Brazilian Championship set to kick off, Chape look to retain first-division spot
As the European leagues wind down, so the Brazilian Championship gets underway. The action starts this weekend and goes all the way through to the start of December.
It is an unorthodox calendar and one that is no doubt holding back the Brazilian game. For political reasons, the year begins with the state championships, one for each of the country's 27 states. These in their present form are outdated competitions -- crowds of fewer than 500 outnumber those above 5000 by nearly three to one. They largely waste the time of the big clubs and the fact that they only came to a conclusion on Sunday undermines this weekend's big kickoff.
As anyone familiar with a league system knows, the strength of the format is in the start, when all of the supporters flock to stadiums carrying the hope that this season their team will spring a surprise. For this to happen, a pause beforehand is needed for expectation to blossom. The existence of the state championships rules out any such effect in Brazil. There is no pause before the league starts. Some teams are celebrating their local success, while others are still licking their wounds and the magic of the big kickoff is greatly dissipated.
That aside, the calendar this year is far more favourable than in previous campaigns. For a start, the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League, is now played across the entire year rather than being squeezed into the first half. Normally at this stage the competition would have reached the knockout rounds, which meant that the Brazilian clubs involved frequently fielded reserve sides for the first few league games, preserving their best players for the continental battles. This will not take place to anything like the same extent in 2017.
Also, this is a year light on international tournaments. True, there is next month's Confederations Cup. But Brazil have not qualified, Chile are representing South America. And while Sport of Recife will probably have to do without Chile international left-back Eugenio Mena, this is nothing compared to last year, when the best players from a number of countries were absent for the Copa Centenario and the Olympic football tournament as well.
True, the European summer transfer window is a risk -- some of the best players could be plucked away -- but in comparison with recent campaigns, the 2017 Brazilian Championship should feature more full-strength sides. This is good news for a competition that counts on a significant advantage when compared with many other major leagues: the size of the country.
Brazil's big clubs are huge in terms of supporter numbers.There are 12 teams with undeniable tradition: the four from Sao Paulo (reigning champions Palmeiras, previous champions Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Santos), the quartet from Rio de Janeiro (giants Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama), the pair from Belo Horizonte who have been so strong in recent times (Cruzeiro and Atletico Mineiro) and the duo from Porto Alegre, Gremio and Internacional. The last named have been relegated to the second division for the first time ever, but that still leaves 11 giants.
Then, add the trio from the North East -- Sport and the Salvador pair of Vitoria and Bahia -- who have the potential to be much bigger. There are forward-looking, interesting clubs such as Atletico Paranaense, and some think their neighbours Coritiba could be a surprise package this year. Ponte Preta from the Sao Paulo hinterland are not to be underestimated. And there is the saga, of course, of whether bold Chapecoense can retain their first-division status. In the wake of the air disaster they suffered at the end of November, the idea was floated that they should be protected from relegation for a three-year period. The club were quick to reject any such proposal. They want to stand or fall by their own merits. Whether or not they are able to do so promised to be one of the intriguing subplots of the league campaign.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.