Saturday, June 29, 2019

History puts state leagues in Brazilian traveling title chase

Long before Brazil became a world soccer power, and even longer before the country established a true national league, the state leagues across Brazil fanned the flame. That's why we include them in the Brazilian traveling soccer championship.

On the international soccer scene, Brazil arguably is more successful than any other nation. More truthfully, some other nation arguably has been as successful as Brazil. Maybe.

One argument for Brazil goes like this: Brazil has won more World Cups (five) than any other nation, and it has won more games (73) and scored more goals in the tournament (229) than any other team. Only Germany has played in as many World Cup games (109) as Brazil, but the Germans are 67-20-22 in their 109 games, while the Brazilians are 73-18-18 in theirs. Brazil also tops Germany in all-time World Cup goal differential, 124 to 101 to the good.

That's national teams. As to the domestic club leagues, take a look at some club rankings. Spain's La Liga has the super-elite clubs cornered, with four of the top seven spots worldwide (No. 1 Barcelona, No. 2 Real Madrid, No. 4 Atletico Madrid and No. 7 Sevilla) on the all-time (2011-19) top 100 rankings on as of this publishing. The Brazilian Serie A doesn't enter a club until Grêmio at No. 11.

But the depth in Brazil is unmatched. Brazilian clubs occupy seven of the top 30 spots, ahead of England and Spain (six each), Argentina, Germany, Italy and Portugal (two each), then France, South Korea and Ukraine (one each). Expand that to the top 50, and Brazil has 11 sides, well ahead of Spain (seven), Italy and England (six each) South Korea and Germany (four each), Portugal (three), Argentina, France and Ukraine (two each), and Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands (one each).

By this measure, the Brazilian Serie A might not have the best handful of clubs in the world, but more than half of the Serie A clubs are in the top 50, which might be why no one or two clubs can rocket to the top. There just isn't a better league from top to bottom.

In 1895, a Brazilian educated in England, Charles Miller, began organizing industrial teams at British owned companies in Brazil, and the nation's first club team, Flamengo, was formed a year later. But it was six decades after that when Brazil became the force in soccer that we know today, much due to challenging geography that makes the terrain difficult and expensive to develop, or even traverse.

At its widest, Brazil runs 2,600 miles, mostly going through Amazon rain forest. Thus, about 85 percent of Brazil's 210 million people live within 200 miles of its Atlantic Coast, and they're still pretty spread out, because that coast is 4,600 miles long  twice as long as the Atlantic Coast in the United States  and it is rugged. Lacking adequate transportation systems (and communications were nothing like today) such a thing as a national club competition could only be imagined before 1959.

Up to 1950, when the World Cup was played in Brazil, the national team had accomplished almost nothing on the global stage. From its inception in 1914, the Seleção won a couple of South American competitions and finished third in the 1938 World Cup. That's it.

As Brazil secured its first World Cup placing in 1938, the top national team in the world, arguably, was Uruguay, which lies immediately to Brazil's south and has never had more than 3.5 million people. Before there was a World Cup, Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928. When there finally was a World Cup, in 1930, Uruguay won it.

We're talking about interesting times. One imagines it was quite a revelation when a tiny, New World operation like Uruguay became the first South American club to venture into Europe, then straight off knocked out two Olympic gold medals.

It wasn't unheard of for Europeans to cross the Atlantic by 1930, of course, but it was still two weeks across the water after 400 years of shipping enhancements. Commercial aviation between the continents wouldn't be feasible for at least another 15 years, until after World War II. Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic solo only three years earlier.

So, when FIFA, already all-powerful, put the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay as a nod to that nation's place in the game, the first blow in the ever-lasting duel between South American and European soccer had been struck. European teams chafed at journeying two weeks by boat for a competition that was still a pipe dream. It was worthwhile for Uruguay to cross the ocean for the Olympics, but European teams didn't see anything like the Olympics in this untested world tournament, at least not for the travel.

The British nations were out of FIFA, anyway, over disagreements about professionalism, and they weren't thrilled about playing against recent war adversaries. The only four European nations that sent teams, all for unique reasons, were France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia.

Uruguay won the tournament, and, more importantly, put the World Cup off to an immediate rousing start. The year 1930 was Uruguay's 100th anniversary, and it was this national soccer team that put Uruguay on the map. The nation built a stadium approaching 100,000 seats in Montevideo for the World Cup, and to honor the national centennial, named it Estadio Centenario.

