Brazilian teams thrive amid World Cup concerns
On the pitch, last week was a splendid one for Brazilian football.
Fluminense's dramatic qualification for the knockout stages of the Copa Libertadores meant that Brazil did not have a single team eliminated in the group phase - while Argentina lost three.
The Brazilian sides also managed to avoid each other in the second round, creating the possibility of the competition's last eight featuring five teams from the same country.
Off the field, though, the picture is not so impressive, with planning for the 2014 World Cup giving cause for concern.
Rafael Moura (right) scores for Fluminense in their 4-2 win over Argentinos Juniors - photo: Reuters
The state of the country's airports has always been seen as the main impediment to the smooth running of the tournament. Recently a survey by a specialist organisation concluded that work on the airports will not be completed in time - and even if it is, the airports will still be operating beyond their capacity.
Stadium work is also dragging with construction of the new stadium in Sao Paulo, the likely venue of the opening game, yet to start - and doubt has also been cast on the financial viability of four of the 12 stadiums.
Earlier this month, Senator Alvaro Dias, a long running critic of football administration in Brazil, even called on the country to give up the right to stage the tournament.
Dias is an opposition politician seeking to embarrass the government and he was more likely making mischief rather than presenting a serious suggestion.
There seems no reason to doubt that the tournament will go ahead in Brazil, but those in charge of the process have little cause for self-congratulation.
"There is still (just about) time for us to put on a reasonable World Cup," Jose Luiz Portella last week. But a very good one is out of the question. We have wasted the opportunity."
Portella, who in addition to being an engineer and a transport executive is one of the country's most intelligent football columnists, continued: "I have always been in favour of having the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil, but not with this group who run our sport."
This gets to the heart of the matter.
Brazil's players are so good as a consequence of football's intrinsic meritocracy. By far the principal sport in a giant country, football attracts millions, the best of whom are groomed for a career in the game. The sons of Pele and Zico have tried and failed - a famous name could only get them so far.
Off the field it is a radically different matter. Ricardo Teixeira, former son-in-law of ex-FIFA President Joao Havelange, has been in charge of the Brazilian FA since 1989. The uncharismatic Teixeira also presides over the World Cup Local Organising Committee, in which his daughter as a key administrator.
They both might be part of the rapidly developing world, but there is a key difference between Brazil and 2010 hosts South Africa. Staging last year's World Cup was part of a lengthy process which has seen political power change hands in the rainbow nation.
Brazil has taken huge strides to consolidate its democracy, but old semi-feudal clans have not had their power shaken - as football demonstrates. Teixeira's power base is formed by the presidents of the country's 27 state football federations, some of whom have been in power even longer than he has.
Ricardo Teixeira (left) is the man charged with delivering the 2014 World Cup - photo: Getty Images
The World Cup started to go wrong from the very start because of Teixeira's unwillingness to alienate that power base.
The key date was March 2003 when Fifa president Sepp Blatter announced that, following the rotation principle, the World Cup would return to South America in 2014. Within days Conmebol (the South American Confederation) declared that Brazil was its only candidate.
True, Colombia later broke ranks and briefly ran a rival bid, but this was never serious.
Venezuela was investing heavily in stadiums at the time, and Colombia was looking to raise its profile in response to this challenge from its neighbour and rival. The Colombian move achieved its objective when the country was awarded this year's World Youth Cup.
Fifa officially announced Brazil as 2014 hosts in October 2007. There was no surprise or controversy - it merely made official what everyone already knew. At this point Brazil should have had its plans in place, it should have chosen its host cities, presented its stadium projects and identified its infra-structure necessities, but had not. Four and a half years had been wasted.
No host cities had been chosen because, for Teixeira, it was not convenient to do so.
Eighteen cities wanted to stage games but excluding some of them would have had negative political consequences for him, so the decision was handed to Fifa, thus eating up more time.
The list of host cities was finally read out from Switzerland at the end of May 2009, more than six years after it was apparent to all and sundry that Brazil would be staging the tournament.
Anyone with any knowledge of Brazil was aware that such a delay was asking for problems. Throw in time spent on bureaucratic enclaves and political in-fighting and it was clear work would be running behind schedule.
"There are countries which suffer natural disasters and need to reconstruct everything on an emergency basis," commented Brazilian architectural and engineering specialist Jose Roberto Bernasconi last week. "We create our own emergencies without any necessity."
Emergencies have to be paid for. The 2014 show will go ahead on time, but to ensure that it does, public money will have to be thrown at it, and some urban transport projects may well have to be cut or scaled back.
The 2014 World Cup, then, comes with two strong probabilities - one, that the hard-pressed Brazilian tax payer will shell out more than he/she should and two, the return to that tax payer is likely to fall short of what might be expected.
Perhaps we can add a third - that some of the most dazzling football played will come from the Brazil team. The products of football's fierce meritocracy, drawn from diverse backgrounds, Brazil's players will surely combine to produce some moments that make them, in the words of American sociologist Janet Lever "a living register of society's potential".
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I'd be interested to know if you've ever put any thought to the idea that Brazilian clubs might in the future begin to dominate the Libertadores due to greater financial muscle than other South American clubs. Obviously in recent years with the expanding Brazilian economy, the clubs have benefited and many Brazilian stars have returned in recent years. I was wondering if you thought that if this trend were to continue say over the next 10-15 years, Brazilian clubs might pull away and monopolise the competition.
A) I've written stuff along these lines a few times, always to a furious response from Argentine readers! In the last couple of years we've seen four Brazilian clubs in the last eight, with only Estudiantes reaching the same stage from Argentina. As the article states, there is the possibility of five Brazilians in the last eight this time. Never write off the Argentines, though. They have a tendency to grow at the vital moment - they have won out the last five times they've met Brazilian opposition in the final.
Looking ahead, it's far from clear that the current strength of the Brazilian currency is sustainable - the country is finding it hard to export anything manufactured - and this might level out the playing field a little. Football is always dynamic, also, and it will be fascinating to see how Argentine clubs react. One thing for a start - they have to improve the standard of their goalkeeping.