A murdered BBC journalist. Shady real estate deals. Millions of dollars in bribes and illegal commissions. The saga of corruption and dirty deeds surrounding the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) is fast becoming Brazil’s national soap opera, discovers Jonathan Franklin. Will the 2014 World Cup be the final episode?
Zico is sad.
The legendary Brazilian midfielder-turned-coach who scored more than 500 goals, the man who led the 1982 national team—considered one of Brazil’s best ever squads—sits on a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro and wonders what happened to the magic in Brazilian football. “The world used to celebrate our football, our players, our victories,” says Zico in an exclusive interview. “Now our best players are overseas, many of them are on the bench and the rest play defense.” When Zico pronounces the word “defense” you can hear the pain in his voice, it’s almost as if he said they were playing chess.
Less than one year before kickoff for the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian football is in crisis mode. The national team is ranked #19 in the world, below Switzerland, Greece, and Ecuador. In the latest Copa America—where Mexico and South and Central America’s best teams battle it out—the Brazilians were eliminated in the quarterfinals. Many of the basic infrastructure projects for the Olympics are behind schedule. While FIFA screams that the stadiums are not close to being refurbished, Brazilian fans have a far more serious issue: Is the team ready?
Ask Zico “who is to blame” and he points a finger at the calcified heart of Brazilian football administration, the all-powerful Confederacion Brasiliero de Futbol (CBF). Run by a cabal of men who are so old they were teenagers during World War II, the CBF is an insular, secretive, and extremely powerful sports authority.
Legendary football player Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as “Zico” is one of the most vocal protesters against Confederacion Brasiliero de Futbol (CBF), blaming the group for the decline of Brazilian football
“I don’t expect anything of them [CBF]. Nothing. They show up when there is a World Cup,” says Zico. “These are businessmen with powerful economic interests, not men who want to see the best football.”
Even the national team, the celebrated Selecao with its record five World Cup Trophies, has been sabotaged according to Zico. Instead of building the best overall team for the 2014 World Cup, the CBF chooses players who can first showcase themselves on the national team, then, with their price jacked up by the fame, are sold on the international market. Like mannequins in a Park Avenue showroom, fresh new players are trotted out—they play a few minutes on the grand stage, maybe a few games, then are sold to the highest bidder. A player worth $1 million might be worth double if he can also add “Brazilian National Team” to his resume.
Looking at one recent pick on the national team, Zico shakes his head and says, “Does he deserve to be chosen? Then sold for an astronomical price? This is a problem, there is a sales chain, with businessmen all along the way.” Zico pauses, as if he is considering telling me what he really thinks. Then looks at me. He shakes his head, “It’s complicated.”
Since the high water mark of 2002, when Brazil won its fifth World Cup, the CBF has lived a decade of luxury. For more than 10 years, the CBF was a closed boy’s club, a private organization that was able to spend and lavish millions of dollars on private jets, $4,000 lunches and piles of envelopes with between $50,000 and $200,000 apiece in payouts—payments made each month to various federations, the same federations who later elect the CBF President.
While Brazilians are accustomed to the almost dictatorial hold that the federation maintains over the football, it is not easy for a foreigner to understand the true power of the CBF. For example, the president of the CBF decides which networks will air Brazilian football matches, and which sponsors are allowed in. The CBF President chooses the national coach, and which cities get World Cup matches. The head of CBF is also head of the Local Organizing Committee for the World Cup, giving them access to thousands of the estimated 3.3 million World Cup tickets. Down to the smallest details—such as which journalists will be given credentials to cover the matches—the power lays with the CBF presidents. It is a power they tend to flaunt.
Former CBF president Ricardo Teixeira, accused of taking illegal commissions; The Polo Club of Boca Raton, an exclusive gated community in Palm Beach, Florida, where Teixeira is riding out the scandal in a $7.4M mansion
Years ago, when the powerful Brazilian TV station Globo began asking questions about the luxurious lifestyle of CBF president Ricardo Teixeira, he sent a clear warning to the channel: back down. Teixeira’s tactics were brilliantly simple; he shifted the opening whistle for the highly rated Argentine-Brazil match. Usually the match would begin at 8 P.M., right after the end of the nightly soap opera. To show his displeasure, Teixeira shifted the match to 7:45 P.M., upending the network’s primetime schedule, forcing them to skip commercials while also delivering a powerful economic message: don’t mess with us. The critical coverage stopped. “It pre-empted two novelas and the nightly news,” said Teixeira as he gloated in an interview with Brazilian magazine Piaui.
