The Fight To Save Women's Basketball In Brazil From Itself

It wasn't so long ago that Brazil's women's basketball team was one of the best in the world. But, as Rio 2016 approaches, it all appears to be falling apart.

by Donna Bowater
22 January 2016, 10:44am

Photo by Donna Bowater

If anyone at the top cared enough about women's basketball in Brazil, last weekend's Olympic test event would have been embarrassing.

While the Brazilian national team notched two wins out of three in the warm-up for Rio 2016, the results on the court masked a meltdown that is destabilizing the sport and threatening its future. With just seven months until the Olympics tip off in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Basketball Confederation (CBB) and the Women's Basketball League (LBF) are at an impasse over the management and direction of the women's game, and the future of women's basketball in Brazil is at stake.

This fractured relationship between the CBB and LBF led to seven top players turning down call-ups for the test event, forcing national coach Antonio Carlos Barbosa to rely on non-league players and rookies to fill up the roster. Among them was 17-year-old Lays da Silva and Julia Carvalho, who plays in the São Paulo state championship.

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"Individual interests prevailed against the collective," Barbosa, 70, told VICE Sports last week after finally naming his last two players. "It would have been an opportunity to have the whole complete team to test and try out athletes. But unfortunately, this was the position not of the CBB but of the clubs and the damage was to Brazilian basketball." With only six elite teams in a country where women's basketball has stalled, the sport can ill-afford this dispute. They're getting it anyway.

In a protracted tit for tat, the CBB published the excuse letters from each of the seven withdrawing basketballers online. The players cited "personal reasons out of their control," but club pressure was suspected of being a factor after the LBF demonstrated its dissatisfaction with the CBB's Olympic plans. The CBB announced on Tuesday that it had opened an inquiry with the Superior Sports Tribunal (STJD) over the women's team boycott, describing it as an "orchestrated action" and saying that an investigation was "imperative." That night, the only LBF player to break the boycott, star center Clarissa dos Santos, was released by her team, Corinthians/Americana; the team president told local media that she had abandoned her team, and had been fired for breach of contract. In short, the situation is not improving.

Valter Ferreira, director at América de Recife, an LBF club in the north-east of Brazil from which three players exempted themselves from the national team, said the test event had clashed with the official league championship. "We talked with our players and we showed them that we were disputing an official competition, the LBF, and the test event isn't an official competition," Ferreira said. "And moreover, we didn't have contact to reconcile the dates so the test event reached a standstill. The players agreed, and each one sent their letters to the CBB to continue representing the club that pays them and maintains them the whole year."

When one door opens, another door... wait, hold on, men are arguing about the door, now. — Photo by Donna Bowater

Ferreira said there was a lack of communication between the federation and the league, which had left the development of women's basketball wanting. "At the launch of the LBF, there was no representative from the CBB," he added. "The CBB practically doesn't look at anything to do with women's basketball. We do one thing, the CBB does another but neither side sits down to look at this question. The strengthening of the national team isn't a matter for the clubs, it's for the confederation."

The two organizations are disinclined to help each other, and are stuck in a stalemate. A LBF proposal on the national team was reportedly turned down by the CBB, and the LBF was absent from the CBB's presentation of its plans for Rio 2016 in early December. "It is unfortunate that the clubs did not attend to talk and we defend what has been conveyed about our lack of planning and neglect of women's basketball," CBB president Carlos Nunes said. "Our planning for the Olympics is latent and very well planned. Our focus is entirely on the Olympics."

The LBF's frustrations are grounded in the decline of women's basketball in Brazil over the past two decades. Brazil's women were world champions in 1994, but fell to seventh in the FIBA rankings last year. At the last Olympics in London, Brazil came in ninth.

Critics have pointed to a lack of investment, talent development and organization within the sport. Last week, there were reports that the Comptroller General of the Union had found the CBB had debts of R$13 million ($3.2 million), and turned up as many as 37 irregularities over spending. Auditors attributed the deficit to inflated travel expenses, including those for the wife of the CBB president, according to the sports newspaper Vavel.

