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Can the FBI Help Save Brazilian Soccer?

Brazilian soccer is in shambles. But the FBI's investigation of FIFA may spark change.

by James Young
Jan 5 2016, 3:21pm

Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Fans who crowded into stadiums such as the Maracanã and the Mineirão on December 6 to watch the final round of fixtures of the Brazilian soccer season were surprised by an unexpected protest. For 15 seconds following the kick-off, players at every game in the country's top division merely stood with their arms folded.

The gesture was the latest protest planned by Bom Senso FC ("Common Sense Football Club"), a player power union that has been campaigning for reform in Brazilian soccer since 2013.

One of the group's most memorable demonstrations came in November of that year, when players from Flamengo and São Paulo, two of Brazil's biggest clubs, took the field for a league fixture carrying a banner that read, "Friends of the CBF [Confederação Brasileira de Futebol, Brazilian soccer's governing body]: What About Common Sense?" When the game started, the two teams spent the first minute of the game lazily kicking the ball backward and forward to each other as the crowd clapped in support.

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Bom Senso's original demands included increased financial responsibility on the part of Brazil's clubs, which frequently pay their players late, if at all, and a restructured fixture calendar (top Brazilian teams can play around 75 games a year, far more than their European counterparts).

Now, however, the group is chasing bigger fish. The December demonstration was part of a campaign for the immediate removal of CBF president Marco Polo del Nero, who is currently on a 150-day leave of absence as he prepares his defense against racketeering and bribery charges arising from the FBI's sweeping investigation into corruption at FIFA, world soccer's governing body. Del Nero denies the accusations.

A few days after the on-field protest, Bom Senso organized a rally of current and former players, such as 1994 World Cup winner Raí, fans, and journalists at the CBF headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, under the hashtag #OcupaCBF ("Occupy the CBF"). "Football is for the people," read one banner.

"The power structure of Brazilian soccer is the greatest problem, and the CBF is directly responsible," Paulo André, a central defender for Atlético Paranaense in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba and one of the leaders of Bom Senso, told VICE Sports. "It's obsolete, obscure and corrupt.

"Bom Senso wants to change this failed power structure, democratizing the CBF and inviting the entire soccer community to be involved, to create a strategic development plan for Brazilian soccer."

Marco Polo del Nero. Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

The FBI has emerged as a powerful ally in Bom Senso's battle with the CBF. The bureau's inquiry was sparked by an IRS tax probe into Chuck Blazer, the former FIFA executive and general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). The investigation widened as the extent of the corruption at FIFA and organizations such as CONCACAF and its South American equivalent, CONMEBOL, was revealed, and it has resulted in charges being brought against a string of top soccer executives, including not only Del Nero but also his predecessor as CBF boss, Jose Maria Marin, who was arrested in Zurich in May and is now under house arrest in New York while he awaits trial.

Marin's forerunner, Ricardo Teixeira, who ran the CBF for more than 20 years, has also been indicted. The three men are being investigated for involvement in a number of corruption rackets, including receiving bribes under merchandising deals involving the Brazilian national team. Under one such scheme, Teixeira and José Hawilla, a Brazilian businessman and founder of the sports marketing company Traffic who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in December 2014, are said to have received US$30 million in off-contract payments following the signing of a shirt and merchandising sponsorship deal between the Brazilian national team and sportswear giant Nike.

Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's leading sportswriters, believes that the FBI charges have weakened the CBF, and strengthened groups like Bom Senso and the Primeira Liga, a breakaway club league. "The FBI investigation is really benefiting Brazilian soccer," he told VICE Sports.

"Just as importantly, the investigations have convinced sponsors, who don't want their brands associated with corruption, to break away, not just at the CBF but also at FIFA," he continued. Gillette recently announced that it is rescinding its sponsorship deal with the Brazilian organization, while companies such as Coca Cola, Budweiser, and McDonald's have issued a letter demanding "independent supervision" of the reform process at equally scandal plagued FIFA.

According to André, the Bom Senso leader, the neglect and corruption riddling the CBF corridors of power "has directly influenced the decline of the reputation and quality of Brazilian soccer." Certainly, the impact of the FBI's revelations has been magnified by Brazil's decline on the pitch. The chasm between Brazil's glory days, when the Seleção won five World Cups and produced legendary stars such as Garrincha, Pelé, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo, and the current generation of players was vividly captured by the 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semifinal of last summer's World Cup.