The average crowd for the Uruguayan squad's last three games surpassed 71,000 by FIFA figures. For 18 World Cup matches in a country that then numbered 1.7 million people, 590,549 tickets were sold – one for about every three Uruguayans. If they held an athletic competition today in the United States consisting of 18 games and one of every three Americans bought a ticket for some game, then the average attendance for every game would be more than six million. Uruguay bought in. One imagines that the moment was absolutely glorious.

The show must have been irresistible, too, because the European nations knew what they had missed. The next World Cup in 1934 drew so much interest that the competition introduced a qualifying process to reach 16 finalists. By prior understanding, somewhat, the tournament was to be played in Europe, and Italy won the bid.

Uruguay refused to participate and defend its championship. It had nothing to do with Benito Mussolini using the tournament to stagecraft the wonders of fascism. Uruguay was angry that only four European clubs bothered to travel for the 1930 tournament in Uruguay. The Uruguayans urged other South American nations to follow suit and refuse participation. Argentina sent a delegation of lower-division clubbers so its best players wouldn't be stolen by wealthier European clubs.

Only Brazil sent its best team from South America to Italy. But after the 1934 World Cup, Brazil still wasn't a contender. It fell from the group stage in 1930 with only one win (though it was Brazil's first ever in international competition), then fell to Spain in the first round in 1934. Personally encouraged by the Prime Minister himself, the Italian side withstood the pressure and won the cup with a 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in Rome. The largest crowd of the tournament was 55,000 for the Final at Stadio Nazionale.

South American nations, Uruguay and Argentina especially, expected the next tournament to be played on their continent, believing it would alternate between South America and Europe. By 1938, though, the FIFA membership still was overwhelmingly European and those teams still didn't want the boat ride. FIFA picked France for the 1938 competition. And, still, some Europeans nations didn't participate. Spain, for example, didn't send a team. Civil War. The Home Nations still hadn't rejoined FIFA, so they didn't participate, either.

Austria had the best European team of the early 1930s, the Wunderteam that entered the 1934 World Cup with 101 goals in its last 31 games. The Austrians fell there to close marking on their star, the slender Matthias Sindelar, who put 165 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame and became known as The Paper Man (Der Papierene) for his ability to work through paper-thin spaces. Austria would not return to the World Cup in 1938. By then, Hitler was annexing the country.

Pan-Germanism had been a popular idea on both sides of that border since the break-up of the German Confederation in 1866, but it certainly wasn't universal. When Hitler appropriated Austrian players for the 1938 German team, Sindelar refused to participate. The fragmented German team, which included five Austrians per orders from the top, fell in the first round. That wouldn't happen to another German team for 80 years. A German journalist is said to have remarked that "Germans and Austrians prefer to play against each other even when they're in the same team." A year later, Sindelar was found dead in his apartment under circumstances that raise the obvious questions.

The Italians were happy to defend their World Cup championship and their reputation on French soil. Rumors of corruption tainted Italy's 1934 championship, and the Italian side was notably unsuccessful against England in three torrid matches during the 1930s. Mussolini invested heavily in calcio, going so far as to launch Serie A in 1929 to create a national Italian identity and stock a national team to promote that identity through the world.

But the Italian regime was unpopular in France, which saw dictatorships brewing across three of its borders. Mussolini supported Franco in Spain and didn't always shy from a dig at Francia. It's hard to imagine, in the history of sports, a road team facing hostility on the order of the Italian side in France, 1938. The mongrel German squad wasn't competent enough to hate – which didn't stop Parisian fans from pelting the field with bottles during Germany's only outing. Nor does one easily imagine a team in the history of sports facing its moment so equally and defiantly as that Italian team when so many held its coach and players in contempt.

The Italians made their first appearance in Marseilles before a house that included at least 10,000 Italian ex-patriots, by the estimates. The Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo, lined up his players and ordered a one-handed, palm out, fascist salute. By Pozzo's account, the crowd responded with a "violent demonstration." Not that Pozzo was disappointed by "this solemn and deafening barrage of whistles, insults and remarks." Indeed, when the "ruckus" finally died down, the Italian players lowered their hands and the demonstration resumed. At which point, Pozzo ordered another salute.

