While Jerome Valcke, Sepp Blatter and football fans all over the world have been wringing their hands over the delays, accidents and sense of loosely organised chaos that surrounds Brazil’s World Cup preparations, a thought should be spared for fans of the domestic game in the country.
For the troubled build-up to the Fifa jamboree is a well-oiled machine compared to the organisation of club football in Brazil.
“This campaign is damaging football… it’s creating chaos… it could bring down the system. That’s what they want. And if that happens, then it’s over. No more Brasileirao,” said Flavio Zveiter, the president of the STJD, Brazil’s sporting court, last week.
Zveiter was talking about the crisis involving Rio’s Fluminense, who were relegated after finishing fourth from bottom of this year’s Serie A, and Portuguesa, a much smaller club from Sao Paulo, who narrowly escaped the drop.
That was until it was discovered that Portuguesa had fielded an illegible player, Heverton, for the dying minutes of their meaningless final league game against Gremio. The STJD applied a penalty of three points, plus the loss of the point earned from the game, which finished 0-0. That was enough to push the club down into the relegation zone, saving Fluminense.
Portuguesa unsuccessfully appealed against the decision, arguing that the club had made an honest mistake and that Heverton’s suspension had not been officially published on the CBF computer system until the Monday after the game.
Curiously, before the hearing, Portuguesa requested the removal of STJD prosecutor Paulo Schmitt from proceedings, as he had previously made his feelings on the case abundantly clear to the press – “they’ve brought Fluminense back to life!” he had crowed on discovering Portuguesa’s original error.
Mr Schmitt’s exclusion would have been a shame, denying fans the pleasure of a grandstand performance in which he advised Portuguesa to “follow Nelson Mandela’s advice to his people - to forgive, but not forget.” It is rumoured that only time prevented the noble prosecutor from also referencing the teachings of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
As far as the STJD were concerned, that was the end of the matter. But followers of Brazilian football, where a loss is always someone else’s fault and every possible option must be exhausted before defeat can be grudgingly accepted, knew better.
The STJD exists because sporting disputes, based as they are on the rulebook rather than common law, cannot be dealt with on the same basis as civil or criminal cases. But when an STJD ruling is not to the liking of one of the parties, the drastic option exists of seeking redress in the courts, even though such an action is prohibited not just by the CBF but also by Fifa.
It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a course of action that is becoming more and more popular in Brazil, where trust in authorities such as the CBF or STJD is in short supply.
In both of the last two seasons, for example, Serie C of the national league has ended up in the courts. In 2012 the division was paralysed for a month as judges flung around injunctions protecting the rights of Brasil de Pelotas, Treze and Araguaina to a place in the division, though only Treze were ultimately successful in their bid.
Last year, following the shambles of the previous season, the division kicked off with 21 teams, and ended with little Betim obtaining a court order that blocked a CBF points deduction for the non-payment of transfer fees which would have removed the club from the play-off spots. The imbroglio resulted in the farcical suspension of the Mogi Mirim v Santa Cruz tie as the teams warmed up on the pitch, and after a few hundred visiting fans had travelled almost 2000 kilometres to watch the game.
It seems as though the Brazilian top flight may dissolve into the same chaos in World Cup year, as last week a Sao Paulo judge ordered the removal of Portuguesa’s four point penalty following legal action brought by a fan of the club, in theory dumping Fluminense back into Serie B. The STJD has promised that the decision will be overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, the other three relegated clubs, Vasco, Ponte Preta and Nautico, keen to uphold standards of truth, justice and the Brazilian football way, are ready to exploit any loopholes. "They can’t have a championship with 21 teams,” said Glauber Vasconcelos, the president of Nautico. “Either everybody is relegated or nobody is relegated. If Portuguesa don’t go down, then we don’t go down either.” His morally aggrieved club, it should be noted, finished last, 17 points adrift of second from bottom Ponte Preta.
The CBF, which in these situations resembles a gin soaked granny snoring on the sofa as the unruly grandkids shave the dog, is of course bound by the decisions of the common law courts. At present, it seems entirely possible that the organisation will take Mr Vasconcelos’ advice and cancel relegation completely. That could lead to a 24 team top flight in 2014, divided into two groups of twelve with play-offs to decide the title.
Something that, according to the esteemed Mr Zveiter, could open up Pandorinha’s Box. “If you stage a competition with 24 teams, then that means any team from Serie B can get a court order and get promoted too,” he sobbed.
Brazilian football is no stranger to such chaos. Whether Sport of Recife or Flamengo were the rightful winners of the 1987 league title is as long drawn out a saga as Peter Jackson’s rendering of The Hobbit, and from the creation of the first official national championship in 1971, until pontos corridos (the standard round-robin style structure) was introduced in 2003, the structure of the league changed on a seemingly annual basis (1986, in which no fewer than 80 teams competed for the league title, is a personal favourite).
Fluminense, ironically enough, have dodged a stint in Serie B on two separate occasions thanks to the tapetao, a local term for behind the scenes legal jiggery-pokery – once in 1996, following (another) refereeing scandal, and once in 2000, when the club was fast-tracked from Serie C to Serie A following (another) league restructuring.
Mr Zveiter will well remember 2005, when his father Luiz was in charge of the STJD as the title switched hands from Internacional to Corinthians after a number of games were replayed following a referee match fixing scandal.
While the possibility of a return to play-off format would be cheered by those bored by Cruzeiro’s romp to the title last year (the round-robin structure common to most countries is not yet fully accepted by every Brazilian fan), it would also set the development of Brazilian club football back a distance.
For the domestic game has long been weakened by its emphasis, both on and off the field, on triumphs as meaningless and ephemeral as winning a child’s game of pass the parcel, whether it is in the form of local state titles or knockout cup wins against inferior opposition, or a one-off clássico defeat of a hated rival, instead of long-term stability and growth.