The End of the Brazilian Futebol Season

December 7, 2009

This is the email that Scott sent to his friends describing yesterday’s soccer matches:

So I went to watch the final round of Brazilian soccer yesterday and it was really great. The system is sort of a cross between pre-world-series baseball and pre-conference-tournament college basketball: 20 teams in the first division play each other endlessly over the course of an eight month season; at the end, the top team is the Brazilian Champion. No playoffs– which I thought would be anti-climactic– in fact made for an unbelievably dramatic day yesterday. Entering the final round (in which every single match would be played concurrently at 5pm), the country’s most popular, glamorous team– Flamengo, from Rio– had a two point lead over three teams tied for second, of which two were high profile Sao Paulo teams and one was a high profile team but from a smaller city. A win is worth 3 points and a tie is worth 1, so a Flamengo win would guarantee them the title, but a tie or loss would open the door to any of the three teams within striking distance. Meaning that at least 4 concurrent games had championship ramifications.

So Brooke and I sat with about a million screaming Sao Paulo residents, on a sidewalk in an intersection of four bars each showing as many games as it could. Prominently represented were fans of the two high profile Sao Paulo teams contending for the championship, the major Rio team (many of whose fans live in SP), and fans of the other major Sao Paulo teams, there exclusively to cheer against the two Sao Paulo teams in contention. And the web of implications was unbelievably intriguing. If Flamengo lost, any of the other three teams could win the title by winning, but if more than one of them won, a series of tie-break procedures would be used, beginning with overall victories and ending with goal differential (meaning that all but the most diehard fans had to think very hard to figure out who’d win the title under various scenarios as they unfolded). Of the tied second place teams, the one who stood to win the first tiebreaker was the team called Internacional from a city called Porto Alegre, who had one more win entering the day than the two tied Sao Paulo teams. This became an extremely important detail because Flamengo was playing Inter’s in-city Porto Alegre arch-rival, a team whose captainactually said mid-week that he was not planning on playing the final match hard because he refused to help Inter win a Brazilian title. South American to the bone.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the standings, the bottom four teams would be relegated out of the first division entirely. Fighting for its first division existence was Botafogo, the team that I ruined by choosing to root for when I moved to Rio. In order to survive, Botafogo needed to beat Palmeiras, one of the two high profile Sao Paulo teams in contention for the title. I have to describe this as well, because a fight against relegation turns out to be far more dramatic than I ever would have expected. For the first time all season, Botafogo’s stadium was PACKED, dousing players in confetti and setting off so many firecrackers that the start had to be delayed like an Allen Iverson opening night in the Pat Croce era. The scene more closely resembled an NFL playoff game than it did an end of season contest for a losing team in any American sport. It was unreal. And this, I realized, was something entirely new that I had to experience– the reason that I became a Botafogo fan. To have one’s final game stuffed with importance even after a disappointing season doubles the amount of teams who can experience high drama at the end of a season. Having followed Botafogo all season, watching them hover just over or just under the relegation mark, this was going to be a resolution, not just a day in which the final game ticked off the schedule.

I’ll describe the action succinctly since I’ve already used up a lot of words. Flamengo’s opponent scored an early goal, sending the bars into a frenzy. Inter and Sao Paulo both went out to definitive early leads against lousy teams, while Palmeiras went to halftime surprisingly tied with Botafogo (0-0). With every goal, some contingent in the neighborhood went nuts and some other became despondent. Palmeiras and Sao Paulo fans were united in rooting against Flamengo; other Sao Paulo teams joined Flamengo fans in rooting against Sao Paulo and Palmeiras; Sao Paulo and Flamengo fans united in rooting for Botafogo against Palmeiras. In the second half, Sao Paulo and Inter continued to run away with their matches, but Flamengo scored the equalizer just before halftime and the championship winning goal in the 70th minute, sending 100,000 fans in Rio’s Maracana (the stadium that will host the 2016 opening ceremonies, and where Andrew and Amy saw Flamengo play this very championship-winning season) into complete bedlam. Picture all of the characters from City of God winning a Super Bowl for the first time in 17 years. Yeah.

And on the other side of the standings there proved to be a happy ending for my first season of Brazilian futebol: Botafogo scored two goals in the second half, survived a late answer-back, beat Palmeiras, and kept its place in the Serie A for 2010. The dogpile on the field for this moral victory was as big as the one in Maracana for the team that won the title. It was pretty cool.


3 Responses to “The End of the Brazilian Futebol Season”

  1. bobbygee said

    My wife is Brasilian. We met in Brasilia in 2002. We stopped by a Pizza Hut and gues what The USA national team was taking Brasileiro national team. Of all places Pizza Hut. Eu sou Flamenguista. We listen to all the games Globo Radio.

  2. wouldnt exactly call inter a “small” team, far from it..
    but yes, it was a very exiting finish to the season.. sadly it will be remembered for numerous errors on the part of the refs through out the season.. the post-game riot in curitiba i think was fueled in part out of frustration at the refs, notice the hooligans ran straight for them, and ironically, there were no “questionable” calls or decisions in that game in and of itself.. the end of the season is always filled with tension and shenanigans.. 2007 when corinthians was relegated, there was a game, goias x inter, and goias had a penalty kick.. the inter goalie stopped it twice (leaving corinthians in the first division) and the ref had them rekick saying the goalie advanced before the ball was touched, somehting that is almost never done.. anyways, like i said, stick around aNd follow the brasileirao and you will see plenty!!
    all the best

  3. AcesHigh said

    Hahaha… Inter a small team… I LOVED IT (as a Grêmio fan). But actually, its not a small team, as much as I hate admiting that. Actually, its one of the biggest teams in Brazil.

    About the brazilian league system: we actually HAD play-offs till 2003. But then we decided to IMMITATE the successful EUROPEAN leagues, which never had playoffs.

    Its quite a controversy actually… while THIS league had emotion up to the last round, usually that doesnt happen. Many people are in favor of a return to a play-offs system.

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