Atlético Paranaense show Brazilian clubs the way forward

One team has six Brasileirão titles to its name, the other has one. One team finished 4th in Série A last season, the other finished 3rd in the second division. This term, one of those clubs is currently wallowing in the relegation zone in 18th place and the other challenging at the top the table in 3rd. The former club is São Paulo, the historically successful perennial title challengers have had a disastrous season so far, whereas the latter club, newly promoted side Atlético Paranaense have excelled thus far. São Paulo are far from the only big club underperforming in Série A this year; Atlético Mineiro, Flamengo and Fluminese are the three teams that really should be challenging for the title, yet instead find themselves occupying the three places directly above the relegation zone. Nor are Atlético Paranaense the only club overachieving this term, with fellow promoted sides Vitória, Criciúma and Goiás all coping well with life in the top division. However, none of these teams are hitting the heights of Atlético PR, which raises the question, why are this jumped up promoted team doing so well whilst traditional giants flounder?

The answer lies in Atlético’s preseason preparation and has more to do with what they didn’t do than what they did do. This season Atlético Paranaense declined to allow their first team squad to take part in the Campeonato Paranaense state championship. Whilst from January to May every other team in Série A was competing against varying local minnows and a few close rivals, Atlético could prepare for the eight month sprint that is the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. This has given Atlético an edge over their opponents this term, with the promoted side often looking distinctly sharper physically than their tired opponents. The Brazilian season is a long hard slog, with fixture congestion a serious issue. An English Premier League side typically plays 38 league games across ten months, as well as European and domestic cup games. They then have a two month summer break before it all starts again. Brazilian football is much more congested and suffers from a severely outdated system. The season starts in January, throwing Brazilian football out of sync with most of the world and starts with the State Championships. The oldest competitions in Brazil, the State Championships formed when travelling the huge distances between cities was impractical. They have served a hugely important part in the history of Brazilian football and fostered fantastically intense rivalries such as Fla-Flu, in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo-Corinthians in São Paulo, but the game has moved on and the State Championships have become bloated, given too much importance for the standard of competition. After playing numerous State Championship matches (19 in the case of the Campeonato Paulista), Série A clubs then jump straight into the Brasileirão season, all the while playing continental matches, as well as Copa do Brasil and State Cup games in what becomes a relentlessly breathless season ending in December, only to begin again in January.

Interest in Brazilian football is at an all-time high; with new television and commercial deals in place, clubs are able to hold onto their young stars for longer and attract players back from European clubs, not just veterans such as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Diego Forlan and Clarence Seedorf, but players in their prime, such as Paolo Guerrero who joined Corinthians in 2012, at the peak of his abilities. Brazilian football is full of potential, with opportunity to capitalise on the huge international interest that the likes of the recently departed Neymar has attracted in recent seasons; whether it be greater television deals, or more competition against European sides after last season’s Chelsea-Corinthians Club World Cup Final attracted a huge international audience.  However, one of the few issues holding Brazilian football back is the structures of its seasons. Fixture saturation is a huge issue, especially this season in which the Confederations Cup was sandwiched in between the State Championships and the Série A, a situation which will repeat itself again next term with the World Cup. Injuries and burnout become a real problem and clubs are given little consideration when it comes to international games, with clubs often losing their best players to the national team ahead of important fixtures.

The fixture saturation also impacts the clubs financially; playing minnows brings little income to the Série A clubs and all of the extra games results in low attendance as fans become disinterested around June and July due to the sheer volume of games and the length of the season.   Fans want to see their club battling against the best of Brazil, facing off against the continental heavyweights and competing with the European elite. However, with the season structured as it currently stands, attendances will remain low and until the Série A moves in line with the rest of the world, hoping for more games than just the Club World Cup against European opposition is impractical. Of course tradition is important, but not at the expense of the future of Brazilian football. Now that Atlético Paranaense have broken ranks with such success, other clubs are pound to follow and reap the benefits of a proper preseason. It will be interesting to see now how Brazilian football’s governing bodies react; often resistant to change, they will have to adapt or else face embarrassment. Surely various State Cup competitions running alongside a rescheduled Série A is the way forward, it remains to be seen if Atlético Paranaense’s actions speed up the reform that Brazilian football has needed for years.

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