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?

FIFA Club World Cup: Chelsea’s bauble, but now scrap it or expand it properly

AS A Chelsea fan, I am pleased the club has won the FIFA Club World Cup, but I cannot help feeling the competition is an unnecessary interlude that we could do without. It’s hard to get too excited about a seven team tournament with five makeweights and a decent team from South America. 

It has all the attraction of a pre-season competition that could easily be diluted to an annual play-off between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the UEFA Champions League, but even then, is that worth it? We all know that the top European clubs are too strong for the best that South America can offer.

This isn’t trying to dismiss the top teams from Argentina and Brazil, because there’s nothing more romantic than the idea of Chelsea versus Boca Juniors, Manchester City versus River Plate and Liverpool against Flamengo. But this kind of imaginative thinking belonged to an age where unknown, mysterious teams used to play Europe’s top club in the old Club World Championship, a two-legged tie which was often brutal, dramatic and bordering on feral.

There’s nothing better in sport than claiming your team is the best in the world, but the FIFA Club World Cup is not the competition that truly determines that lofty title. It’s six teams who won their regional champions league along with a host nation side. It’s a little like putting the Premier League champions in a competition with the winners of the Championship, League One, League Two and National League and expecting a meaningful and satisfying tournament.

It’s no wonder it is hard work trying to get Europeans to take it seriously, they’ve been brought up on bloated competitions like the UEFA Champions League, the European Championship, the World Cup and Europa League. They have to work hard for their trophies, but the FIFA Club World Cup looks like a mid-season break, a few days in the sun to play a semi-final and final. Great for the fans who make the trip to places like the Middle East, Japan or Morocco, but there needs to be more substance.

If FIFA wants people to take it more seriously, then the competition has to be moved to centre stage. In other words, host it in a major football nation rather than the equivalent of football’s emerging markets. The cynics among us see this is as a way of raising money from highly-enthused associations who want credibility and to be part of the game’s mainstream and are willing to pay for it. A perfectly respectable ambition, but sometimes it appears FIFA are overdoing it. Want the FIFA Club World Cup to capture the imagination of a global audience? Move it to Madrid, Berlin, Paris or Buenos Aires. Better still, if they don’t fancy giving the 2030 World Cup to Uruguay, why not get them to stage the first expanded World Club Cup? Let the rising nations host it by all means, but if you want to build some positive momentum, get the mature markets behind it.

As it stands, the current format needs scrapping, for a minimalist format simply has too many weak teams. Put it another way, if the regular World Cup was a seven-team competition, how would Brazil, England, Mexico, Tahiti, UAE, Saudi and Egypt look? If, however, it was a 16-team programme, there would be enough strong sides to make for a more balanced schedule.

The South Americans see the competition as being prestigious and the idea of a World Cup for clubs, in theory, should be just that. They want to pit their skills against European clubs who have more money, dominate the football media and make the most noise. Since it became what it is today, Europe’s teams have been far too strong and the last winner from CONMEBOL was Corinthians in 2012, who beat Chelsea 1-0. 

In theory, given the financial resources and depth of their squad, Chelsea should win the FIFA Club World Cup. According to Transfermarkt, Chelsea’s squad is valued at £ 795 million, while Palmeiras’s is worth around £ 162 million. So, if nothing else, there is more at stake in not winning than actually winning as far as the club’s reputation is concerned.

That’s not a reason to run such a lop-sided and shallow competition. FIFA wanted to expand to a 24-team format, but the pandemic got in the way. They should experiment with 16 and see how it is received, not just by the fans, but also the participants. There’s already a crowded fixture calendar, so they have to find a way to make any new concept workable. 

Otherwise, bad organisation, domestic disruption and a tepid reaction from those clubs involved would make the exercise a failure. Meanwhile, Chelsea will enjoy another trophy and the supporters will relish singing “Champions of the World”, but the real pleasure is from denying someone else the honour. And that was probably the motivation all along. “We know it isn’t really a big deal, but we are not allowing another team the opportunity to say they are the best in the world.”