Brazilian Serie A primed for its most competitive year yet

The last three versions of the Copa Libertadores final have been all-Brazilian affairs. This re-enforces the point that the domestic Brazilian league, which kicks off at the weekend, has effectively become the English Premier League of South America.

Its relative financial muscle allows clubs to bring back veterans from Europe — even non-Brazilians such as Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal — and sign younger players who failed to live up to expectations on the other side of the Atlantic. Moreover, improved scouting means that Brazil is hoovering up talent from neighbouring countries, just as the Premier League does in Europe.

And the financial gap between Brazil and the rest of the continent is surely set to open up still further. Recent changes allow for clubs to open themselves up to foreign investment. And there are big money proposals on the table for the clubs to organise their own competition, instead of the current arrangement where the league is organised by the CBF, the Brazilian FA. Sorting out the distribution of TV money is a headache in the negotiations, but there will surely be enough on offer to leave everyone sufficiently placated to take part.

Brazil’s dominance and its lack of continental opposition could even turn out to be a problem. In Argentina, River Plate have responded to the challenge by expanding their stadium, which now has the biggest capacity in South America — and there is a project for Boca Juniors to build something even bigger. But it is unclear how much this can level the playing field.

A player going to the Premier League knows that, on a European level he also faces the challenge of the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and so on. Barring a concerted move in favour of Pan-American competitions (a timid start is planned for next year) Brazil may almost be too dominant for its own good.

The more serious impediments, though, continue to be local. Organising football on a national basis is never going to be easy in a country the size of a continent, and this is a question that Brazil has yet to resolve. In the future, either under the auspices of the CBF or in a league run by the clubs, there is a glaring lack of a project aimed at re-organising an over-cluttered calendar.

Until last Sunday, the state championships were still being played — one for each of the 27 states. These mean that the big clubs are playing too many games, while the smaller ones do not have enough. Agua Santa, this year’s shock side, met Palmeiras last Sunday in the second leg of the Sao Paulo State final. Astonishingly, it is their last match of 2023.

Two of the other sides involved in regional finals — Flamengo and Goias — paid the price for defeat on Sunday (in the case of Goias on a penalty shootout) by sacking their coaches. A change in command seems absurd just a few days before the start of the national league. It removes any chance of long-term rational planning for the most challenging competition of the year. But these are merely early casualties in a procession of coaching changes which will certainly be made between now and the start of December when the Brazilian league finishes.

With the possible exception of the Under-20 World Cup, there are no major international competitions in the middle of the year which are likely to have an impact on the Brazilian league. This is rare. A competition which runs through from April to December is usually hit by a World Cup or Copa America — or coming down the road in 2026, an expanded Club World Cup. The existence of the State Championships throws Brazil’s national league clumsily out of sync with the rest of the world, and obliges players to miss several rounds of domestic action.

So there is much that is vexing about the Brazilian league, but also much to enjoy. Especially this season, with the promotion of genuine giants in Cruzeiro, Gremio, Vasco da Gama and Bahia, it can boast an almost certainly unrivalled claim to gather together the biggest number of massive clubs in any domestic league. This adds to the spice but also adds to the fireworks.

These clubs have accumulated their weight and prestige from the days when football in Brazil was largely regional. These days, with the focus much more national and continental, there are simply not enough titles on offer for all of the clubs to live up the expectations of their fans and win the silverware their heritage demands. And this, of course, is one of the reasons for the high turnover of coaches. Someone has to be the fall guy.

Last year everyone fell to Abel Ferreira’s Palmeiras. The talented Portuguese coach had already taken the team to two Libertadores titles. Could he sustain it over the course of a league campaign? The answer was an emphatic yes. Sometimes annoyingly cautious in the big games, Palmeiras combine solidity with spasms of brilliance, and have surely set themselves up as the team to beat.

But how will they prioritise the season? Brazilian football is gruelling, with plenty of games and lots of travelling. As the campaign unfolds, clubs may choose to give priority, even on a temporary basis, to the Libertadores or the highly lucrative domestic cup. Reserve or understrength sides might be fielded in league games, adding an extra layer of unpredictability.

So who might be the chief pretenders to the Palmeiras throne?

Reigning continental champions and league winners in 2019 and 20, Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo are obvious candidates, though they will have to shake off a very disappointing start to the year — which culminated on Tuesday with the dismissal of coach Vitor Pereira, who has yet to be replaced.

Local rivals Fluminense are an interesting bet, the return of former Real Madrid left-back Marcelo sparking a team whose beautifully anarchic model of play is ramping up the campaign for coach Fernando Diniz to take over the national team. The city’s other teams, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo, will go into the season with more modest aims of consolidation.

Palmeiras’ local rivals will be under pressure to step up after poor performances in the state championship. Corinthians will be worth watching, while Sao Paulo will need a considerable improvement if they are to mount a challenge, and the storm clouds could be gathering on Santos.

In Belo Horizonte, 2021 double winners Atletico Mineiro have hopes, especially as they plan to inaugurate a new stadium this year. But the team is very dependent on striker Hulk, and the squad looks thin. Cruzeiro are back in the first division, administered by former great Ronaldo Nazario, but it remains to be seen if his low cost model can compete in the top flight.

Further south, Internacional were surprise runners up last season, and anything similar would also be a surprise. Back in the first division and inspired by Suarez, Gremio will be interesting, but their main aim will almost certainly be qualification for next year’s Libertadores. And Athletico Paranaense are a forward thinking, well run club with big ambitions, though they have tended to focus on cup competitions.

In all, 16 of the 20 clubs are from the southeast and southern regions of the country — meaning that for the others almost every away game entails a long and tiring journey. Under Argentine coach Juan Pablo Vojvoda, Fortaleza have been a huge recent success story, and it will be fascinating to see Bahia back in the top flight, especially as they are now part of the City Group.

Come the end of the season, four clubs will be relegated. That is probably too many, bringing an excessive dose of instability to club finances. But there is no doubt that it makes for an exciting end to the season. There will be giant clubs battling at the top of the table and more giants scrapping around for points at the bottom.

The Brazilian league is back. Fasten your seat belt and prepare for some strong emotions.

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