Rio strains after past glories

These days, Rio de Janeiro doesn't score among Brazil's top soccer clubs ... or cities.

For decades, Rio de Janeiro has been synonymous with samba and soccer. But while the music lives on in the Marvelous City's bars and clubs, there is not much singing and dancing in the stands these days.

When the final whistle blew on the Brazilian League Championship on Sunday, one Rio club was looking at life in the lowly second division and most of the others were coming to terms with mediocrity. Only one of the city's top four teams, Fluminense, qualified for the eight-team playoffs.

For a metropolis that has long prided itself on being the cradle of those two quintessen-tially Brazilian symbols, the demise of its soccer clubs is the latest blow to a city reeling from the loss of past glories.

Once the spectacular capital of the republic, Rio lost that honor in 1960 when the government built a new capital 700 miles away in Brasília. It has never really recovered: The loss of political influence was followed by a loss of economic and cultural dominance.

Most of that influence has gone to Rio's bitter rival, São Paulo. When the capital moved, so did the embassies. As Rio became less cosmopolitan, São Paulo became more so, as an influx of European and Asian immigrants helped to transform the city into Brazil's industrial powerhouse.

São Paulo is unquestionably the ugly sister compared with Rio's spectacular beaches and subtropical forests. But the city has overcome that complex to establish itself as home to the country's banks, designers, and Internet commerce. It is the fashion capital of South America, headquarters to most of Brazil's TV channels and best newspapers, and the city the new president and the country's big political parties chose as their base.

And most painfully for Cariocas, as natives of Rio are known, it is now home to the country's best soccer teams.

Of the 23 players picked to go to the World Cup last summer, only one played for a Rio club. In the annual tournament played earlier this year between the top teams from both states, none of the Rio sides made the final four, while in the Brazilian Cup the best a Rio team could do was reach the quarterfinals. The top three sides in the league standings are from the greater São Paulo area.

"Times have changed," says Tostao, the star forward and now newspaper columnist who hit the headlines in 1996 when he became one of the few players picked from outside Rio or São Paulo to go to the World Cup. "It is no surprise that the teams from Rio are closer to the bottom of the league than the top. They do not plan ahead and try to organize as they go along."

Rio's biggest club, Flamengo, owes the government tens of millions of dollars in back taxes and was evicted from its training ground after failing to pay rent. Rival Vasco da Gama is in debt, and its chairman, a boorish member of Parliament that soccer magazine Placar last month named the most hated chairman in the history of the Brazilian League, was accused of money laundering and tax evasion by a Congressional investigation.

Worse still is the fate of Botafogo, the club that has provided the famed Brazilian national side more players than any other team. Botafogo lost to São Paulo in Sunday's final match and was relegated to the second division.

Now Rio's city fathers are attempting to put some shine back on the city's once golden reputation. The fact that the city recently won the right to build a new Guggenheim museum and host the 2007 Pan American Games has some commentators warning that Rio's decline should not be mistaken as terminal.

"It's dangerous to talk of Rio's demise," said Zeunir Ventura, a columnist on city affairs with the local newspaper, O Globo. "Rio has an energy and a vitality, and it also has a resistance. It has had bad times before, and it has always risen again."

But bringing back the halcyon days of sold-out stadiums will not be easy, says Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life": "No one wants to invest because football is so discredited. I think things will get worse before they get better."

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