Life comes at you fast in Brazilian football. A week ago, Palmeiras fans were celebrating after their team had beaten Santos in an all-Brazilian Copa Libertadores final at the Maracanã. Now their club is the butt of all jokes. Their shock 1-0 defeat to Tigres in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup has produced a rare moment of unity among rival fans. Supporters of past global kings, such as Corinthians, São Paulo, Santos, Internacional, Grêmio and Flamengo, are ganging up on Palmeiras with relish, repeating the popular refrain “Palmeiras não tem Mundial”.
Not only did Palmeiras fail to win the Club World Cup – which was hardly expected given that the all-conquering Bayern Munich were awaiting in the final – but they also made a meal of the third-place match, losing to Al Ahly on penalties after a goalless 90 minutes. Their failure to win a game, or even score a goal, in the competition is being called a vexame back home – a commonly used term for shame or humiliation in Brazil.
Palmeiras went to Qatar hoping to win the Mundial, which is regarded with more reverence in Brazil than in Europe, but are coming home as a laughing stock. If you want to see their whole experience of the tournament summed up in one kick of a ball, watch Rony’s ludicrously bad penalty in the shootout against Al Ahly.
Fans of other Brazilian clubs are enjoying mocking Palmeiras but, when the laughter stops, they will realise that they too should be concerned about the state of their domestic game. The gulf in quality between the best sides in Europe and South America has been clear for all to see for some time – Flamengo were beaten 1-0 by Liverpool in the previous final and no one was surprised or ashamed – but losing to a Concacaf club from Mexico and then failing to score against an Egyptian club suggests things are not well within the Brasileirão.
Some perspective is required, though. Palmeiras have had a crazy schedule over the last year. Their game against Tigres on Sunday was their 70th of the season and it came quickly after their midweek league match against Botafogo some 7,500 miles away. Palmeiras are back in action in Brazil on Sunday and they still have the two-legged Copa do Brasil final against Grêmio to work into their schedule.
“The team played 10 games in January – which was brutal,” says Globoesporte football writer Martín Fernandez, who thinks their tough schedule affected their performances at the Club World Cup. “As well as this, Abel Ferreira was in the job for just three months and 25 games. He had to face Covid outbreaks too, and caught it himself, in addition to injuries to several players. Palmeiras were far from ready.”
Of course, not all of this is beyond their control. Ferreira is the sixth different manager to have taken over at the club in the last two and a half years, and he is adamant that the team will only settle and improve if he is given time. He made the point this week that Liverpool have gone four home games without a win but no one would consider sacking Jürgen Klopp. “At Liverpool the coach is the same, the squad is the same. If it was in Brazil, what would have happened? The same with City: the same coach, the same players, big investments to choose the players they want. It started badly and is now well.”
If clubs’ unwillingness to hold on to managers is damaging Brazilian football, so too is their inability to hold on to players. When Palmeiras last won the Copa Libertadores in 1999 under Luiz Felipe Scolari, their team featured players who had gone to the World Cup final in France the year before and would reunite with Scolari again to win the tournament in 2002.
Modern legends of the game and such as Cafu, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos played for the club in the mid-1990s and, instead of crossing the Atlantic on their 18th birthdays, they stayed in Brazil until their mid-20s. Cafu was still playing in Brazil three years after he had become a World Cup winner at USA 94. Eleven of the 22 players who won that tournament were based at Brazilian clubs. However, by the time of the 2018 World Cup, there were only three domestic players in the squad – and only one of them made it on to the pitch in Russia. Brazilian fans have come to accept that, rather than dreaming about Copa Libertadores glory, young players now want to win the Champions League – an honour that is seen as equal to lifting the World Cup with the Seleção.
Having grown accustomed to Europe’s dominance of the global game, Brazilian clubs are now having to contend with another challenge. São Paulo sold one of their most promising young players, Brenner, to FC Cincinnati this week in a $15m deal that is being regarded in Brazil as another symbol of shame for the national game. FC Cincinnati only joined MLS in 2019 and they have finished bottom of the Eastern Conference table in both of their seasons so far.
Is MLS really better than the Brasileiro? Fernandez does not think so, but he understands why an ambitious young forward would want to develop his career in the US. “MLS is a league with a level much lower than the Brazilian Championship, but they’re on an upwards curve,” he says. “In Brazil we’re stuck in time, with the same problems – a bizarre and overpacked schedule and violence to name just two. We are 30 years behind. There’s no shame that he’s going to the MLS. It’s absolutely normal if you think that the other day his team were attacked by their own fans. It’s natural that anyone on that bus would want to move as far away as possible.”
Brenner’s move to the US has echoes of Cristian Pavón’s decision to swap Boca Juniors for LA Galaxy in 2019. The Argentina international made the calculation that he would enjoy more global exposure in North America than South America. It is a path other players have taken with some success. Miguel Almirón left Lanús in Argentina to sign for Atlanta United in 2017, before earning a move to the Premier League two years later as Newcastle’s record signing.
Gonzalo Higuaín joined Inter Miami last year, and his agent and father Jorge was quick to point out the strengths of the league. “MLS has become an exporter of footballers,” he said. “Players want to go to MLS. In Argentina the clubs are mismanaged and that’s why Argentine football is what it is.” The examples of Tyler Adams, Jack Harrison, Zack Steffen and Alphonso Davies, who made his name in MLS before signing for Bayern Munich and winning the Champions League and Club World Cup, demonstrate that players can develop in the US and then seal big moves to European clubs.
MLS might not be better than the Brasileirão but it could be a better place for young players to grow and earn a move to Europe. “Brenner is just 21,” says Fernandez. “He has just three years’ experience in the pro ranks and has already had nine different coaches. Who is he going to learn from here?”
Unless there is a major shift in culture, it looks as if Corinthians, who beat Chelsea in Japan in 2012, might remain the last Brazilian side to win the Club World Cup for some time, while budding talents such as Brenner may increasingly look north in the Americas and not just across the pond.