Flamengo: halfway to glory?

flamengo Gabigol after scoring the winner against Santos

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! This week, Flamengo are the symbolic champions of the first half of 2019, is it their title to lose? Plus, free tickets for Brazilian league games, and death threats at struggling Cruzeiro. That, and much more. Happy reading!

Flamengo: halfway to glory?

As we hit the halfway point of the 2019 Brazilian championship, Flamengo sealed their place in first position with a tense 1-0 win over Santos on Saturday. While being top after round 19 is a purely symbolic achievement, the “first-half championship” is taken rather seriously in Brazil. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why.

In the 17 years since the Brazilian league adopted the 38-game home-and-away system (previously, the championship was decided by a play-off), the leader at the half-way stage has only failed to end the year as champion four times.

While this does bode well for Flamengo, their three-point lead over second-placed Palmeiras is hardly unassailable, as recent history tells us.

In 2009, Flamengo finished the first half of the season in seventh position, yet managed to power through and win what was their last league title. Just twelve months ago, Palmeiras ended the 19th round eight points off leaders São Paulo, yet would go on to steamroller the opposition and win the league by the same eight-point margin. São Paulo ended the year in fifth.

That said, Flamengo’s football is irresistible; at this stage, it is firmly their title to lose. They have won their last six on the bounce, scoring an average of over 2.8 goals a game in the process. Gabigol is in the form of his life, scoring at least once in each of his last nine matches, including possibly the greatest goal of his career to defeat his old club Santos (more on that in the Goal of the Week section below).

If Gabigol doesn’t win player of the year, it will be because his Uruguayan team-mate Giorgian De Arrascaeta pipped him to the post. The highly technical playmaker has found the ideal side to showcase his talents, laying goals on for his colleagues left, right and center, and grabbing eight of his own.

In terms of challengers, Santos have stuttered and cannot afford to fall any further behind. Jorge Sampaoli’s side won seven in a row in June and July, but have now recorded only one victory since August 4.

Corinthians and São Paulo are likely too far behind in fifth and sixth, though a strong second half could see fourth-placed Internacional ruffle a few feathers at the top.

The only credible challenge, at this point, comes from reigning champions Palmeiras, who have recently recorded three wins since firing Luiz Felipe Scolari and bringing in another former Brazil coach Mano Menezes to lead the side. Their football is nowhere near as scintillating as Flamengo’s, but they have plenty of quality in their side and are only three points behind.

The two will face off in November, in the antepenultimate round of the season, and Palmeiras have home advantage. Playing at their Allianz Parque stadium, Palmeiras haven’t lost a league game since May 2018.

Brazil to give away free tickets to fill stadiums

The romantic image of Brazilian football is a full Maracanã, noisy and colorful, populated by a football-mad society that cannot get enough of the beautiful game.

The reality, however, is some way off. While there are exceptions, Brazilian football fans in general aren’t big stadium-goers. There are a number of reasons people choose to stay away from the ground, principally safety and money. Despite relatively few problems with violence (security incidents are far more common in other South American countries, for example), Brazilian society sees football stadiums as unsafe. Meanwhile, ticket prices in modern arenas have frozen out the less wealthy fans.

Also, the average Brazilian supporter is a fickle beast: fans flock to the stadium when their team is winning; when they are underperforming, they don’t feel “represented” by the players and stay at home.

As a result, considering the importance of the sport to the country, the average attendance at Brazilian football games is relatively low: 18,821 people in 2018. This is light years behind Europe’s top four leagues, and is also surpassed by the top flight in Mexico. But even relatively “new” footballing nations China and the U.S. bring more fans through the turnstiles. The second tier of English football has bigger crowds on average than in the “land of football.”

Brazil’s situation is gradually improving, however. As recently as 2012, the first division was attracting a pitiful average attendance of 12,983, and that was with Neymar and Ronaldinho Gaúcho still playing in their home country.

At the half-way point in 2019, average attendances sit at 21,195. If that holds, it would break Brazil’s all-time record from the 1987 national championship.

However, finally attuned to the idea that the league requires full stadiums to be marketable abroad, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) wants more. It has launched a program to buy spare tickets from clubs and distribute them to fans for free, using a Big Data strategy to generate engagement and, ultimately, bigger crowds.

Named the Galerômetro (Crowd-o-meter), it requires fans to sign up, inputting their personal data and creating quizzes about themselves and their clubs. Participants then receive points based on their engagement with these games, which can then be exchanged for match tickets.