Film evidence of this episode is not ready at hand. A couple versions of a clip on YouTube show a very brief fascist salute, the second, one supposes, as the players drop their hands within a couple of seconds and move toward their bench. The pre-game staredown overshadowed the Italians' 2-1 win over Norway.

Also over-shadowing that win was the next fixture, a meeting with the French national team in Paris. More stunning gamesmanship by the Italians ensued. The French won the lot to wear blue, which is the primary color for both teams. Instead of falling back on their usual white secondary kit, the Italians took the field in black shirts, and shorts, for that matter, a clear homage to Il Duce's "action squads."

Whether Mussolini personally ordered the uniforms is unclear, but the kit also included a prominent Fascio Littorio, which was not intended to mollify the numerous anti-fascist protesters among more than 58,000 fans who packed Stade Olympique. Neither was the snappy performance of the Italian squad, which ran the home-standing French off their own field in a 3-1 result.

The Italians went on to defend their title with a 4-2 Finals victory over Hungary before 45,000 at Stade Olympique. Silvio Piola, the all-time leading scorer for the Italian national team and Serie A, led the way with two goals. It isn't known if Mussolini really tried to motivate his players with a pre-game telegram that said, in English translation, "Win or die." But the Italians won, and they didn't die.

Of the South American nations, again, only Brazil sent a real team to Paris. Significantly, it sent with that team the great Leônidas, who scored 21 goals in 19 lifetime appearances for the national effort. By the accounts a relentless, rubber-limbed attacker, Leônidas perfected the bicycle kick into a devastating offensive weapon and took Paris by storm with a tournament-leading seven goals.

Unfortunately, Leônidas was reported to have withstood brutal treatment in the infamous "Battle of Bordeaux," the quarterfinal contested in Bordeaux between Brazil and Czechoslovakia on the same day that Italy and France met in Paris. Marred by lax officiating and violent fouling, the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Leônidas left the field injured, but not before scoring Brazil's goal.

As a replacement for Leônidas, Brazil carried Niginho, a Brazilian native with dual citizenship in Italy who began his career with Lazio in Italy's Serie A. He returned to Brazil in 1935, escaping conscription to the Italian army. The Italians were making it known that they would protest Niginho's participation and the Brazilians took the threat seriously. Why Brazil called a player with that vulnerability is another question, but the team couldn't rest Leônidas for the replay against the Czechs because his substitute was compromised. Brazil won the replay, 2-1, earning a semifinal meeting with Italy.

But the injuries to Leônidas didn't improve with that outing, despite him scoring an equalizer, and he absolutely could not work against Italy after playing more than three hours on a battered body in the previous four days. Improvising with Romeau in Leônidas's position, the Brazilians fell to Italy, 2-1. Romeu scored the only Brazilian goal, in the 87th minute.

The immortal Leônidas loads up the bicycle kick (public domain image).

Plausibly,  the Brazilians would have derailed Italy with Leônidas, but we will never know. Leônidas came back for the Third Place game and scored twice in a 4-2 win over Sweden. The Brazilians finished third, and they could have won it. Leônidas was 25. A Brazilian chocolate company purchased from him the right to use his nickname, Diamonte Negro (black diamond), and the chocolate bar became a big seller in Brazil.

Perhaps the Brazilian side would have achieved world renown straight from there. But now the Brazilians waited for the European states to calm down. World War II forced cancellation of the World Cups in 1942 and 1946. FIFA decided to reinstate the tournament in 1950 and place it in Brazil, rewarding a nation that had always been cooperative and happened to be in South America, far from the ravages of Europe.

That, and Brazil was the only country to submit a bid. The European countries with more pressing needs didn't care to burn resources on a soccer tournament. That wasn't a problem for Brazil, which was between military dictatorships and running an economy averaging 7.6 percent growth during the second half of the 1940s.

Brazil imagined its crowning moment in the 1950 World Cup. The team was ready to win and the government invested lavishly for a moment of national euphoria and international prestige. Brazil remembered the buzz from 20 years earlier, right next door in Uruguay. Imagine the Brazilian people having their greatest celebration of all time. It was right there. The crown jewel of the World Cup effort was Estádio do Maracanã, built in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital city, and able to hold 200,000 fans. The eyes of Brazil were on this tournament.

