14 November 2009 ~ This year’s thrilling run-in to Brazil’s national championship has been punctuated by traditional gripes at referees like Carlos Eugenio Simon. He has officiated at a World Cup but has been asked to sit out the rest of the championship after making a major error last Sunday in disallowing an apparently legitimate goal for title contenders Palmeiras during their 1-0 defeat at Fluminense. Simon is threatening legal action against Palmeiras president Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo who described the FIFA referee as “a conman who is in someone’s pocket”. In recent weeks, however, another complaint has emerged to accompany the endless quibbles over refs.
In press interviews after their team's 2-0 win over Flamengo on October 28, two Barueri players, top scorer Val Baiano and goalkeeper Rene, referred to financial incentives offered to them by Cruzeiro – one of Flamengo's rivals for a Copa Libertadores place. The reward in question is known as a mala branca (literally a white case) designed to encourage another team to try harder. Many in Brazilian football see it as completely distinct from the mala preta (a bribe) accepted by players to lose games.
Barueri, from a city in Greater São Paulo, have enjoyed a meteoric rise since becoming professional in 2001, winning promotion to Serie A for the first time this season. By the time they faced Flamengo, Barueri were sitting snugly in the table but with little obvious motivation to produce the spirited display that saw Flamengo outplayed. Cruzeiro denied any involvement. But while the Barueri pair tried to defuse the controversy their club took pre-emptive action by barring both until further notice, ironically causing them to miss Barueri’s defeat to São Paulo – another of Flamengo rivals.
Despite the hand-wringing, the practice of the mala branca is hardly novel in Brazil. The country’s footballing folklore is rife with past cases. Even in a closely contested season such as 2009 there will always be teams coasting through the final weeks in mid-table, especially as the competition those clubs can qualify for, the Copa Sul-Americana, has little status. The competition scoops up the eight best-placed teams beyond the Libertadores qualifiers but often sees Brazilian clubs field reserve teams until the latter stages.
Flamengo president Márcio Braga railed against malign forces and demanded action, but his players were more sanguine. Goalkeeper Bruno saw a mala branca as innocuous. Media pundit and former player Caio Ribeiro admitted the practice was commonplace during his career and argued that "on a personal level I can see nothing wrong with players receiving such payments”. Pelé also weighed in on the side of pragmatism, arguing: “There is nothing abnormal about receiving an extra reward to win a game. What’s unacceptable is to take money for losing a game.”
The prevalence of the mala branca is also hardly surprising given the precarious financial condition of many of Brazil’s clubs – former Lyon striker Fred felt compelled to point out to Fluminense directors last week that his club’s relegation battle was not being helped by a three-month pay lag. Late payment of wages and the fact that many of Brazil’s professionals at lower levels are on short-term contracts also makes such offers tempting. In what remains a grey area of football ethics in Brazilian football, for many the Barueri players' “crime” was not the acceptance of the mala branca but rather talking about it too loudly afterwards. Robert Shaw