When I moved to Rio just over 18 years ago, English football was seen in Brazil as little more than an irrelevant backwater. The Monday night game was often televised – it always seemed to feature Wimbledon, it was usually awful and watching it was regarded as either an eccentric quirk or the greatest imaginable sacrifice of two hours in the name of love for football.
How things have changed. Now the English Premier League is the one that all the cable TV channels want most. There are even games of the English second tier shown regularly on Brazilian TV. The streets are full of shirts of the leading Premiership clubs.
I well recall one Brazilian TV channel doing a vox pop on the streets to find out which team people supported.
“Corinthians,” said one working class man in Sao Paulo, before, entirely without prompting, adding “and Arsenal in England.”
I am old enough to remember times some three or four decades ago when the imminent death of the English game was being announced – absurd from today’s perspective.
The extraordinary turnaround in fortunes and prestige of English football makes it something of a model for other countries – success stories are always copied. As it seeks to make its way, screaming and kicking, into the twenty first century, the Brazilian game often looks to England for inspiration.
A frequent example is the fight against the hooligans. The legislative measures introduced in England are widely praised for their effectiveness in getting to grips with the problem. Such praise might be justified. But it usually forgets the context – the fact that hundreds of thousands of fans were heartily sick of the hooligan element and even angrier about being treated as sub-humans by the authorities – a mentality that reached its tragic nadir in the Hillsbrough disaster of 1989.
All over the country supporters organised themselves, founding fanzines to put across their views and demand better treatment.
The point is this – the hooligan problem was not only brought under control by top-down legislation. Significant bottom-up mobilisation was a huge part of the solution. Erase that from the narrative and any copy of the English model loses a good part of its validity. Context is important.
All of this has special relevance because Brazilian football is currently upgrading its facilities. The movement is spearheaded by, though not limited to, the new stadiums being constructed for the 2014 World Cup. The key buzzword is ‘comfort,’ and, once again, the developments in English stadia are usually given as an example.
Comfort is all very well. But as anyone who lived through the English experience will tell you, it comes at a price. What you gain in comfort you can lose in atmosphere.
A simple example. A couple of years ago I was back in London, and I went to a UEFA Champions League game in Arsenal’s splendid modern ground. A big crowd went along. But with half an hour to go, there were still very few people in the stadium. In my old days as a fan, when you paid on the gate and watched the game on foot, this was unthinkable.
For a big match the only way to guarantee a good viewing spot was to arrive early. The atmosphere was created by the fans inside the ground. But here at the Emirates, with just a few minutes to go before kick off, there were not enough people packed sufficiently close together to give the place a buzz. The atmosphere was being created by the big screen. The ease of access to the seats, the fact of having a guaranteed place – undoubted added comforts – had taken away something from the event.
In the early 90s when the changes came in to English fans, I, as a fan, was either against. With the benefit of hindsight I now think I was wrong. The culture had to change. True, things have been lost. But wary as I am about the extent to which the English game has sold its soul, I now believe that more things have been gained.
For a start, the stadiums have become more inclusive – even though many have been priced out. This apparent contradiction explains itself by the changing dynamic of English society, and the fact that so many, especially of the working class, are now made up of descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent.
Thirty years ago the atmosphere inside English stadiums could be threatening to them. Not any more. This is a significant gain.
The problem in Brazil is that the society has a different dynamic. There is not a slice of ethnic immigrants who are being excluded in this way. In other words, the project to gentrify Brazilian stadiums has less to gain and more to lose. The downside is in the exclusion of people who can no longer afford to go. This is already happening. Ticket prices are too high – one of the factors in the dismal average attendance in the current Brazilian Championship, which lags at around 11,500.
This brings us to another key difference between England the Brazilian project.
Gentrification and price rises in English football happened at a time when demand was strong. Through the fanzine movement, the English football community bounced back from the bottom of the well. There was a huge dose of luck also – the style and success of the England team in the 1990 World Cup gave a huge boost at a vital moment; it won back plenty of fans who had drifted away, and converted many others. This all meant that English clubs could raise their prices from a position of strength. In Brazil they must do it from a position of weakness.
My feeling is that a better model for Brazil would be to keep ticket prices down – for all the economic boom many jobs still pay bargain basement salaries – and try to cash in selling food and drink.
One aspect that could perhaps be looked at is the ban on selling beer in stadiums – all it means is that fans drink outside the ground, where policing can often be more difficult, and it deprives the clubs of a source of revenue.
One way or another, the new stadiums being built in Brazil will have an effect on fan culture. Better, though, that those changes are moulded to a local reality, rather than slavishly copied from elsewhere.
Meet Our Bloggers
Fondly known as 'Mr Football', Les has been directly involved in all
the major events covered by SBS Sport, including five World Cup
football tournaments. Follow @lesmurraysbs on Twitter.
As SBS’s chief football analyst, Craig provides expert opinion and unrivalled insight. He has also represented the Socceroos and played abroad. Follow @Craig_Foster on Twitter.
Considered one of Australia's most gifted players, Ned Zelic represented the Socceroos 34 times over a decorated career that spanned Europe, Asia and the United Kingdom. Follow @NedZelic on Twitter.
After years playing abroad and a 20-goal career for the Socceroos, David turned his hand to football punditry and is a beach football fanatic. Follow @zdrila on Twitter.
Scott’s passion and knowledge of Asian football has consolidated his reputation as Australia’s foremost Asian football expert.
Vitor commentates for SBS and works as a presenter for The World Game. His passion for European football resonates through his blogs. Follow @Vitor_TWG on Twitter.
Philip Micallef is a football writer with almost 40 years of experience. He has worked for News Limited and now SBS. He is a long-time follower of AC Milan.
The Circus is The World Game's regular look at the beautiful game from left field. So join us every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for something a little more light-hearted than the norm.
British-born Tim works as a journalist and has lived in Brazil since 1994 and provides unrivalled knowledge of South American football.
Hailing from Amsterdam, Ajax tragic Cornell vander Heyden has over 12 years of journalism experience and cites covering the 2006 World Cup among his career highlights. Follow @dvanda101 on Twitter.