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?

Soccer City: Mexico City waits for the coast to be clear

MEXICO is soccer mad and Mexicans are among the most passionate of fans. The country’s clubs dominate CONCACAF football. When Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, thousands of Mexicans travelled to support their team, many selling-up at home to fund their trip, some using the competition as an excuse to relocate. Sometimes, things get out of hand, precisely why at present, Mexican fans are absent from some stadiums owing to homophobic chanting at games, a problem that has plagued Liga MX for some years.

Yet Mexico is a football country in every sense of the word – they have, after all, hosted two World Cups, in 1970 and 1986 and research has suggested that around 75% of the country’s urban population are interested in the game. 

The Mexico-held World Cups were both memorable occasions, two of the best World Cups of all time, even though the big worry when they were named as hosts was the altitude of the country. 

Liga MX, Mexico’s premier football league, is among the best supported in the world: between 2013 and 2018, the league’s average attendance (25,582) was the fourth highest in the world and it remains the biggest draw outside of Europe three years on.

Mexico City is 2,250 metres above sea level and is known as D.F. among the locals, Distrito Federal. With a population of 9.2 million, it is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. 

Unsurprisingly, the city has won more Mexican championships than any other metropolis. Between the four main clubs, Mexico City has 32 titles to its name, compared to Guadalajara’s 13 and Toluca’s 10.

The most loved and hated club in Mexico is Club América from the capital. América, who were formed in 1916, have been champions 13 times and have also won the CONCACAF Champions League on seven occasions. They have one foot in the final this year after beating Philadelphia Union 2-0 in the first leg of the semi-final. If they succeed, they will play fellow Liga MX sides Cruz Azul or Monterrey in the final, making it the ninth all-Mexican final in the Champions League era. In the past 12 years, Mexican teams have won every competition. 

América’s rivals in the capital are Cruz Azul (formed 1927) and UNAM (formed 1954), otherwise known as Club Universidad Nacional or the Pumas. There’s also Atlante, who are currently playing in Mexico’s second tier, Liga de Expansión MX. Clashes between América and Cruz Azul are known as Clásico Joven, while América v UNAM is the Clásico Capitalino.

Despite these intense local encounters, characterised by incessant noise, drums and much flag-waving, Club América versus Guadalajara is seen as the biggest game in Mexican football. The three teams from Mexico City plus Guadalajara are known as the Cuatro Grandes (the big four) of Mexican football, the most influential and newsworthy institutions in the game.

In Mexico City, the three main clubs have very different crowds, América are supposedly the club of the wealthy, Cruz Azul are very much a working class team and UNAM have long been known for having intellectual and middle class fans.

América and Cruz Azul both play at the iconic Azteca stadium (Estadio Azteca), which was opened in 1966 and used in the 1968 Olympic games, as well as the World Cup in 1970 and 1986. When it was constructed, it was a remarkable arena but the capacity has been dramatically reduced since the days when over 100,000 people attended matches at the Azteca. The stadium can claim to have been the venue for the infamous Diego Maradona goal in 1986 and the fabled 1970 World Cup final.

Cruz Azul, who were formed in Hidalgo as Cementos Cruz Azul, before moving to Mexico City, have won the title nine times. They have also been CONCACAF champions six times, the most recent being in 2014. The club pulled off a unique treble in 1968-69 when they won the CONCACAF Champions League, Mexican Primera División and Copa Mexico. They repeated the trick in 1997.

Cruz Azul were champions of the Torneo Guardianes in 2021, a competition named after the doctors and health professionals who helped Mexico through the pandemic. They beat Santos Laguna in the final 2-1 on aggregate with Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodríguez scoring the vital goal at the Estadio Azteca. This ended a barren run for the club that had earned them the reputation of being “chokers” at vital moments. Like América, they have played the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, losing 1-0 to Monterrey. The second leg is on September 17 2021.

UNAM, who play at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, are struggling in LigaMX this season and have won just one of their first six games. The club hasn’t won a major honour since 2011 when they lifted the Clausura by beating Morelia in the final. It is getting increasingly difficult for UNAM to be competitive as, financially, they currently operate differently from other Mexican clubs. They do not have income from big sponsorship so the club has to survive on much lower levels of funding granted by the university.

Mexican football, generally, has financial issues owing to the pandemic with the estimated cost of the crisis running to around US$ 200 million. Some clubs have lost backers and sponsors due to the financial climate. The league suspended promotion and relegation because of a need to stabilise after the pandemic, but is this merely a step towards the sort of closed league structure that US sport advocates? There is growing interest in a combined North American league involving Mexico, Canada and the United States and it is likely, given the 2026 World Cup will be held across these countries, that stronger partnerships will develop between the leagues.

Liga MX is the best paid Latin American league with an average salary of between US$ 350,000 and US$ 400,000. There is a big reliance on TV income and around 55% of the league’s revenues are derived from broadcasting. Certainly TV audiences for Mexican games dwarf Major League Soccer’s viewing figures. There’s little doubt that Mexico City is one of the world’s great football hubs but given the number of people who live in poverty, the covid-19 pandemic has hit some areas of the city very hard and it will surely take time for normal service to be resumed. Mexico has seen the fourth highest number of deaths worldwide (256,000) and a total of around 3.3 million cases have been recorded. Sorting out football is the least of their worries at the moment.