Flamengo and Palmeiras still on course for a classic Copa

THE COPA Libertadores continues to be dominated by Brazilian clubs and three of them made the last four of the competition this season: Palmeiras, Athletico Paranaense (AP) and Flamengo. As things stand, the final is almost certainly to be an all-Brazilian affair after the first legs of the semi-final were played. AP beat Palmeiras 1-0, which has done little to alter the belief that the holders are bound for the final. Flamengo, meanwhile, won 4-0 in Argentina against Véléz Sarsfield in the first leg. Most pundits expect a repeat of the 2021 final, Palmeiras of São Paulo against Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo, although AP have a slender margin and they know how to play their opponents – they won 2-0 at Palmeiras at the beginning of July. The final will be played in Guayaquil, Ecuador and is a one-off match.

For the past two seasons, Brazil has had five teams in the last eight and in the last four years, 17 of the 32 quarter-finalists. Argentina has provided a further nine. But Brazil’s superiority in the competition seems to be the catalyst for the emergence of what some people are comparing to the duopoly that has existed in Spain for decades, in other words, South America’s biggest country has its own Real Madrid and Barcelona in the form of Palmeiras and Flamengo. These two clubs have the financial strength to outperform most rivals at home and abroad, hence they have won the Copa Libertadores for the past three years and met in the final last year.

Meanwhile, at home, the Brazilian league has been shared between these two clubs five times in the past six years and this season, they currently fill the top two places in Série A.

Brazil’s position in South American club football looks set to be enhanced in the next few years as the business models of the country’s top division start to change and the prospect of a new super league structure becomes more realistic.

A new law has been passed which allows outside investment into clubs that have traditionally been non-profit making member organisations, a move that could transform their status globally as well as in Brazil as they introduce a more diverse investor base. The timing of this law change is important as Brazilian football was badly hit by the pandemic with revenues falling among the top 20 clubs by more than 30% to US$ 1.04 billion and only partially recovering a year later.

In 2021, the top two clubs by income, Flamengo (US$ 194 million) and Palmeiras (US$ 163 million), are way ahead of their opponents in Brazil, but they are also some distance off benchmarking themselves with European clubs. Player trading is key for Brazilian clubs, but transfer activity also fell and the average transfer value in Brazil declined from close to € 20 million to some € 13 million. Overall, the top flight made losses of over US$ 1 billion and the clubs had debts of close to US$ 2 billion.

One of the keys to future growth is a more lucrative and competitive TV broadcasting deal. In 2021, the top division in Brazil received around US$ 700 million from broadcasting, a fraction of what the top European leagues earn each year. International TV rights contribute a mere 1% to Brazilian club revenues.

The new law has already sparked a lot of interest from investors in the US and Europe. The situation had already started to change with Cruzeiro and Botafogo both being taken over, followed by Vasco da Gama. The biggest deal in the pipeline is a 51% acquisition of Atlético Mineiro. There has also been talk of initial public offerings for Corinthians and Palmeiras. There’s no doubt that the big Rio and São Paulo football institutions will be attractive and analysts are predicting that within two years, 10 major clubs will be investor-owned.

The possibility of clubs having more money will change the current landscape, most notably in wages, global perception and player development, as well as the ability to lure more sponsorship. It is not inconceivable that this will level-up discussions with European clubs.  It may also allow Brazilian clubs to keep their raw talent longer before the almost inevitable sale to Europe’s top clubs, thereby raising the price of more mature players. Brazil has more footballers employed in foreign leagues than any other country and in 2021, there were 1,700 transfers involving Brazilian players, but the total cost was just under US$ 300 million. This compares poorly to other major markets – Spanish players, for example, generated US$ 342 million from 537 deals during the same period.

Certainly the potential is there to leverage Brazil’s rich sporting heritage and align its domestic football with the country’s international reputation. The national team is loved across all continents, thanks to a period in time when the colourful nature of their football captivated audiences. Although some of the romance has long gone, Brazilian football still has some big name clubs that are recognised around the world. Brazil’s elite clubs have huge followings and some can draw vast crowds, such as Flamengo (average 55,000), Corinthians (39,000), Palmeiras (35,000) and Atlético Mineiro (33,000), but the average crowd across Série A this season is 21,500. In a country so vast and populous (and, admittedly, with a high poverty rate), there should be upside.