"The CBB is the worst sports federation in terms of finances," said Fabio Balassiano, a basketball pundit who runs Brazil's Bala na Cesta blog. "The confederation acts like it is the second or third party involved and that's not the case. Brazil has never had a good confederation, just good players. We have six teams in the league, we have 10 athletes at each. There are only 60 women playing. It's ridiculous."

Balassiano described last weekend's test event as "meaningless" for the national team and criticized the lack of promotion among the public. "The team that plays in the Olympics won't be this one," he added. "They won't win a medal at the Olympics with these girls who are on the national team right now. There's a 17-year-old, she will not make the national team for three years. It's not even fun, for her. It's not even fair." Balassiano also said that if players are going to get more respect from the CBB, they'll need to demand it themselves.

Yeah, this possession isn't going to go well for Venezuela. — Photo by Donna Bowater

Among the team that faced Venezuela on the first day of the test event was one player who defied the LBF club consensus to represent Brazil. Clarissa dos Santos, who was released by her club team after breaking the boycott, hails from Rio de Janeiro, and is expected to star during the Olympics in her home city. Two of Santos' teammates, Gilmara Justino and Joice Rodrigues, were among the seven players who pulled out of the test event. During the weekend's match-ups, the amiable Santos led the charge alongside veteran Erika de Souza, 33, to spare Brazil any embarrassment; they blew out Venezuela, 112-41.

Santos would not be drawn on the dispute between the CBB and the players' clubs, but said: "I believe that what is most important here is Brazilian basketball in the first place. We are trying to build a strong Brazilian basketball team now, regardless of male or female, we're talking about Brazil. It's not for me to judge or compare. I'm an athlete, I have to be ready to play and do a good job inside the four lines. Outside of those four lines, there's a lot to resolve. So I just do my job on the court."

Brazil's reliance on Santos and Souza was evident at the four-team tournament, which included Australia and Argentina as well as Venezuela. Souza, who has recently left Turkish club Adana Aski, was recalled after joining WNBA side Chicago Sky. "Everyone knows that I am patriotic and love the national team," Souza said. "Whenever and wherever I'm in the national team, I will always give my best."

Brazilian commentators have remarked that the women's team would be unlikely to develop by only playing friendlies against their lower-ranking neighbors. And while Brazil easily overcame Venezuela during the test event, they only narrowly won against Argentina, and dropped the final game against Australia. Criticism was leveled at Barbosa's team for a series of mistakes in the final game and for being unable to crack Australia's tough defense.

The Aussies had brought many of their key players for the test event, while most of Brazil's were sitting it out, and the depth of the two teams was evident in the scores. Brazil relied heavily on Souza, Santos and Iziane Marques, 33, who plays for Sampaio Basquete, the only LBF team to release players for the national team, both against Australia and throughout the tournament.

Iziane Marques, shown here pondering how territorial dudes have messed with her ability to play basketball. — Photo by Donna Bowater

After the first game, Marques hinted at the need for better structuring and investment within women's basketball, and the importance of long overdue improvements to facilities. "We were missing a training centre of excellence," she said at the Carioca 1 arena, which will form part of the Olympic Training Centre after the Rio 2016 Games. "We ask a lot of athletes but we don't give them adequate facilities. With this training centre, it's already a step towards having the right conditions to compete with the best in the world." Teenager Lays da Silva, who plays for São Bernardo in the São Paulo championship and was getting her first call-up to the national team, echoed Marques call for investment and reform.

In the meantime, the CBB will assemble the national team for Olympic preparations in May, when the LBF competition is over and a full complement of players is expected to be available. At that point, Brazil will get to work on pulling together a true national team. Coach Barbosa said he believed three months was long enough to train for the Games, and said the team stood a chance at winning a medal, something they have failed to achieve since the 2000 Games in Sydney.

"We can't enter into a competition without thinking of a medal, because if you don't go in with this perspective, you're weakened. So we always have to think of this," he said. "In the last few years, we have had very negative rankings. We had ratings that were far from the tradition of Brazilian basketball, which was always in the top four in the world. So my biggest objective is to rescue Brazilian basketball."