By Tom Webber
Since 1999, Sao Paulo state’s dominant quartet have all lifted South America’s premier club title - the Copa Libertadores. Palmeiras, Sao Paulo, Santos and Corinthians all triumphed during what has been an uninterrupted 15-year representation of Paulista football on the ultimate continental stage. However, as the 2014 edition of the trophy approaches, the state’s continued presence in the tournament is in danger of ending.
Each of the four teams have endured a difficult 2013 to date. This year has seen Lucas Moura leave the Morumbi for Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar complete his long awaited move to Barcelona from Santos, and Paulinho swap Corinthians for Tottenham. Palmeiras, meanwhile, have been playing their football in Serie B following last season’s relegation.
The Verdao’s drop to the second tier of Brazilian football came off the back of Luiz Felipe Scolari leading them to victory in the Copa do Brasil. It proved a poisoned chalice. With their spot in the following Libertadores confirmed the players were left with little motivation for the remainder of a season in which they finished 18th. An imminent return to the Serie A looks on the cards but they will not be participating on the continent next season.
What is much harder to comprehend, though, is the dire performances of Corinthians. Even with Paulinho in their squad their continental campaign came to an end in the round of 16 against Boca Juniors, the team they beat in the final of 2012. Although the dynamic midfielder has since left, having invested in high-calibre players such as Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto, the Timao still possess a squad that should be capable of launching a title charge.
Yet things have not been so easy. Struggling for goals and consistency, they currently occupy 11th position in the Brasileirao. Eight points adrift of Gremio in fourth place, the last qualification spot, they have Criciuma and Vasco da Gama closely creeping up behind them from the relegation zone. A good run in the Copa do Brasil is now critical if they are to feature in the next edition of the Libertadores. Pressure on the previously untouchable Tite has rocketed.
Santos, however, look a distinctly average team following the inevitable loss of Neymar during the summer. Their improved financial muscle meant they could hold on to the talismanic forward longer than previously possible, but it was not enough to attract high-profile coach Marcelo Bielsa to the club due to a perceived lack of job security on offer. Former youth team coach Claudinei Oliveira thus took the reins from the sacked Muricy Ramalho and brought a number of players through the ranks with him. There are certainly some promising signs, but they do not yet look ready to break into the top four.
Sao Paulo, meanwhile, are languishing dangerously close to the drop zone in 16th place. Having shown signs of improvement following the return of Ramalho, who took them to three consecutive Brasileiraos between 2006 and 2009, defeat to Goias at the weekend temporarily halted their revival.
The Tricolor get the defence of their Copa Sudamericana title up and running against high-flying Chilean outfit Universidad Catolica on Thursday, but the key absentee from the squad which triumphed in controversial fashion in the previous edition is Lucas. They have lacked firepower in attack without him and their league standing makes retaining the trophy of paramount importance as it offers automatic qualification to the Libertadores. To achieve this they will need the misfiring Luis Fabiano to rectify his shoddy form.
Such problems perhaps come as a surprise in the year which saw Corinthians and Sao Paulo estimated to be ranking among the 50 richest clubs in world football according to the 2013 Deloitte Football Money League.
A booming economy created increased revenue from commercial opportunities. Famous stars have been repatriated yet everything is not as rosy as it first looked. Beneath this facade of prosperity lie crucial issues that must be addressed.
|"A growing economy has contributed to increasing broadcast and commercial revenues for Brazil's top clubs"
- Deloitte Football Money League 2013
The growth of the Brazilian economy has slowed and with it, disparities between the clubs and their fans have emerged. Revenues from ticket sales are limited due to high prices, kick off times are often late to accommodate popular novelas, and poor transport links make it difficult for supporters to attend (the average attendance in 2012 was little over 13,000). With high inflation now plaguing the country, many are more happy spending their money on pay-per-view channels than traveling to the stadiums.
To their credit, Sao Paulo slashed ticket prices during August and gained higher attendances and improved income from vendors selling goods inside Morumbi, but huge levels of debt remain an issue. Many clubs, especially those in Rio de Janeiro, where the four big clubs are among the five most indebted in the nation, have huge red marks on their balance sheets. Large proportions of expenditure go on wages, which offer little return on investment.
Paulistanos must be glancing enviously over at Belo Horizonte, where Atletico Mineiro bask in the glory of their Libertadores triumph in July while Cruzeiro currently sit at the summit of the Brasileirao, eight points clear of their closest rivals.
The financial rewards that participating in the Libertadores offer make it important for clubs with the weight of the Paulista quartet to take part. It offers the combination of increased TV revenue and a carrot to attract supporters to the ground. Without it, income streams are far more limited. For the Paulista clubs, failure to qualify for the prestigious tournament may not be life-threatening, as long as it does not become a habit.