At first glance, Brazilian football appears to sidestep one of the pitfalls of the game in many European countries. While only a small cluster of sides can hold realistic aspirations of winning La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the Campeonato Brasileiro is far less predictable.
Before the gun sounds every May, this chaotic sports-day sprint of a league rarely has an obvious favourite, with eight, 10 or even 12 teams eyeing up a title challenge. Fortunes can change fast: Flamengo went from glory in 2009 to the brink of relegation the following year. Fluminense have repeated the trick this term.
The healthy glow is somewhat misleading, however. Slowly but surely, power is coalescing in the country’s biggest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Before this year, it had been a record nine seasons since the Série A crown had left the determined grip of Brazil’s south-east corridor, with clubs there exercising ever-growing financial clout.
The reason? Television. Broadcasting deals are increasingly weighted towards the traditional powerhouses of the big two. Between 2009 and 2011, Flamengo and Corinthians received R$25m (£6.4m) apiece, compared to R$16m for Cruzeiro, Atlético Mineiro, Grêmio and Internacional. Under the current deal, the split is R$110m/$45m. By 2016, Fla and Corinthians will be earning almost three times as much as their rivals from Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.
Add in a double-measure of political back scratching (witness the stomach-turning São Paulo/Corinthians cabal of Ricardo Teixeira, Andrés Sánchez, José Maria Marin and Marco Polo del Nero) and you have a fairly potent recipe for inequality.
Yet this has been something of an annus horribilis for the two cities: Corinthians and São Paulo have endured awful seasons; Santos have struggled to adapt to life without Neymar; and both Vasco and Fluminense could find themselves condemned to Série B. Unless Botafogo (who, it should be added, have been largely left behind by the money train) pull off a minor miracle on the final weekend of the season, no club from Rio or São Paulo will finish in the top four.
Admittedly, success stories have popped up in other competitions. Flamengo beat Atlético-PR in the Brazilian Cup final, qualifying for next season’s Copa Libertadores in the process. Palmeiras won Série B – although their fans would have expected nothing less after their 2012 fiasco. Ponte Preta, meanwhile, have reached the final of the Copa Sul-Americana despite being relegated domestically.
But the overall picture is still one of underachievement, particularly compared with the roaring success enjoyed by clubs from Brazil’s third city. With Atlético-MG winning the Copa Libertadores in dramatic fashion (pictured, above) and Cruzeiro romping to the Brasileirão title, Belo Horizonte has become the country’s de facto capital of football this term.
Only time will tell whether such achievements – whether by clubs in BH, Porto Alegre or the giants’ dormitory that is the nordeste – can be repeated against the relentless march of finance and favour. If they cannot, at least 2013 will stand as an enduring monument to a footballing flux lost.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football for the Guardian, ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes and WhoScored, among others.
Follow him on Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop