Brazil drops ball in soccer

On Sunday, the once-mighty national team faces an uphill struggle to qualify for World Cup finals.

In most countries, organizing a national sport tournament is not a monumental task.

But when it comes to soccer, Brazil is not most countries. It may be the spiritual home of the game; the place that gave us Pele and Ronaldo; the only nation to win the World Cup four times.

Yet it is also the country where last year's national league tournament was postponed, cancelled, and then started with 116 teams instead of the usual 22. It is the country where this year's playing schedule was announced 10 days late. It is the land where the ruling federation has obliged teams to play in up to seven different competitions each year, pushing players to exhaustion and giving harried coaches less time to experiment with new players and tactics.

For years, Brazil has triumphed on the field in spite of the disorder off it. But now, longstanding mismanagement, corruption, and disorganization have left the beloved national sport in shambles and triggered a congressional investigation.

Today, the league calendar is in disarray, the national team is suffering its worst-ever run of results, and a series of scandals have tarnished the reputation of a country whose soccer was once synonymous with authority, flair, and joy.

The chaos has devastated the country's fans, who for decades have used football as a way of forgetting about corruption, political shenanigans, and the economic hardship that plague their daily lives. Spectators are angry at dull matches and losing teams, recently taunting one national coach with epithets of burro, or donkey.

"Football is not just a sport here, it is part of the culture, a way of life," says Jose Geraldo Couto, soccer columnist with the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. "And right now Brazilian football is discredited. Our opponents no longer fear the national team, and our clubs and supporters no longer respect it. If the Brazilian national team has not yet reached the bottom of the well, it is close to it, as both a soccer team and a national institution."

Heading one of two congressional commissions set up to look into the sorry state of the game, Communist Party Deputy Aldo Rebelo has uncovered a web of corruption and dirty deals.

During public hearings held over the past nine months, witnesses described a fake document network that allowed several Brazilian players to get false European Union passports that facilitated their transfer to European clubs. (Football authorities on Wednesday banned seven Brazilian players in the scandal.)

Testimony also focused on the national team's former coach, who allegedly selected players solely to increase their transfer value and then pocketed a percentage of the fee after they were sold to a European team. (The coach was later fired.) Witnesses testified that tax evasion and even money laundering is common among clubs, officials, and ruling federations. They also recounted how adult players often use false birth certificates to play in youth tournaments.

Mr. Rebelo ended the investigation by recommending that the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation and the heads of 21 state soccer federations be indicted for crimes ranging from tax evasion to money laundering. Prosecutors are determining whether there is enough evidence to bring charges. Brazilians are also chafing at the contract their soccer federation signed with Nike, the US sports firm that sponsors Brazil's national team. The terms, reviewed during the hearings, oblige the Brazil coach to include eight "first team players." in two exhibition matches organized by Nike. The contract also permits Nike to supply suitable opponents. Similar demands by sponsors on national teams are increasingly common. But Rebelo lashed out at Nike, saying: "The patrimony of the Brazilian people cannot be left at the mercy of the interests of a multinational company."

Meanwhile, many Brazilian clubs are in such dire financial shape that they cannot afford to pay their players. Top clubs like Flamengo and Botafogo haven't issued paychecks since March. Many top Brazilian players play for European clubs who are reluctant to let them take time off to train with the national side. The clubs, who pay multimillion dollar salaries and compete in increasingly lucrative tournaments, now rival the international teams in prestige, and Brazilian players are accused of not giving their all for their country.

The dire state of Brazil's soccer is reflected most sharply in the fortunes of the national team. Long recognized as the best in the world, Brazil has won the World Cup an unequalled four times.

Today, however, standards are at an all-time low. Earlier this month Brazil took part in the Confederations Cup international tournament and lost to Australia, the first time it had ever gone down to a team from Oceania. It failed to beat - or ever score a goal against! - Canada and Japan, traditionally weak soccer nations. Last year, the youth squad went to the Sydney Olympics hoping to win the one international title that has eluded Brazil. Instead, the team was unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by a Cameroon team playing with only nine men.

The once-mighty Brazil faces an uphill struggle to qualify for World Cup Finals. The team has already lost important qualifying ties to Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay. While that would be no disgrace to most other South American teams, it is a disaster for Brazil, who until last year had lost only one World Cup qualifier, in La Paz, Bolivia in 1993.

Brazil currently languishes in fourth place in the 10-team South American qualifying group. Only the top four teams qualify automatically for next year's competition in Japan and Korea. On Sunday, Brazil takes on one of its closest rivals, the sixth-placed Uruguay, in a crunch qualifier in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The appointment of a new coach has raised spirits, but Brazilians are acutely aware that if they lose, the nation's proud record of being the only country to play in every World Cup will be seriously threatened. "If we don't get to the finals, I wouldn't like to predict what might happen," says Couto. "There will be serious repercussions, perhaps even politically." The other political question is whether authorities will act on the congressional probe and seek indictments.

Brazil's soccer federation has now issued a four-year plan to end the chaos in game schedules. The new calendar, criticized by small clubs as unfair to them, will limit state championships in favor of regional tournaments and reduce the number of club games a year.

Of most immediate interest to Brazilian sports fans, however, are the offensives against the Uruguayan goal, beginning Sunday in Montevideo.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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