After 22 years as the head of the CBF, Teixeira bragged that his control of Brazilian football—plus his role as President of the World Cup Local Organizing Committee—made him untouchable. “In 2014, I’ll be able to get away with anything,” he told Brazilian reporter Daniela Pinheiro. “The most slippery, unthinkable, Machiavellian things. Denying press credentials, barring access, changing game schedules. And you know what? Nothing will happen. You know why? Because in 2015 I’m out of here. Then it’ll all be over.”
The end came faster than expected. Teixeira’s world came crashing down in March 2012, when he and his father-in-law, Joao Havelange (the Brazilian former head of CBF and FIFA), were both accused by Swiss prosecutors of taking $41 million in payments from International Sports Media and Marketing (ISL), a now defunct sports marketing company. The payments were “commissions” from the $1.4 billion that ISL paid for TV broadcast rights of the 2002 and 2006 World Cup matches. At the time, “commercial bribery” was not illegal in Switzerland, so there have been no criminal charges.
Teixeira immediately resigned and Havelange followed a year later. Today, Teixeira lives in a kind of self-determined exile, thousands of miles from his native Brazil. To interview Teixeira today, a reporter must fly to Miami, then drive north along the coast, to the high rent district along the waterfront in a private condominium named “The Polo Club.” Here Teixeira is riding out the storm of controversies, while also living in a $7.4 million waterfront mansion (seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms, according to property records) surrounded by a Porsche, two Mercedes-Benzes, a 60-foot $2 million Italian yacht docked at his private marina, landscaped lawns, endless ironwork, and even more endless meetings with lawyers.
Teixeira is now paid as a CBF consultant, with a monthly salary of $75,000, according to Brazilian press reports. Teixeira is behaving like a man on the run from the law, says Juca Kfouri, a highly respected Brazilian sports journalist. “He’s hiding, he can’t come back to Brazil.”
With the abrupt exit of Teixeira, many football fans in Brazil imagined a new era. A professionalization of the billion-dollar industry. With the whole world watching—and with Brazil’s desire to use the World Cup as showcase for the nation’s entry onto the world stage—it made sense that a new generation, a new management style would come in to clean up football and help assure the games would be a smashing success. But entrenched powers rarely cede without a fight. Instead of opening up to modern realities, the CBF fought change. Instead of bringing in an outsider—a neutral professional to manage the federation—the CBF promoted its oldest vice president, an 80-year-old politician who showed more love for profit and insider deals than a preference for building a national team and showcasing Brazil’s famed jogo bonito (beautiful game).
Jose Maria Marin
Jose Maria Marin was not elected president of the CBF. He was simply promoted to president based on his physical age, a ritual more akin to inheriting a throne than managing a complex, multi-billion sporting event. A former governor of São Paulo during the military dictatorship, Marin was a man who lived quietly and comfortably in the shadows. But upon assuming control of CBF, Marin immediately made waves with his swashbuckling, take-no-prisoners style of management. First, he decided he wanted his guys running the show, so he fired Manu Menezes, the national coach, despite earlier promises by CBF that Menezes would be given the necessary time to rebuild Brazil’s national squad.
Then Marin was buried in a fresh round of scandals as Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious newspaper, uncovered a massive overbilling during the purchase of the land for the CBF’s new headquarters—an anything-but-humble $45 million sports complex located in the ritzy Barra de Tijuca neighborhood, near Rio de Janeiro. A series of rapid-fire real estate deals allowed shadow companies to buy and sell various parcels of land, each time carving out huge “profits” that were all paid by the CBF. According to Folha, the CBF deliberately overpaid for the land by $15 million.
