Tuesday, May 22, 2018

BEHIND THE GLAMOR

The talented midfielder at small Brazilian club Presidente Prudente rushes to finish his rounds delivering food for a local restaurant so he can make it to practice in time. His teammate has to leave training quickly so he can get to his parent's diner in time to prepare pizzas.

Don't be fooled by Pele's fortunes, Neymar's massive contract or Brazil's powerful national team. Professional soccer in the World Cup host nation is struggling, with lower-division teams unable to play enough games, players forced to take multiple jobs and even top-tier teams competing in mostly empty stadiums.

The best players leave quickly for offers to play in other nations. More than 70 percent of Brazil's nearly 700 professional teams play only about three months a year, meaning nearly 12,000 players are out of a job for most of the season. Meanwhile, the best teams are forced to play up to 85 games a year, more than any other league in the world.

Presidente Prudente's season started in April and will end this month. The team did not advance past the group stage of the fourth division in Sao Paulo and will play about 10 matches the entire year. It played only eight matches last season. It's hard to find opponents and difficult to pay for travel.

"The calendar is the biggest problem," Presidente Prudente president Mateus Grosso said. "Teams have to hire players for at least three months, but many times they may not get play for that long the entire year."

The debts of Brazilian clubs increased by nearly 75 percent in the past five years, and they owe more than $1 billion to the government alone, according to numbers from a players' movement created last year. Of the nearly 20,000 professional players in Brazil, about 16,000 earn less than $650 a month.

Clubs are run by unqualified directors and federations are influenced by politics, leading to bad decisions and poor planning affecting everyone involved in the sport.

There's fan violence, stadiums are empty and some of the country's most traditional tournaments have lost their flair. Brazil's most popular club, Flamengo, played in front of 375 fans in a Rio de Janeiro state championship match this year.

"Professional football in Brazil is a world where only 30 percent of the teams are at a high level and can enjoy the glamor of the sport. The reality is a lot different than what it's seen on television," said Arthur Vinicius Marcelo, the football coordinator at Presidente Prudente and also the club's physical trainer. "Not everybody knows what most of the players have to go through. It's a daily struggle for most of them."

• • •

President Prudente, based in a city by the same name about 350 miles from Sao Paulo, receives $6,200 annually from the Sao Paulo state federation for playing in the fourth division.

The team's monthly payroll is about $9,000 and the funds to keep the club running come from sponsorships from a local supermarket and a local tool store. Grosso said there are also investments made from his family, which founded the club in 1989.

"We contribute with whatever we can," he said.

Presidente Prudente plays in front of fewer than 400 fans in most of its matches at the city's 45,000-capacity stadium.

But it's not just the small teams that are struggling. Rio de Janeiro powerhouses Botafogo and Flamengo both had problems paying salaries this year. Palmeiras, the team with the most national titles, recently decided to use a salary cap and is only hiring players on production-based contracts, an unprecedented move for top Brazilian teams.

Instead of playing too little, top teams play too much. On average, the nation's top clubs play 40 percent more than Premier League teams.

The packed calendar forces teams to use second-stringers in many matches. It's one of the reasons the once glamorous regional tournaments have lost their importance.

The average attendance in Brazil is about 12,900, less than in leagues in Australia and the United States.

• • •

The "Common Sense" movement has included minor player protests and a threat to strike.

"We want to try to help the thousands of players who are facing difficulties in football," said former Brazil world champion goalkeeper Dida. "We are in the elite of football but we know what most of the other players are going through."

Among the movement's goals is to develop "financial fair play," which would be a series of measures aimed at obligating clubs to pay salaries on time and abide to local labor laws.

But the group's biggest complaint is about the local football calendar, which is too long for the top clubs and too short for the smaller teams.

The first three months of the year are reserved for championships within the states, and the Brazilian league is played from April through December. Only about 60 teams are guaranteed to play matches the entire year, while nearly 600 clubs spend most of the season without playing official competitions. After the threats from the "Common Sense," the Brazilian football federation announced it would make changes to the calendar next year. The movement also suggested the creation of a fifth division, which would allow smaller teams across the country to play more matches against other small clubs.

"If we don't play the entire year we can't get ourselves organized, we can't have a business plan," said Juninho, the former Brazil midfielder who is the general manager of Ituano, a team that stunned some of Sao Paulo's top clubs by winning the state championship this year.

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