Of course, not everyone showed up. Germany and Japan both were still occupied, at least. German also was divided in two. The French noticed one trip of more than 2,000 miles on their itinerary and declined. Turkey decided that the travel was too expensive. India refused to play, according to FIFA, because its ballers would not be allowed to play bare-footed. Bare-footed soccer wasn't banned at the Olympics until after the 1948 games.

Italy, the two-time defending champions, qualified automatically. But the Italian team lost most of its players a year earlier, when an airplane carrying the Torino squad home from a friendly in Lisbon crashed into a retaining wall behind the Basilica of Superga in Turin. None of the 31 onboard survived. The Italians sent their squad to Brazil by ocean liner.

Who else was coming? The British, for the first time, entered the World Cup, victorious from World War II and reconciled with FIFA. The country that invented the game and spread it through imperial possessions around the world was ready to take on the world.

Or was it? The English lost their second ever World Cup game, 1-0 – to the United States, which already was a soccer backwater, despite finishing third in the 1930 World Cup. That's still the best finish ever for a team from outside South America or Europe. But the Americans took a 7-1 drubbing from the hosting Italians in 1934 and declined to participate in 1938.

The Americans began the 1950 World Cup with a performance that didn't scare anyone. They took a 1-0 lead against Spain in the 17th minute and held it until 10 minutes remained, then let in three goals. It actually was worse than that. After Spanish striker Estanislau Basora hit in the 81st minute to tie the game, he hit again a minute later. The collapse was instant. No one expected the Americans to hold up against mighty England following this 3-1 loss.

The Americans' upset of England in their next outing was barely reported in US newspapers, and by legend, at least, was inaccurately reported by British papers because copy editors thought the score over the wire had to be a misprint. So, they reported it as a 10-1 English victory. It would be another 44 years before the US won another World Cup game, a 2-1 victory in 1994 with an "own goal" by Columbian defender Andres Escobar at the Rose Bowl. Escobar was shot dead 10 days later in a Medillin parking lot.

Because Brazil submitted the only bid for 1950, it was in a position to impose conditions for playing the tournament at all. One of those conditions was the format. After putting so much money into the tournament, Brazilian officials expected to recoup more of it with a pool structure. Put 16 teams in a straight knockout tournament and it ends in 15 games. Divide the 16 teams into four round-robin pools of four, then put the four winners into a finals pool, and you get 30 games. It didn't quite work out that way, as only 13 teams showed up. But it did produce 22 games.

Four teams made it to the final pool. Spain was the upstart, coming through the war years to make it that far for the first time, only to face taunts for underachievement that would last 60 years. Sweden, which lost the 1938 consoler to Brazil, had just won the Olympics in 1948. The other two were Brazil and Uruguay.

All of Brazil's matches were played at the huge, new Maracanã. The other match in each day's pair was played in Sao Paulo, at Estádio do Pacaembu, opened 10 years earlier for staging the Paulista, the state league of Sao Paulo.

There, before 44,802, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela hit in the 73rd minute, enabling his side to get away from the Spaniards with a 2-2 draw on the first day of this final four. Alcedes Ghiggia, the dashing Uruguayan right forward, opened the scoring in the 29th minute, only for Basora to come back 10 minutes later with a repeat of his achievement against the Americans – two goals within a minute – giving Spain a 2-1 lead. Though Uruguay hung tough and came up even, it would appear that the result at once took Uruguay and Spain out of the running.

Simultaneously, at the Maracanã, the crowd numbered 138,886 to watch the home team thump Sweden, 7-1. Leônidas was retired, but his imprint was all over Brazilian football as a playing stylist, racial integrator and professionalizer. And the Brazilians now had Ademir, a tricky running dribbler who could fire with either leg. Ademir led the tournament with eight goals, four of them against Sweden.

The question now was whether anyone could beat Brazil, and that looked increasingly unlikely four days later, when Brazil gored Spain, 6-1, with 152,772 at the Maracanã sensing ultimate victory. In Sao Paulo, only 7,987 showed up to watch Uruguay become the only other team that could win it. Again, Uruguay held on tight, trailing Sweden, 2-1, for 37 minutes until late in the game. In the 77th minute, though, Oscar Miguez found the net for Uruguay, then he found it again, eight minutes later. Uruguay escaped with a 3-2 victory.

One round of games remained in this finals pool, but the only game that was going to matter would be Brazil against Uruguay. Brazil outscored common pool opponents Spain and Sweden 13-2, compared with 5-4 for Uruguay. All Brazil needed was a draw against its much smaller neighbor and it would win the World Cup.

