What price Brazilian football?
Predictably enough, the final day of the Brazilian league season came with a touch of controversy.
Sao Paulo needed a point away to Goias to win their third consecutive title and their sixth in all (both are records).
But after incidents in their stadium, Goias were obliged to stage the game a few hundred miles away in Gama, a satellite town of the capital Brasilia. With nothing riding on the game for them, Goias decided to take advantage of the importance of the occasion to their opponents. Ticket prices were pushed up twenty times the normal amount - which after political pressure was reduced to a still-exorbitant 10-fold increase.
Shortly before the match the two clubs were squabbling over the allocation of dressing-rooms and substitutes' benches, and on the eve of the game there was a switch of referees after rumours circulated that the original choice might have been got at.
In the event the replacement officials made a hash of the only goal of the game. Sao Paulo striker Borges was well offside when he scored.
It was just as well that the goal did not decide the destination of the title - Sao Paulo would have been champions with a draw - because the final day of the 2008 championship does not deserve to be overshadowed by negative headlines. All 10 games were scheduled to start at 5pm, and give or take a couple of minutes here or there, they started on time.
This might hardly seem newsworthy, but in fact it represents a significant advance.
The final day has often given an opportunity for unscrupulous directors to try and pull a fast one in the perceived interests of their team. Teams whose fight against relegation is dependent on other results have frequently sought to delay the kick-off. They take the field in shirts the same colour as their opponents, so they have to go back to the dressing-room and change again. Or, if the games take place at night, there might be an 'accidental' floodlight failure. So their game kicks off half an hour late, when they already know how their rivals are doing.
There were no such shenanigans this time. Perhaps the corner has been turned. Another positive to report from the final day is that Vasco da Gama were among the four teams relegated - and no one doubts that they will play in the second division next year.
Nothing against the club - the tradition of Vasco is magnificent, and Brazilian football owes them a huge debt. They were prime movers in democratising the sport. Brazilian football began as a pastime of the elite. Vasco played a huge role in breaking down the barriers when they won the 1923 Rio championship with a team that included black and poor white players. They were persecuted by the elite clubs, until they consolidated their position once and for all by clubbing together and building their Sao Januario stadium, the emotional scene of their last game of the season on Sunday.
In fact this has been coming for a while. Their most recent golden age came to an end when they were knocked out of the 2001 Copa Libertadores. Ever since they have been a low-budget team made up of a couple of aged stars, the odd promise for the future and plenty of cheap, workmanlike players.
But, with four national titles to their name, they remain a giant club. Ten years ago they would not have gone down, even if they finished in the relegation zone. Some means would have been found to save them from their own incompetence.
Some years there simply was no relegation. In others, former champions were exempt, or some excuse was found to preserve the traditional giants in the first division, such as a refereeing scandal that was used to benefit Fluminense over a decade ago.
That no longer happens - and would be considered totally unacceptable if anyone tried it on. Vasco are the latest in a recent line of big clubs to be relegated. It happened to Palmeiras and Botafogo, to Gremio and Atletico Mineiro. Last year it even happened to the mighty Corinthians, the second most popular club in the country.
All have since made it back to the top flight, in every case strengthened by the experience. The way that the Vasco fans have responded to the threat of relegation - they have been filling the stadium game after game - suggests that the same might be true of their club.
And in the meantime, the second division will benefit from their presence, as it did from having all the other big clubs.
Domestic Brazilian football continues to operate way below its potential. There are serious problems with the calendar, the existence of the dreadful state championships and the role of agents. But it is also taking some steps in the right direction, as, with a touch of controversy, the final day of the 2008 season made clear.
Please send your comments on this week's piece using the space provided below. Any other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
I have been aware of a player called Fernando Cavenaghi for a while now (mainly due to many hours of football management games in my youth!!)
He came from Argentinian football a few years ago joining Spartak Moscow, I think then has moved to Bordeaux for the last few seasons.
How do you rate him and how is he rated in his homeland as I think I'm right in saying that he hasn't played for the national team?
A natural goalscorer who was top scorer with River Plate in the Argentine first division at the age of 18. Perhaps not the greatest physically, and by his own admission he chased the money when he went to Russia and it didn't do his career much good. He was certainly off the radar screen for a while, but his profile is higher now he's in France and getting more playing time. He has played for Argentina - four appearances as a sub in friendlies earlier this year.
One of the most interesting things with Maradona's Argentina will be what he does with the target man situation. He'll probably go with Messi and Aguero and perhaps Tevez, with other nippy strikers also pushing for a place, but he surely needs a big forward as an option on the bench. German Denis came on against Scotland. Diego Milito is scoring in Italy. Will Higuain of Real Madrid get a chance? Can Cavenaghi score enough goals at Bordeaux to force his way into contention?
A quick question about players playing well into their 30's in top flight South American leagues:
I was wondering with the likes of Edmundo, Calderon, Veron and Salas performing in their respective countries and also Romario only recently retired, is this a new trend? Also do you think more and more South American players will play in their native leagues in their mid 30's after careers in the European leagues?
Unless there's a rethink we've now seen the end of Edmundo and Salas, who have retired with the end of their respective seasons.
It's very common for South American players, when they leave for Europe, to announce their intention of coming back to round off their career with their home town club. Many say it, by no means all do it. Veron is a special case. He could have stayed on in Europe - the gates had not closed to him - but he chose to come back for emotional reasons, because he feels a real bond with Estudiantes.
It might well be the case that these days its easier for the top class players to play on until later in the South American leagues. Not only has physical preparation improved, but the domestic level has also fallen because of the exodus of talent to Europe, so a bit of experience and quality can stand out.
But there is a downside. Take the example of Brazil's Ze Roberto, who travelled back to Brazil to join Santos after the last World Cup. His family had been brought up in Europe, and found it very hard to adapt to the social violence of contemporary South America. So after a year he moved back to Bayern Munich.