The Brazilian league is structured so it's nearly impossible for the big clubs to lose dominance, but Brian Homewood notes that Fluminense have remarkably been relegated

If you want to meet somebody worse off than yourself, get on the next flight to Rio and go and talk to any Fluminense supporter. Fluminense fans have just gone through the agony of seeing their team accomplish the unprecedented feat of getting relegated from the first division of the Brazilian championship for the second year running.

The club, one of the traditional powers of the Brazilian game, finished in the bottom two last year and then got themselves reinstated after persuading the CBF (Brazilian Football Confederation) that they were too big and important a club to go down. But having gatecrashed their way back into the first division, Fluminense contrived to get relegated again this year, turning the club into the laughing stock of the Brazilian game and leaving supporters of other clubs celebrating a case of poetic justice.

At one match, when Fluminense were beaten 3-0 at home by Sport Recife, supporters launched a “backs to the game” protest. An entire section of the crowd simply turned round for the last third of the match and refused to watch their team. Fluminense directors had celebrated the CBF’s amazing about-turn with a much-publicized champagne party, but apparently they got too sloshed to worry about reinforcing the team. Four reinforcements were eventually signed, but they did not arrive until a month after the five-month long championship had begun. In the meantime, the club had used three managers.

Relegation is not something that Brazil’s biggest clubs are used to dealing with. As formats and the sizes of competitions change almost every year, it is fairly easy for them to creep back in unnoticed. When Gremio, another major club, were relegated in 1991, they really did go into the second division. The CBF, however, facilitated a quick return by allowing 12 teams to be promoted the following year – and naturally Gremio were among them. In 1995, the CBF came up with a classic to help the major clubs stave off relegation. It was ruled that the bottom two would go down – but if one of those two happened to have won the Brazilian championship at any time in the past, they would play off against the lowest-placed club never to have won, with the losers being relegated instead.

Since then CBF president Ricardo Teixeira has been attempting to progressively reduce the size of the top division and give the impression that his organization runs a serious championship. To do this, he has tried to implement a European-style system, unheard of in Brazil, in which the bottom clubs in one division go down and are replaced by the top clubs in the division below.

When Fluminense finished in the bottom two last year, Teixeira was quick to promise that “there will be no turning over the tables”. That was in December. In June, however (the Brazilian championship runs from July to December: the first half of the year is given over to state championships), Teixeira announced that both Fluminense and Bragantino – also “relegated” last year – had been allowed back, and sped off to Switzerland without saying another word. Two months later, he eventually explained his decision. There had been allegations of bent refereeing and although it could not be proved that Fluminense and Bragantino had been victims, it was possible they might have been, so the fairest solution would be to allow them back. It sounded distinctly like it was the best thing that Teixeira could think up.

This time, three other teams have joined Fluminense in the drop: Uniao São João, Criciúma and Bahia. Teixeira recently had everyone in stitches when he said: “The bottom four clubs will go down this year, whether they are big or whether they are small.” The matter may soon be out of his hands, anyway. Pelé, now acting as the government’s sports minister, has sent a bill to Congress which, amongst other things, will allow the clubs to set up their own leagues, independent of the CBF and the state federations. If this happens, then Brazil’s biggest clubs –presumably including Fluminense – can start afresh in 1998, setting up their own championship and handpicking whoever they want to take part regardless of what happened this time. Not surprisingly, Fluminense are supporting the bill. ❍

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month

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