Is football losing its lustre in Brazil?

Brazil fan (AFP)
Brazil fan (AFP)

Sao Paulo - Slumping attendances, a rising tide of debt and a home World Cup thumping by Germany. Brazilian football has not had the best of years amid signs the national game is losing its lustre.

On May 18, just a few short weeks before the Germans dealt out a 7-1 hiding to the Selecao to bury dreams of a sixth World Cup triumph, the domestic game reached a nadir when the top flight match between Atletico Paranaense of Curitiba and Chapecoense attracted a crowd of just 766, the worst ever first-division gate.

Overall, the season average attendance was a paltry 16,557, behind latecomers to the sport such as the United States, China and Japan.

Brazil may have provided a conveyor belt of top talent over the decades -- from Pele to Ronaldo and Neymar.

Yet the home league was only the 15th-best attended over the past year, the country of 202 million people attracting only a third as many fans to its stadiums as German clubs, according to a study by consultants Pluri.

Neighbouring Argentina's league was the seventh-best attended despite a ban on away fans.

Brazil's outgoing Minister of Sport Aldo Rebelo says fans feel what is on show in their league just isn't good enough.

"Football is a team sport but fans want to see the star names, the artists, who today are a long way from our stadiums," Rebelo told AFP.

He recognised that although Brazil has over the past two years refurbished or inaugurated 14 stadiums -- 12 for the World Cup and new arenas for Gremio of Porto Alegre and Palmeiras of Sao Paulo -- Brazilian football is lagging behind in today only making up two percent of the sport's wealth, compared with some 30 for England and 20 for Germany.

The refurbished Maracana, which hosted the World Cup final as Germany saw off Argentina to capture the crown and which also hosted the 1950 decider before a 200,000 crowd as Brazil lost to Uruguay, has often played host to Rio clubs -- before paltry crowds.

Debt-laden and ultimately relegated Botafogo hit on one solution -- travelling more than 3,000 kilometers (2,100 miles) to Amazonia to play in the new Arena Amazonia in regional capital Manaus, where a healthy 39,500 who have no top-flight club of their own turned out to see them meet Flamengo in a Rio "clasico" at the other end of the county.

That comfortably beat their average attendance of 11,300, GloboEsporte noted.

"From the 1950s to the 1970s the big clubs filled their stadiums. Soccer was a fiesta and part of affirming Brazilian identity," says Ary Rocco, professor of sports marketing at Sao Paulo University.

He says that changed from the 1990s with the advent of hooliganism, mismanagement and sliding standards.

Even Cruzeiro, champions for the past two seasons and with a league-high average of 29,700 this season, only half-filled their ground. The top attendance was 58,627 for Cruzeiro's meeting with Sao Paulo at the latter's Morumbi ground.

A Pluri study shows Cruzeiro down in 70th place on a global list of club attendances. Third-division Santa Cruz are Brazil's only other club in the top 100.

Santa Cruz fans show remarkable lower league loyalty. The northeastern side attracted an average crowd of 26,500 in 2013, the 12th-highest in the Americas, beating Brazilian 'giants' such as Corinthians, Flamengo and Sao Paulo.

The club from Recife, which is celebrating its centenary, actively seeks to attract poorer and ethnic Indian fans -- its club crest is white, black and red -- who were once excluded from the game.

"Our fans are loyal, passionate. They are used to suffering so they don't drop the team when times are tough," says former chairman Antonio Luiz Da Silva Neto.

Neto complains the league is dominated by the richer south and south-east.

"Today, there is no Brazilian league but a south-south east tournament. It's become a discriminatory league," he asserts.

With many top Brazilians plying their trade at top European clubs, he says "Neymar is the only Brazilian player among the world's top 23 players. That shows the decadence of domestic football."

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