In professional football, money is, always has been, and always will be a key factor. However, not necessarily a decisive one.
By
2 Jun 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 14 May 2014 - 1:26 PM

In professional football, money is, always has been, and always will be a key factor. However, not necessarily a decisive one.

If it was then Brazil would have at least three representatives in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores – South America’s Champions League.

Instead, Brazil was only a penalty miss away from losing all interest in the competition at the quarter-final stage.

The country’s last standing survivor, free-scoring Atletico Mineiro, was 12 yards and 30 seconds from elimination. All Tijuana striker Duvier Riascos had to do was score the stoppage-time penalty and his club, Tijuana of Mexico, would be through to the last four.

Normally the crowd in Atletico’s Independiencia stadium creates a fervent atmosphere. Now an eerie silence descended. Many were in tears, anticipating the bitterness of defeat.

Riascos struck his shot straight down the middle – usually a safe bet if the keeper makes a dive. Vitor hurled himself to his right – but was able to block the shot with his legs. Atletico was through, and Brazilian honour, if not entirely saved, received less of a bruising.

These days the Libertadores should be no contest. Over the last four years the revenues of the top Brazilian clubs have doubled. The country has a strong currency. In financial terms the Brazilian teams have an advantage over the rest of the continent, which borders on the absurd.

They can hold on to their starlets for longer and bring established players back from Europe sooner. But they are being eliminated by rival clubs whose entire wage bill would not pay for one Brazilian star name.

Also in the quarter-finals, reigning Brazilian champion Fluminense fell to Olimpia of Paraguay.

In the previous round Gremio, which had gone on a huge shopping spree, was knocked out by Santa Fe of Colombia. Tijuana sent Palmeiras packing. Club World Cup champion Corinthians lost out to the most ordinary Boca Juniors side in memory.

And there was one all Brazilian clash, Atletico seeing off Sao Paulo. But the beaten side, one of the richest clubs in the continent, had only limped into the knockout round after a dismal group phase where it managed to be second best against tiny Arsenal of Argentina.

How can this be explained?

The typical local response is to blame the referee. In specific cases, this might be justified.

Corinthians, for example, seemed unfortunate with a couple of decisions that went against it but there is far more Brazilian paranoia than sense in this line of argument – because the rest of the continent speaks Spanish, the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians have a tendency to think that everything is stacked against them.

There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Palmeiras, for example, appeared to get the benefit of the key decisions in its tie.

Much more importantly, something of great importance is being forgotten in this debate – football.

To my mind, one moment sums it up – the goal that Santa Fe scored to eliminate Gremio.

In front of its own fans, the Colombian side was just over 10 minutes away from elimination but there was no panic. It observed the basic concepts of the game – in the zone of elaboration, forget the goal and search for a team-mate – and if you keep doing it, there will come a moment when the gateway opens up to the goal.

It patiently passed the ball around, in a neat triangle down the left, sucking in the defence. Then, a sudden change of rhythm – a diagonal ball to the edge of the area, a quick one-two to get behind the defence, some neat footwork and a cool finish past the goalkeeper.

This is the type of move that Brazilian football used to produce with beautiful frequency – and needs to study to learn how to do once more.

Instead, Brazilian TV took a different approach. It slowed down the tape, stopped the image at a certain moment and pointed out that there was a possibility that a Santa Fe player was (and I am not making this up) 10 centimetres offside.

It was an object lesson in how to miss a basic point.

Dorival Junior, the coach who nurtured Neymar at Santos, argued that Brazilian football has forgotten how to pass the ball through the middle of the pitch, that such elaboration has become the victim of an obsession with springing attacking full-backs on the counter-attack. He is surely correct.

But the problem is not only tactical. It is also emotional.

Fans, media, coaches – all are overdoing the emphasis on fighting spirit, referring to their side as a team of warriors. Players are being sent out for Libertadores matches as if they are going to a war, with an emotional charge that does not always lead to good decision making – and in football, to play well is to choose well.

The only positive side of all this is that now there is now hiding place. Brazilian football has been travelling in these directions for some time – a development I have frequently used this space to bemoan.

Lack of money could always be used as a ready made excuse but not any more. Now the Brazilians are losing to opponents that are financially so much weaker – making it harder to hide from reality.

And acknowledging reality is a necessary step on the road to changing it.