Marin was also caught on tape offering favors to local federal federations that were about to vote on his continued rule as the head of Brazilian football. When fans began a petition to have Marin removed, the white-maned boss went on TV and cried, insisting that he would be stripped of his crown “only if I die.”
Despite a huge uproar over the corruption scandals, it is a political scandal that may finally take Marin down. Brazilian political authorities are now demanding an investigation into Marin’s support for secret police that planned the 1975 murder of Vladimir Herzog, a BBC documentary filmmaker and journalist.
Herzog was savagely tortured and killed by Brazilian police and military security units just days after Marin raged in public testimony that something must be done about the TV broadcaster. Marin gained further notoriety when he later issued a glowing statement praising Sergio Fleury, a sadistic and corrupt police official known as “The Prince of Pain” for his attention to detail in the torture, execution, and disappearance of Brazilian citizens in the 1970s.
“Jose Marin is directly linked to those who supported the Brazilian dictatorship. He made public speeches in favor of the murder, torturer, and kidnapper Sergio Fleury. He supported moves that led to the torture, disappearance, and death of hundreds of Brazilians,” says Kfouri, the journalist.
“He is a symbol of everything that we fought against. He is well connected with the people that killed my father and other people who were killed for their ideas of bringing freedom and democracy to Brazil,” says Ivo Herzog, the son of Vladimir Herzog. “And now he [Marin] has the key to our country?”
Asked about Marin, who is scheduled to be the face of Brazil when the World Cup opens in June 12, 2014, Kfouri says: “Marin is an embarrassment, he needs to be forgotten—not given homage. I don’t think he [will] last another year. Or one month? Or a week? He is not sustainable. He is totally avoiding interviews, almost clandestine. I believe he is working on an exit strategy for himself. Marin is an old politician; he always thinks that bad news goes away, that people forgot. I don’t think that is going to work this time.”
The army of opponents lining up against Marin is not limited to journalists and human rights victims. It now includes a growing coalition of former football players. After decades of being abused, paid intermittently, and treated like poker chips on someone else’s table, now the players have started to plot revenge against the CBF. Ronaldo, Zico, Romario—some of the greatest names in Brazilian football are now fighting to win back the dignity, honor, and greatness that was once symbolic with Brazilian football.
“The CBF is like a cancer on the World Cup,” says Romario, the legendary Brazilian striker who was the 1994 FIFA player of the year. Today, he is a crusading congressman fighting to clean up Brazilian football and promoting a new campaign called “Fora Marin” (“Kick out Marin”).
“The World Cup [in Brazil] will be the biggest robbery in history,” announced Romario as he pushes for a congressional investigation and an external audit of CBF.
Romario is certain that millions and millions of dollars are being stolen from the 2014 World Cup. He is on a crusade to pull down the curtain of secrecy that protects the CBF. Romario imagines a clean World Cup where profits are invested in neighborhood leagues and player development—not helicopters, private jets, and other unspeakable pleasures.
Romario has the star power to make this happen. Known as “El Baixino” (“The Little One”), the 1.67-meter small superstar has always been a legend in Brazil. On the field he was the champion striker who played on the 1994 Brazilian World Cup Team and became leading goal scorer in that successful championship year. His tally of more than 1,000 goals puts him in elite company. Off the field, he scored with Brazil’s fastest and finest women. (Romario at one point was having so much sex that he allegedly cursed the entire team. Witch doctors who were called in to lift the curse came to a solemn conclusion: Romario is having too much sex. They asked him to slow down. But Romario doesn’t do slow.) Romario is a showman on the field, off the field, and now in the halls of political power.
“Usually when a footballer becomes a politician, it is just to guarantee that he has a steady salary which he can spend without too much work,” says Kfouri. “But with Romario, if you listen to his speeches, to his ideas, he is fighting to change football forever.”
Asked who is the victim of all the controversies surrounding CBF, Kfouri says, “Basically it is the fans, they do not have the football they should or could have if things were done in a cleaner way. I believe that if Brazilian football was treated with professionalism and transparency Brazilian football could be near to greatness. But today it is far from that.”
