Soccer City: Brasília – an idea that hasn’t captured football

NATION capitals are very often not the seat of power in football – London, for example, has enjoyed periods of domination, but over the course of the past 50 years, Manchester and Liverpool have been England’s dominant cities as far as the beautiful game is concerned.

Across Europe, a similar tale is told – Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Austria, to name but a few, have seen their capitals challenged and usurped by other cities.

Brasília, the capital of Brazil since April 1960, is different to so many other principal cities, chiefly because it was a purpose-built metropolis for administering a somewhat fragmented country. There are no long-established football clubs in the way both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have the game firmly embedded in their psyche, culture and history.

Today, Brasília has no representatives in the top levels of Brazilian football. It has a notable stadium that hosted games during the 2014 World Cup, but the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha remains a somewhat ghostly place that has been used for a number of different events, but rarely major football.

Tattoo conventions and culinary events have been held at the stadium and it is also used as a bus depot by the local authority, but it sits in a barren landscape and has become shabby. The general consensus tells us there is not a strong appetite to bring top football back to Brasília even though like all Brazilian cities, there are thousands and thousands of passionate fans.

The original stadium dated back to 1974 but the rebuild was designed to make a grand statement for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. With a total cost of US$ 900 million, three times the envisaged bill, It is the third most expensive stadium ever built. As white elephants go, it’s one of the biggest. State officials have hinted it was a mistake to build such a structure in a city like Brasília and have calculated that it will take 100 years to recoup just 12% of the overall cost.

Brasília, of course, is a city renowned for its ambitious and striking architecture. When the city was built in the late 1950s – it took just four years – Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, along with structural engineer Joaquim Cardozo created a number of breathtaking buildings which kick-started the Brazilian modernism movement. Brasília, which was seen at an attempt at creating a utopian city, sat at the heart of the Distrito Federal, a new capital for the nation in an area that was largely undeveloped. In 1960, the population was around 136,000 but today, Brasília has over 2.5 million people. It is regarded as a relatively affluent place, notably around the Plano Pilato, the centre of the city, but elsewhere there are slums and poverty.

In 1960, Brazil was considered one of the homes of the modern game, their national team won the 1958 World Cup and retained it in 1962, and their football was admired the world over.

It takes time to establish a football team, but in a country with legendary names like Flamengo, Corinthians, Santos, Botafogo and Fluminense, all from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, it’s not just about creating something attractive, it’s also a lot to do with changing mindsets. The top clubs from Rio and São Paulo have bigger fanbases in Brasília than any local team has ever had. The people moving to the new capital, largely civil servants and construction workers, brought their club allegiances with them.

These cities have dominated a Brazilian football culture that incorporates beaches, favelas and street football. Brasília’s problem is that many have seen it as being “unBrazilian” in that it has lacked the dynamic of the rich living alongside the poor. While this includes extreme suffering and high crime rates, it also cultivates a form of creative tension and aspiration among young people hell-bent on escaping the deprivation through football. But it could be changing as Brasília confronts classic Brazilian problems of inequality, congestion and urban sprawl.

Many footballers have come from poor and deprived neighbourhoods but the Federal District has produced some excellent players, such as Kaká, who was born in Gama, close to Brasília.

Creating new, local clubs with a credible following has always been difficult, some have been formed by entrepreneurs that have fallen by the wayside. The oldest professional club in the city is Brasília Futebol Clube, founded in June 1975. Playing in a kit that resembles Arsenal’s famous red and white, their home ground is the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, but it is simply too expensive for small clubs to host games there. Although they have won the state league (one of the weakest) eight times, they are not even in the Campeonato Brasilense’s top division.

Brasília played in Série A in 2000 when an expanded league (116 clubs) paid tribute to former FIFA President João Havelange. In 2014, they won the inaugural Copa Verde, a regional competition designed to promote football outside of the main hubs, gaining entry to the Copa Sudamericana.

Legião are another club that are supposed to play their games at the Estádio Nacional. They were founded in 2006. They have played in Série C, albeit very briefly. Real Brasília were formed in 1994 and play out at Vila Planalto. They are simply known as Real Football Club today. Teams like Gama and Brasilense have tried to make play at representing Brasília, but the distance from the city to the club is 30km and 20km respectively.

If there can be any comparison with the struggle to make Brasília a footballing stronghold, it is in the new towns of Britain, where migration of people has been accompanied by their clubs, in other words, in locations like Milton Keynes, Stevenage, Basildon and Harlow, establishing a local club has had to overcome numerous hurdles.

It’s unlikely this will change, the best hope for the unloved national stadium is a commercial development that will circle the structure. It might pay, although it’s not what was envisaged. But if a World Cup cannot inspire a city, what hope is there? The old saying is, “build it and they will come”. That hasn’t really happened, has it?


