Low-key start to Brazilian championship
The biggest criticism that I could make of the organisation of Brazilian football is as follows - on the opening weekend of the national championship, the leading star in the entire competition was rested.
Ronaldo is fit and in form, looking full of goals in yet another remarkable comeback - and Corinthians decided not to pick him for Sunday's 1-0 defeat at home to Internacional.
And he is by no means the only big name who took no part in the opening round; Corinthians left out some other first-choice players, Palmeiras rested 2002 World Cup winning keeper Marcos and Sport gave a break to striker Wilson.
Anyone acquainted with the strengths of the league system will be astonished at this. All over the world the big kick-off is one of - if not the - highlights of the footballing calendar. It comes after a lengthy break from competitive action.
The fan is desperate to get back inside the stadium and see his new-look team. There has been time for the opening game to be marketed properly, and by going to the early games the fan builds up an identification with the team that sustains him through the long months of the season.
The idea of choosing not to be at full strength for the first game doesn't get a look-in.Brazil switched to a league system - everyone playing everyone else - in 2003. It took the great advantage of the format - the competition starts hot because three points in the first round are as valuable as three points in the last - and threw it away.
There is no pause before the start of the 38-match campaign. The wretched State Championships come to a close on the preceding Sunday. Meanwhile, the important knock-out competitions - the Libertadores and the Brazilian Cup - are going into the vital stage.
This is why Ronaldo took no part in Sunday's game. His goals helped Corinthians win the Sao Paulo title and have ensured qualification for the quarter-final of the cup, whose first leg is in midweek. So he was given a breather to ensure there is gas left in the tank on Wednesday night.
And so the big kick-off in the league was a damp squib. The weekend's round was full of games that on paper should have had them queueing five times round the block; Corinthians against Inter, Cruzeiro and Flamengo, Gremio and Santos. But it was all so low-key.
I was at the match between Fluminense and Sao Paulo. By rights it should have been huge. These are two teams full of tradition, the visitors have won the last three league titles and the hosts have recently signed international striker Fred. The crowd in the giant Maracana stadium? - 14,574.
Much is being made in Brazil of the fact that all three strikers from the last World Cup squad are now back in the country - as well as Ronaldo and Fred, Adriano has just rejoined Flamengo.
These, undoubtedly, are wonderful players. But I don't think Brazilian football should be patting itself on the back just yet. None of them have returned because of the strength of the local game.
In Ronaldo's case, he has come back across the Atlantic after suffering yet another knee injury. For a while not even he was sure if he would be able to play again, and after years without managing a sequence of games European clubs were understandably reluctant to take a chance on him.
And while I am attacking the organisation of Brazilian football, at this point I should pay tribute to the country's culture of sports medicine. This is not the first time that Brazilian specialists have triumphed where the Europeans failed.
In 2002 Inter Milan were unable to get Ronaldo back to fitness. Brazil's physical preparation team got to work, and he was the star man in that year's World Cup. And now, after years of breakdowns with Real Madrid and Milan, Corinthians seem to have done the job.
And if Ronaldo's problem in Europe was physical, with both Fred and Adriano it was mental. The pair had been in Europe for a while - Adriano for much longer than Fred - and were uncomfortable with the lifestyle. They missed friends, family members, old neighbourhoods and so on.
Living abroad is not for everyone. In the 80s, when British players moved overseas to further their careers the great Hugh McIlvanney wrote that the average one was "so reluctant to immerse himself in the ways of his adopted country that he might be expected to take the field with a return ticket tucked into his sock".
Adriano and Fred had got themselves in that category. They have made some money in Europe and now decided to come back - but for social reasons, not footballing ones.
If Brazilian football wants its stars to come back for more positive motives - as a definite choice over the European game rather than fleeing from the cold, the language or food that is not to their taste - then a rethink on the organisation of the game is imperative.
A calendar so incompetent that it wastes the magic of the big kick-off hardly deserves the return of top-class players.
Comments on this week's piece in the space provided. Any other 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) In recent times football fans have heard of Kerlon, Pato, Renato Augusto, Bruno, Maxi Biancucchi, Keirrson and Thiago Neves. Who, in your opinion, is the next big star that we should all know and can look forward to seeing?
A) There's a couple of strange names on your list. Kerlon looked great as an Under-17, but, largely because of injuries, he's reached 21 without doing anything at senior level. And Maxi Biancucchi is better known as Messi's cousin than for anything he's achieved.
Some names to look out for - Nicolas Lodeiro had a terrific South American Under-20 Championship for Uruguay and has carried that form into the Libertaores with Nacional. Stocky left footed figure who makes the game flow - he usually knows what he's going to do with the ball before it reaches him.
In Brazil Taison of Internacional is very exciting - a young striker with extraordinary pace. His club-mate central midfielder Sandro has a future as well.
From Argentina I'm a fan of Boca's classy centre back Juan Daniel Forlin, and I have high hopes for Ecuador's Jefferson Montero, an attacking midfielder with excellent dribbling skills.
Q) There are various rumours around the internet that clubs from Major League Soccer in America will be the next league outside of Conmebol (the South American Federation) to be granted invites to the Copa Libertadores in the near future. Regardless of whether the rumours have any legs, what is your opinion of MLS teams entering the Copa Libertadores?
A) I've no inside track on this one, but I'm not particularly keen on them coming into South America's premier club competition. I know Mexico are invited - though that's hit a problem, with the Mexicans now pulling out not just of this year's Libertadores, but of all South American competitions.
For me there are obvious problems with MLS clubs in the Libertadores. One is travelling time and distance. South America is vast enough as it is without heading further north. Another is the effect on the Concacaf region - with the US and Mexico (assuming the row smoothes over) both in, clubs from the likes of Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica and so are getting squeezed out, and that doesn't seem right to me.
One idea - and something which is tentatively taking place - is to use the competition in the second half of the year for more contact between the Americas. Originally Conmebol planned to organise it as a Pan-American Cup. That fell through, and it's called the Sul/Sud- Americana or South American Cup - but it usually includes Mexican teams and others from Concacaf as well - I remember DC United taking part one year. So perhaps there's room for experimentation with this second cup - maybe it can grow into a genuinely Pan-American thing.
It is an awkward thing to organise between two conferences - but, perhaps anticipating the next question down the line, I can't see that Conmebol has anything to gain from a formal merger with Concacaf.