A low point for Brazil after the 2014 World Cup semifinal. Photo: Ballesteros/EPA

Many fans and journalists were further angered when, following that debacle, the CBF appointed Dunga, who had led Brazil to a disappointing World Cup quarterfinal exit against the Netherlands in South Africa in 2010, as coach of the Seleção

"Brazil needs a coach with scientific knowledge, coupled with the wisdom to be a good observer and a desire to win, while playing attractively. Forget it! It was just a fantasy, and now it's gone. The reality is quite different, and much sadder. The reality is Dunga," wrote 1970 World Cup winner Tostão in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper after the appointment.

The critics were proved right when, after an initial run of victories in friendly games, Brazil slumped to a dispiriting quarterfinal defeat against Paraguay in this summer's Copa America in Chile. Dunga's team has started slowly in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, beating Venezuela and Peru, drawing with Argentina, and losing to Chile.

Back home, the Brazilian club game is in shambles. A report by Brazilian bank Itaú in September found that the country's top teams owe more than R$4.5 billion (US$1.15 billion), much of it in the form of unpaid taxes, while 111 clubs have recently signed up to a scheme that will let them repay their public debts over a period lasting up to 20 years.

While the new arenas built for the World Cup have provided a small boost to attendance numbers, the average Brazilian Serie A crowd remains a paltry 17,000, some 4,000 below the 2015 Major League Soccer average.

The situation is no better for Brazil's clubs on the pitch. In the past two years, only one Brazilian team has reached the semifinals of South America's biggest soccer tournament, the Copa Libertadores. The league's top players now abandon the country not just for the bright lights of Europe and the UEFA Champions League but for clubs in more obscure footballing countries such as China and the UAE. The current Chinese champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, are managed by ex-Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and feature former internationals such as Paulinho and Robinho.

"The CBF has damaged Brazilian soccer for decades through corrupt and negligent management, with presidents remaining in power thanks to a draconian electoral system.... They decided to exploit the national team brand for financial gain, at the expense of the local clubs. Until now, Brazilian soccer hasn't organized a league run by the clubs themselves," Juca Kfouri, the sportswriter, said. Unlike in countries such as England, the CBF is responsible both for the national team and the club game.

That situation may soon change, however, with the embryonic Primeira Liga, a new competition organized by a number of Brazil's leading teams. "The league doesn't need the CBF," its then president, Alexandre Kalil, told the Brazilian media in October. "We don't need approval from the house of the 7-1." (Reflecting the chaotic state of Brazilian soccer, the new league is already mired in infighting, and Kalil recently resigned his position.)

According to Kfouri, another factor is adding to the desire for change in Brazilian soccer: restlessness in the wider society. "There's never been a crisis on this scale, nor has Brazilian society protested so much as it has today, outside football," he said, referring to the large-scale street demonstrations of recent years, beginning with the marches against corruption, World Cup spending, and poor public services in 2013, and continuing with the anti-government, pro-impeachment protests of this year.

A demonstration against Dilma Rousseff's administration this past summer. Photo by Marcelo Sayão/EPA

Those seeking change in Brazilian soccer hope that the current perfect storm of Brazil's on-field decline, the FBI investigations, and the larger mood of protest and unrest on the streets and embodied by groups like Bom Senso will prove more effective than previous attempts by Brazilian authorities to challenge the CBF.

A 2001 Congressional inquiry into the organization's relationship with Nike ended in failure when the political maneuvering of the CBF's powerful political allies—the so-called Bancada da Bola, or "Soccer Ball Lobby"—meant that the inquiry commission's final report, which had called for the indictment of a number of Brazilian soccer executives, including Teixeira, failed to be approved and was ultimately archived.

Brazil's attorney general Rodrigo Janot has recently said that the Brazilian justice system intends to investigate Teixeira and Del Nero. A new Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, or CPI, into soccer corruption is also underway, this time in the Senate.

Yet many Brazilians fear that it will prove difficult to evict men like Del Nero and Teixeira to the U.S. to face trial, and are concerned that the Brazilian justice system lacks the strength, or the political will, to prosecute them itself. Earlier this year, Folha de São Paulo reported that the Brazilian police had opened 13 inquiries against the CBF and Teixeira over a 15-year period, none of which resulted in formal charges. Teixeira summed up his lack of concern for such threats with the memorable words "I shit a heap" in an interview with Brazilian magazine Piauí in 2011.

"So far, the FBI investigations have been more effective because the CBF doesn't have the influence with American investigators that it has in the Brazilian Senate," said Bom Senso's André. "Many soccer directors are politicians, with seats in parliament. They built a lobby that can influence the CPI. We want the Brazilian authorities to do their part here, too, to make sure the guilty are punished."

"I'm hopeful, but that might just be because I'm stubborn," said Kfouri. "It's embarrassing, to have the last three last presidents of the CBF wanted by a foreign justice system. We're three-time world champions at the World Cup of fraud."