The Brazilians encountered their moment with absolute confidence. Newspaper headlines declared Brazil the World Cup champs before the teams stepped onto the field. Attendance at the Maracanã was reported as 199,854 for this presumed coronation, and others were sure it had to exceed 200,000.

By Ghiggia's account, Uruguayan FA officials met with Captain Varela and two other senior members of their national team the night before the match. The national officials told the players that the team already had reached its objectives, and it would be totally fine to lose by three or four goals against Brazil so long as the players behaved on the field and didn't cause embarrassment. In the tunnel before the game, the captain said to his mates, simply, "People off the field don't matter. They don't play the game."

First half, no score. The Uruguayans put up a defensive fight, but the true focus of the Brazilian effort had to be the Uruguay offense, because a clean sheet means no worse than a draw. So, nil-nil at half wasn't ideal for Brazil, but good enough. It got better for the home side two minutes into the second half, when Friaça found the goal and all but ended this ceremony. Brazil, 1-0.

Ghiggia, the last living player from that game, recalled in several interviews before he died in 2015 that a change came over the Uruguayan squad at that moment. He said the captain, Varela, called for a new direction. Play to score. Go for it.

Ghiggia ran down the right side and crossed to Juan Schiaffino in the 66th minute. Schiaffino popped it past Brazilian goaltender Moacir Barbosa, who hadn't been under much pressure during this tournament. Now, he was.

But no more so than the Uruguayan goaltender, Roque Maspoli. Suddenly, both teams were fighting like mad to break the tie with a goal. Maspoli continuously turned back shots as the Brazilians attacked his net. But that attack also left vulnerabilities deep. Ghiggia found another one of those in the 77th minute, this time taking it all the way down the right before beating Barbosa inside the near post.

Uruguayan forward Andres Ghiggia cocks his right leg for the shot that would break Brazil's heart (LA Big Leagues screen capture of FIFA video).

About 12 minutes remained, but a much different coronation now was underway. This dreadful event for Brazil, the 2-1 World Cup loss to Uruguay, known forever as the Maracanazo, somehow has never completely gone away, even after all of the success that has followed for Brazil. Inevitably, the disaster has been called to testify that Brazil has failed to become a geopolitical superweight due to a national character flaw thereby revealed. It's silly, of course, but that's the power of sports. Even leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, talk circulated about how only victory in that tournament would salve the ancient humiliation.

"It was just 11 footballers against another 11, and I was lucky to score the goal," Gigghia told the London Telegraph in 2014. "That's all."

By 60 years after the event, we finally saw evidence that its living memory is on the wane. Maybe that's why it's good for people to die. Brazil finally was getting over it. In 2009, Brazil invited Ghiggia, the man who broke their hearts, to impress his feet at the Maracanã. Ghiggia was touched. By the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Ghiggia was telling interviewers that the country he tortured long ago had become "like a second home." We read remarks from young players, who grew up in a world of Brazilian pre-eminence, noting that the Maracanazo wasn't much on their minds. It wasn't living history for them. It was ancient history.

But on July 16, 1950, it was headlines, and the news hit hard. Grown men cried. One of those men, who they called Dondinho, cried with the rest of Brazil. That's how his kid remembered it, mentioning also that he had never before seen the man cry. Not that Dondinho never before had occasion for tears. He was going to be a pretty good player for Athletico Mineiro, the dominant club in the Campeonato Mineiro, the top state league in Minas Geras. But after he took a terrible beating in his first appearance, his career sank to the second-tier world of the Sao Paulan interior. And Dondinho's brother would have been even better, it was said, except he was murdered.

Turned out that Dondinho's kid was better than any of them. At 15, he made his Campeonato Paulista debut for Santos. At 16, he led the league in scoring. The national team called him up. Still 16, he became the youngest goal scorer ever for the national team. At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, he was 17, the youngest player ever to appear in the World Cup. He gave an assist in his first game. In the next three games, he scored six goals, including two in Brazil's 5-2 win against homestanding Sweden for the championship.

They already were calling him Pelé. Brazil finally won it all.

