Brazil's championship needs a licence to thrill
Before Ian Fleming made his name writing the James Bond books, he was eclipsed by older brother Peter, a derring-do adventurer of the type Michael Palin might have been born to satirise.
Peter Fleming was part of an eccentric expedition into the Brazilian jungle in the early 1930s, which he wrote about in a book best remembered for its stand out line.
"Sao Paulo," he mused, "is like Reading, only much further away" - an observation which does, of course, depend on one's starting point, but which contains an excellent piece of insight.
Fleming was kicking against the perception some had in England at the time of Sao Paulo being some Wild West outpost, "the sort of town where tanned and wary men, riding in from great distances, scatter the poultry in the rutted streets and leave their ponies outside the saloon".
The structure of domestic football in Brazil means clubs are not tapping into the potential of a passionate supporter base
Even 20 years ago, Brazilian friends in London were still being asked whether they had electricity at home, or if they saw snakes in the street.
"The truth," continues Fleming, "is very different. As you watch the straw hats bustling in and out of Woolworths you feel - with satisfaction or regret, according to your nature - that here is the South America that matters, the South America of the future. One day the whole sub-continent will be like this."
It is an excellent observation, and one extremely pertinent to the development of football in the region. Because football is the game of the city.
One of the main reasons that football caught on so quickly in this part of the world is precisely because its arrival coincided with an age of huge urban expansion.
Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay grew enormously in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Immigrants flooded in, both from rural areas and from abroad, sailing in from Europe and the Middle East. New connections were made, new ways of life adopted. Football was one of the novelties.
Introduced by the British, the game was originally restricted to the elite. It was the growth of the cities that made it possible for football to slide down the social scale so quickly, to be picked up and reinterpreted by the poor, and for this reinterpretation to lead to international triumphs and recognition for what had been seen as a remote part of the world.
But 80 years after Fleming put pen to paper, the essential truth of his observation has yet to be grasped by those running Brazilian football.
Brazil has huge clubs - based, of course, in the big cities - who can count their supporters in the tens of millions. But in the structure of the way the game is run, the clubs are not so important.
They take second place to the federations - one for each of the 27 states that comprise this giant country. And inside the federations, sheer force of numbers means that the power is with the little clubs - or those who control them.
The outcome is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, a calendar built around the needs of the minnows.
Between mid-January and mid-May, the big clubs are forced to waste their time playing in their respective state championship. They are up against clubs so small they barely deserve to be described as professional.
One game in Rio's first division drew 10 paying supporters. Crowds of under 100 are commonplace. And Flamengo are paying Ronaldinho a fortune to take part.
As well as being an exercise in futility, the state championships throw Brazil's calendar out of sync with the rest of the world. There is no time for a proper pre-season, no gap for the clubs to travel to lucrative pre-season tournaments abroad, and, World Cup year apart, no pause in the middle of the year.
Having giants play minnows on a league basis makes no sense. In a cup format, though, it is a completely different matter. A huge part of the charm of a cup competition is the possibility it provides for the little team to seize a moment of glory.
And so while I am dead against Brazil's state championships in the format currently used, I am all in favour of the Brazilian Cup, whose 2012 incarnation is just getting under way.
It is a competition whose cup runneth over with wonderful stories, with remote teams from the north having a crack at some of the big stars from the south east.
The Cup is set to be expanded next year, but as currently played it is contested on a knock-out basis by 64 clubs from all over the country.
Here, too, I would make a change. The ties take place over two legs. To my mind, a single game would be far better.
The league exists to crown the best, most consistent club. With a cup, luck of the draw is all part of the drama, and a greater chance of upsets is something to be celebrated.
I proposed this once on Brazilian TV. My colleagues seemed dumfounded, but I was able to point out that it has worked well enough in the FA Cup for over 140 years.
Cutting back to one leg also suits a country the size of Brazil. Halving the number of games creates space to double the number of participants. With 128 clubs competing on a pure knock-out basis, the chance of the occasional upset is greatly increased.
As Peter Fleming's brother might have commented, a domestic cup competition on those lines would come equipped with a licence to thrill.
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) Do you think that the abdication (I think is the best word) of Ricardo Teixeira as president of Brazil's FA can help the professionalization of their football?
A) It can't do any harm. But it's not just about Teixeira. It's hard to think of a more dim-witted public figure than Teixeira, but if someone that limited can stay in power for so long (23 years) there is clearly a support structure behind him - which in this case is mainly the presidents of the various state federations, who seem to form a useless layer of bureaucracy.
Fundamental change can only come from the clubs. Can they step up? Can they agree on a way forward for themselves and the future of the game? Brazil has reached its 1992 moment - when the English clubs broke away to form the Premier League. Can Brazil's clubs do something similar, maybe even better?