Photo: PA

Grand design stadiums are fine, but what about the neighbours?

THE INFORMATION emerging from the Champions League final debacle becomes more revealing and disturbing by the day. As well as images of extraordinarily bad behaviour from the French police, there are stories of local gangs attacking both Liverpool and Real Madrid fans. So distressed were some Liverpool fans they have vowed never to follow their side abroad, and let’s not forget this is a club of passionate followers. The Stade de France may be a landmark stadium, but its location and surrounding infrastructure surely has to be questioned after such a shambolic evening.

Former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry did actually warn people about Saint-Denis, saying “you don’t want to go there” to a US journalist. It’s not the first time people have remarked on the perils of the neighbourhood, indeed, if you wanted further evidence, in the aftermath of the game, reporters were hassled by groups of young boys live on TV.

But more importantly, and more worrying, was the antics of large groups of youths assaulting Liverpool fans, despite the presence of thousands of people and a large police presence, who seemed unwilling to help.

The ramifications of this disastrous night for UEFA, for France and for the concept of pan-European club competition could be very significant. It also destroyed Emmanuel Macron’s aim of showcasing France’s ability to organise major sports events ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

One would hope UEFA will not use Stade de France for any future major finals and would deem the venue, in its current form, unsuitable for large groups of visiting fans. Why? Because spectator safety goes beyond what happens in the stadium and as hosts, French authorities have a responsibility to ensure visitors are safe. It’s surely a public order issue? The stadium itself may be fine, but clearly Saint-Denis is a place to be avoided.

Before anyone protests that what happens outside the location is not necessarily connected to the event, then think again. If this was a political summit, attended by VIPs, you would assume the police and emergency services would be on red alert. The hordes of “undesirables” would be kept well away from the venue, with an overbearing police presence and surveillance of potential flashpoints. Saint-Denis is renowned for its crime rate – among the highest in Europe, certainly in France – so surely the police were aware that football fans with money, mobile phones and other valuables would be a target of roaming and organised thieves? It is also an area with a high degree of poverty.

UEFA has to be more discerning about the choice of final venues. In the past 20 years, we have seen problems in Moscow where English fans were exploited by hotels and other businesses at the Champions League final and also the ludicrous situation where Arsenal and Chelsea played the Europa League final in, of all places, Baku. UEFA has to realise big cities with big stadiums are not necessarily the optimal sites for every cup final for a number of reasons – ranging from personal safety to logistics and economics.

We have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on?

The problem and the questions should go far deeper about the suitability of certain neighbourhoods for big occasion sport. When new stadiums are being planned, how often do the companies involved, be they architects, town planners, accountants and financiers, consider the suitability of the local environment from the perspective of people?

It’s great placing a shining new structure in an available plot, but does anyone calculate how 30,000 – 40,000 people arriving in the vicinity will affect local people and how will an area of high crime and social problems impact on a mass crowd? There’s a similar comparison in London in the form of Tottenham’s magnificent new ground, which sits in one of London’s poorest boroughs with a crime rate among the 10 highest in the city.

It is a truly remarkable construct, but it is surrounded by poverty, shabby retail outlets and down-trodden estates. It is not difficult to imagine some resentment stirring, although the club and those responsible for the building of the 60,000 stadium hoped its arrival would be the catalyst for regeneration.

There is another aspect to consider. Ever since UEFA (and FIFA) introduced their “fan parks”, the movement of supporters may have increased substantially. According to some reports, there were 150,000 Liverpool fans in Paris for the final, the majority of which has absolutely no chance of getting a ticket. Perhaps the idea of attracting greater numbers to be part of the occasion has created an unintended consequence? UEFA has to dispense with the idea of exploiting the occasion in favour of what is realistically achievable.

Inner city stadiums became very passé in the 1990s and the logical thing for football clubs to do was sell their grounds for a handsome profit to developers and move to an out-of-town or less expensive site. In the UK, this has proven to be quite successful, even though supporters are often dragged out of the ancestral home kicking and screaming. But while transport links are uppermost in the developer’s mind, there surely has to be a discussion around security. Saint-Denis may not be typical of many major stadiums in continental Europe, but it would appear to be unwelcoming for vast crowds of visiting fans. Furthermore, we have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on from the days when supporters were treated with disdain by police?

UEFA has apologised to Liverpool and Real Madrid fans, but the French authorities remain stubbornly in denial, about what happened and also about their own rising crime rate. UEFA’s response should be a [temporary] ban on French football grounds staging finals as a neutral host. The Champions League final has shown they are reluctant to be accountable for what goes on under their jurisdiction. As for stadium builders, there must be some lessons to be learned from May 28 2022.