To better understand the world of the CBF, I visit their headquarters. Sitting in the lobby surrounded by palm trees, fountains, and the sterile comforts of a landscaped office park, I wait. And wait. Not one official from the most powerful governing body of the Brazilian national federation is willing to talk to a reporter. When we start to film the offices, guards swarm us and tell us it’s illegal. We point out that we are shooting from a public street. They leave us alone, watching from a distance.
All I want is 15 minutes with Marin. He is, after all, the boss of Brazilian football and if the 2014 World Cup opened today, it would be Marin who would open the ceremonies and represent Brazil to the world. But these days the CBF President is on the run. He lives hiding from the press.
While armed guards and impenetrable secretaries refuse to let me into the CBF offices, I start chatting with the young football player waiting in the outer lobby. Allyson de Oliviera, 18, a young striker, explains that he will be flying to Portugal that very night, for a tryout—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape the poverty that still keeps millions of Brazilians from having basic needs like housing, food, and clean drinking water. He came to CBF to finish up last-minute paperwork for his journey.
Sitting in the lobby, waiting for hours, I watch a steady stream of 18-year-old players in flip-flops and shorts come and go. Every year, the CBF helps more than 1,000 professional football players leave Brazil and play abroad—everything from the German first division, to the fourth division in Poland. That is the equivalent of exporting a football player every eight hours. Eight full teams a month. Close to 100 full teams a year. It is this nontraditional export, this seemingly endless supply of new talent, new football wonders that has earned Brazil the respect and awe of fans worldwide.
It is also this flow of players to the world that brings in hard cash for the CBF. It is their “raw material.” Add in the hundreds of millions in TV revenue, ticket sales, and merchandising and you have a multi-billion-dollar a year business that is making so much money for the CBF that, for decades, they existed as an insular, mafia-like clan that ruled with feudal-type powers, issuing decrees, collecting fees, handing out tickets, and generally behaving as if they were accountable to no one, which was true.
Today, on the eve of the World Cup, the CBF is in tatters. With chaos raging at the highest levels, an offer of help came from a most unlikely corner: Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader offered to take control of the 2014 World Cup, move the whole show to Russia and clean up the mess. When Putin looks like the good guy, you know things are out of control.
After two wasted afternoons at the CBF headquarters, I decided to change my investigation of Brazilian football. Instead of the bosses in their air-conditioned glass offices, I went to the other extreme—the beach football of Rio.
Eight Brazilian men juggle a football on the beach of Rio like a show from Cirque du Soleil. It looks like a fast-paced athletic volleyball game with local rules: No hands. Instead, the ball is kept aloft by head taps, heel shots, chest bumps, and the flick of an ankle. The waterlogged and poorly inflated ball produces a deep groan with every slap. One dozen taps, two dozen passes—still the ball is in the air, passed around the group with ease. Listening to the thump of ball, the slap of lazy waves, it’s easy to see the joy of Brazilian football. Brazilians play football like they dance. Passionate. Athletic. Delirious. I stop one player after an impossible series of juggling. Do you play professional, I naively ask. He looks at me with eyes that say “in my dreams” and explains that he studies physical therapy for athletes and dreams of working in sports. It is here where Roman, 19, lives the dream. His only audience is the two-dozen or so spectators who happen to watch the beach football. His goals are recorded only in his memories—not even a mobile phone video to relive the brief glories. But it is here—in the simple celebrations of the perfect moment, the sharing of a single cold beer, the passion that leads to entire mornings on the beach with friends—where the Brazilian passion for football will never be destroyed, despite the massive problems and mismanagement at the highest levels. “I only need my friend here to be happy,” said Roman pointing to his beach chums. “In the clubs and the national team today, they need tactics and money to be happy—a passion for football is not enough.”
Can Brazil overcome the challenges and put together a winning World Cup team? That is the million-dollar question. But in Las Vegas, where the cold cash odds are devoid of passion and sentiment, the same Brazilian team that is currently ranked #19 by FIFA is still the favorite to win the 2014 World Cup.
If they do pull off that historic mission to win a sixth World Cup, it will be, in many ways, a triumph of this beach-level love of the game over the wildly mismanaged millions being stuffed away in private bank accounts of those who live in the shiny glass office parks where reporters are no longer welcomed.