Win or die, say Cruzeiro

When your team isn’t playing well, it’s natural for a football fan to get angry. However, a significant section of supporters of Belo Horizonte side Cruzeiro have taken that license well beyond the limits.

Protesting outside of the club’s training ground with banners reading “Cruzeiro will turn this around, even if it means someone has to die,” and chanting that the players must “either play out of love, or play out of fear,” factions of the Cruzeiro fanbase appear to believe that putting pressure on their team is not enough, they have to resort to physical threats.

The situation on the pitch is not good. After 19 matches, Cruzeiro have recorded only 18 points and currently find themselves in the relegation zone. The club has only won four points away from home all season, having gone 11 games without a win between May and August.

Rogério Ceni is the coach in charge of the club, having taken over recently after the dismissal of Mano Menezes. The manager has been spared from criticism, as the lack of improvement since the coaching swap has convinced fans that the problem lies with the players, and the club’s directors.

In protests outside the club’s training ground, fans left 11 bottles of cachaça, Brazil’s national spirit, in front of the main gates. The offering was to “lure out” some of the worst-performing players, who they see as more concerned about going out partying than playing good football. Fans have even set up an anonymous hotline to receive tips whenever Cruzeiro players are spotted in bars and nightclubs, a strategy famously created by Flamengo fans to “keep an eye” on Ronaldinho Gaúcho.

There has been a backlash against the club’s directors too, who have been tied up in corruption scandals in recent months, as we reported on in previous newsletters.

Unsurprisingly, alcohol and a lack of violent threats are probably not the main problem for the current Cruzeiro squad. A key to their under-performance could be explained by the fact that they only received their salaries for July this past weekend. No club employees have been paid for August.

At the weekend, Cruzeiro will host league leaders Flamengo. On current form, it would take a miracle for them to come away with three points.

What else you should know

Copa do Brasil. In an impressive home performance, Athletico suffocated a hesitant Internacional side and won the first leg of the Copa do Brasil final by one goal to nil, with promising youngster Bruno Guimarães scoring a decisive finish. The result was not terrible for Internacional, however, who will host the final leg on Wednesday night, looking to win the trophy in front of their own fans.

Série A. The league reached its half-way point this weekend, with plenty of important results in the middle of the table. Vasco distanced themselves further from the bottom with a 2-1 away win over Chapecoense, while Grêmio continued their league resurgence, beating Goiás 3-0—they step up to eighth. Palmeiras and Internacional grabbed useful wins, seeing them end the first half of the season in second and fourth, respectively. 

Clubs as corporations? The Ministry of the Economy has now come out against a proposal to transform Brazilian clubs into corporations, which I explained on The Brazilian Report on Saturday. The department’s special advisor Guilherme Afif said the ministry is opposed “to any bill intended to grant tax benefits or favors,” which goes against the previous stance of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes

UFC. It was a night of mixed fortunes for the Brazilian fighters on the UFC on ESPN+ card in Vancouver on Saturday. Glover Teixeira and Augusto Sakai recorded important wins, but Antônio Carlos “Cara de Sapato” lost out to Uriah Hall, and Michel Pereira lost a unanimous decision to Tristan Connolly. Pereira also lost a Fight of the Night bonus after having missed weight for his bout.

Ítalo Ferreira. After a logistical nightmare arriving in Tokyo, Brazilian surfer Ítalo Ferreira won his opening event at the Japan World Championships and is on course for a place in the Olympics next year. After having his car and passport stolen in the U.S., Ítalo arrived late in Tokyo, having to drive directly to the event. Changing into a pair of jean shorts and borrowing a surfboard, he arrived nine minutes before taking the water, yet managed to get the best score of any of his competitors. 

Queen Marta. The Estádio Rei Pelé, in Maceió, Alagoas is about to have a name-change. Local politicians have approved a bill to turn it into the Estádio Rainha Marta (Queen Marta Stadium), in honor of the six-time world player in the year who was born in Alagoas.

Goal of the Week

If anyone was in any doubts about Flamengo being the favorites for this year’s Brazilian title, they surely ended after the winning goal against Santos this weekend. Lining up against his former club for the first time, Flamengo striker Gabigol scored the only goal of the game with this stunning chip from outside of the area. With the precision of a golf shot, the ball flew over the Santos keeper and kissed the crossbar before falling beautifully into the net.

Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall. Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”