When the Brazil national team went to Gabon in November 2011 to play a friendly, no one was surprised that arguably the most famous sports team in the world had pitched up in one of the more remote corners of Fifa’s territory – they had, after all, played Zimbabwe in Harare the previous year, with Robert Mugabe in attendance.
The “Brasil Global Tour”, with commercial partners including Chevrolet, Nike, Gillette and Ypioca (“developing the art of making high-quality cachaca for over 160 years”), has long been in the business of organising games in countries where the till rings longest. This was a major commercial opportunity yoked to the back of one of the world’s finest sporting traditions long before Gillette were given rights to open a shaving booth at the media centre of the squad’s 2014 World Cup training ground.
The Gabon game was a watershed because documents have emerged in Switzerland over the last week that reveal this was the moment when the multinational Saudi Arabian company that sells everything from the Brazil team’s television rights to the spaces on their sponsors’ livery realised its own priorities were not fundamental enough to the operation. After 2011, it decided it would like to help pick the players as well.
An investigation by the Brazilian journalist Jamil Chade, based in Switzerland, has discovered the new terms of the contract between the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) and ISE, a Cayman Islands-registered subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian multinational Dallah Al Baraka, for the rights to Brazil’s games. Chade’s Sao Paulo newspaper Estadao presented the deal under the headline “How the CBF ‘sold’ the Brazil team” and it would be hard to argue.
The Gabon game in 2011 forced the change after Brazil sent a squad without the likes of Neymar, Marcelo and Kaka for the friendly and another against Egypt in Doha four days later. A subsequent amendment was written into the ISE contract, worth more than $1m a game, stipulating that the CBF would have to “guarantee” the presence of what it called “Team A” players at every game, or face a 50 per cent cut to its appearance fee.
The contract said any change to that list would have to be “communicated in writing to ISE and confirmed by mutual agreement”. The CBF was obliged to replace those players – and the order of the criteria is telling – with what ISE stipulated were “new similar level players, with respect to marketing value, technical skills and reputation”. Meanwhile, injured players would have to be accounted for with a medical certificate presented to ISE, which rather puts into perspective the English Football Association’s gentle insistence to Premier League clubs that it gets sight of every knock and strain.
The weakened Brazil squad for the Gabon game gave a chance, among others, to David Luiz, previously unused at the Copa America that year, and now one of the most marketable stars in the team. Of course, there are few countries where there is such a proliferation of talent as Brazil, where you could imagine that a promising replacement might be found in any position, but that point seems to have been lost on those who have bought the rights to the canary-yellow shirts.
It asks the question whether the rebuilding needed after the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final at the Maracana last year will ever be able to succeed, given the kind of restrictions imposed on bringing young players into the Brazil squad. Many of Brazil’s World Cup qualifiers are straightforward, and five out of 10 countries go through from South America. It means that a good standard of opponent in friendlies is crucial.
Under the terms of the contract, even the final preparation games for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals will have to be played under the auspices of the “Team A” deal. What happens if the manager of the team wishes to place his faith in a young player in those last months before a tournament? Of course, cracking the Brazil team should be hard, it is one of the great sporting elites. But no player should have to be concerned about scoring low with the focus groups in Singapore.
Since the start of 2012, Brazil have played 51 games, 12 of them tournament matches on home soil over the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. In fact, the home World Cup meant that they played more games in Brazil than usual, with nine friendlies as well. There were also eight friendlies in the United States against various opponents. Pre-World Cup they also played, among others, Iraq in Sweden, Japan in Poland and Zambia in China. Since last summer’s tournament they have not played a single game on home soil.
After the World Cup they have played in, among other places, the US twice; Beijing against Argentina; Singapore against Japan and London against Chile. The latter could be justified for reasons of convenience, given where their players are based, although you could not make the same argument for the others. “Team A”, as the lawyers would have it, are racking up some air miles at the behest of their Saudi paymasters with the Cayman Islands’ PO Box.
Since August 2012, Brazil’s matches have been operated on behalf of ISE by Pitch International, a London-based television rights company which also sells the broadcast rights to England matches overseas. No explanation was forthcoming yesterday from Pitch, despite calls to its office. The notorious Ricardo Teixeira, the former CBF president who signed the last contract with ISE, now lives in Miami, having finally been forced to step down before the World Cup as the allegations of corruption against him became overwhelming.
Managing the Brazil team is a job like no other. All that tradition to live up to, all those extraordinary resources to deploy in the pursuit of success. Somewhere between being handed the directorship of a priceless museum collection and the command of the Red Army. A hard enough job, without having to justify your selection to a television rights executive on the other side of the world, who only wants to know whether the stars are playing.
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