – and financial hardship means many of those who do are unable to pay their bills for the second part of the year, and so simply give up their places. Those that do not qualify simply release their players and shut up shop for the rest of the year, resulting, according to the Bom Senso FC player protest movement, in around 12,000 unemployed players in the second half of the season.

Faced with massive debts, the loss of their best players to foreign leagues, and issues such as hooligan violence, Brazil’s biggest clubs like to complain about how tough it is at the top – while simultaneously spending money they do not have on new signings. Perhaps a spell on the factory floor with the country’s unloved, under-funded smaller clubs might provide a much needed wake-up call to the grim reality of life at the sharp end of Brazilian soccer.

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