It is evident that Palmeiras and Flamengo have the players and financial resources to remain successful and if the right investors come along, Brazilian football may have found its Premier League moment and the standard-bearer clubs to go with it. The early signs are there is a strong appetite for Brazilian clubs, although it may take time to establish a solid business structure. The danger is that investors will be drawn to the big names and the smaller entities will find they are pushed even further away from the top bracket. That will replicate the sort of situation that currently prevails in many European leagues – is that really what Brazil wants or needs?

The good, the bad and then there’s Deyverson – Palmeiras retain the Libertadores

PALMEIRAS of São Paulo became the first South American club to retain the Copa Libertadores since Boca Juniors in 2001 in a somewhat disappointing final in the iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Palmeiras, affectionately known as Verdão (big green) or Porco (pig), deserved their victory against a shot-shy Flamengo from Rio de Janeiro.

We all admire South American cunning and guile, and Brazilian football’s reputation has been founded down the decades on the positives of the colourful Latino game, but it also has its less savoury, and occasionally, sinister side. Invariably, the reality of Brazil struggles to live up to the legend of 1970 and 1982.

Witness the appalling behaviour of matchwinner Deyverson, who attempted to feign injury when the referee, Juan Belatti, gave him a friendly tap. Rio-born Deyverson, who has played in Portugal and Spain, and briefly in Germany, assumed he had been knocked by a Flamengo player and went tumbling in theatrical style. He should have been carded, yellow at the very least.

Montevideo, the scene of the very first World Cup final in 1930, was swamped with Brazilian fans with hotels in the city fully booked for around a month. The Uruguayan capital was hoping for an economic boost from the influx of visitors after the financial problems of the past couple of years. The attendance for the final was over 55,000.

Given the status of the two sides, it was no surprise that the game was evenly-matched, although Palmeiras certainly enjoyed the best of the first period. They went ahead after five minutes when right back Mayke crossed low for Raphael Veiga to shoot past Diego Alves.

Despite their efforts, and they were stepped-up after the break, Flamengo didn’t equalise until 18 minutes from time. Needless to say, despite being quiet for most of the game, it was Gabriel Barbosa (Gabi), who netted with an angled drive that Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton should probably have stopped. Gabi scored both of Flamengo’s goals when they won the Copa Libertadores in 2019, beating Argentina’s River Plate in the final. Gabi netted 11 goals in the 2021 Copa Libertadores, making him the top scorer for the second time in three years.

Into extra time, Flamengo defender Andreas Pereira, currently on loan from Manchester United, slipped-up and Deyverson, who had only just come on as substitute, ran through and despite Alves getting a foot to the shot, the ball sailed into the net. Deyverson wiped away his tears as he celebrated. The São Paulo contingent in Montevideo went wild. It was enough for Palmeiras to secure a 2-1 victory.

The final underlined the dominance of Brazilian clubs in South America, which looks set to continue for the time being. A week before the Copa Libertadores, Athletico Paranaense won the Copa Sudamericana in Montevideo in another all-Brazilian final, beating Red Bull Bragantino 1-0. 

Brazil’s advantage in the region is also evident in the transfer market, with some big name players opting to return home, such as former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz (34) and Hulk (35). Admittedly, they are in their autumn years as players, but they could still command decent salaries in Europe.

Many clubs are crippled by debts, but Brazilian football still has cachet and is capable of attracting sizeable revenues. In 2019, for example, Brazilian clubs generated US$ 1.5 billion. As a comparison, the income of their counterparts in Chile and Argentina barely reached US$ 200 million in 2019. Flamengo, for example, enjoyed revenues of US$ 200 million, while Boca Juniors of Argentina, arguably the country’s biggest club, made around US$ 90 million. In all aspects – TV rights, sponsorship, transfer income, global profile – Brazil’s clubs out-perform their continental rivals.

In Série A, the season edges towards its conclusion with Atlético Mineiro top of the table, 11 points clear of Flamengo and 19 ahead of third-placed Palmeiras. Mineiro can clinch the title with victory against Bahia on December 2. And the team that includes Diego Costa of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid fame and Hulk could win the double as they play Paranaense in the Copa do Brasil final in December.

Meanwhile, Palmeiras and their hordes of supporters are celebrating and will enter the FIFA Club World Cup 2021, which will be played in February 2022 in the United Arab Emirates.