From here begin the glory days of Brazilian soccer and all the wild stories and personalities that have come with them. None of that will be discussed here. That means we're not even going to talk about Pelé's brilliant and flawed running mate, Garrincha, who won the World Cup for Brazil almost by himself in 1962. Nor the 1970 Brazilian World Cup winner, which retired the Jules Rimet Trophy as the first team to win three cups and often is considered the greatest national side ever. Nor the mesmerizing 1982 national team that played for beauty and lost because of it. The team included three all-time greats, Junior, Zico and Socrates, the last of whom would carry a heavy vote for coolest athlete of all time.

We shall say nothing about Josimar, the libertine fullback who came all the way from nowhere and scored two all-time crazy goals at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, then went most of the way back. We're definitely not going to discuss the 1994 Brazilian team, which came to the United States for the best-attended World Cup in history and won the whole thing on penalty kicks in a nil-nil final against Italy in the Rose Bowl. Brazil became the first team to win four World Cups.

And it would simply be too much here to talk about the great Ronaldo and his World Cup saga. In his time, Ronaldo was the best player in the world, and in all times he is one of the best. He was just about to take Brazil to another World Cup victory in 1998, but he suffered an epileptic seizure before the final against France and performed poorly in a 3-0 loss. For the next three years, he endured constant knee injuries. But he came back in 2002, almost as if from nowhere, and scored eight goals in the 2002 World Cup, leading Brazil to its fifth victory in the competition.

And even if we were going to talk about 2014, should we? The tournament returned to Brazil for the first time since the disaster of the Maracanazo. As mentioned before, some thought nothing short of Brazilian victory in this tournament would end that grief. But instead of redemption, Brazil suffered one of its greatest humiliations ever, a record-smashing 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany, followed by a 3-0 folding in the Third Place game against the Netherlands.

The mostly prosperous last 60 glorious years of Brazilian soccer would be worth recounting in detail, but the more frustrating first 60 years are more relevant to the purpose of this piece, which is to explain why the traveling championship in Brazil is structured the way it is.

Most of these national traveling titles across the world are simple affairs in which the prize tracks nowhere except across the top national leagues. If a titleholder is relegated at the end of a season, the title is awarded to the top team in the competition for that year, and that team will take up defense at the start of the next season.

But Brazil shall be a little different, because it always is.

Long before Pelé and the World Cups came along, long before the Serie A formed in 1971, and for a good while since then, the Brazilian state leagues lit the flame and kept it alive. Before then, there was a one-time national cup called the Taca Brazil in 1959, followed by seven years of nothing national. In 1967, the Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo began inviting clubs from other states besides Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. But it wasn't truly national. It was only after air travel within Brazil made it possible that the Serie A could plausibly be played.

At least as directly, though, Brazil began its Serie A in much in the same way that Italy established its Serie A 30 years earlier. Brazil was under the military dictatorship of Emilio Medici, who undertook a massive program of capital improvements across the country, borrowing heavily to finance national infrastructure development in transportation, telecommunications and energy. The regime was a human rights disaster (the phrase "Love it or leave it" began its career as the official Medici slogan: "Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o."), but the cash flowed and, in this age of the state, what's a military government without nationalism? Brazil had just won the World Cup in 1970, and a true national club soccer championship to promote Brazil within Brazil followed all but naturally.

But the basis for the Serie A had been laid for generations. The Paulista started in 1902. Its championship history is almost entirely the inter-play between four clubs – Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos and Sao Paulo – that have combined for 95 of 129 state titles and continue their fight year after year in Serie A. The Carioca, the state league of Rio de Janeiro, began in 1906 and includes four similar clubs – Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama – that have combined for 111 of 122 state titles and keep it going in Serie A. The Baiano, the state league of Bahia, launched in 1905. Two of its clubs – Bahia and Vitoria – have combined for 76 of 118 state titles and they, too, frequent Serie A.

By the time Brazilian football was professionalized in 1937, almost all of these state leagues were up and running. Top-level leagues operate in all 26 Brazilian states and the federal zone. The best teams from those leagues are among the 20 in Serie A. In a given year, about 10 state leagues will be represented at the top level.

The Serie A season runs from May through December. After a holiday break, the state leagues play from January and into April. It is true that increasing emphasis on national and international competition has taken some of the buzz from the state leagues, but that's not a good enough reason to leave these state leagues out of the national traveling championship in a nation that thrived for so long in these leagues.

Thus, the state leagues are included in the Brazilian traveling championship, but with special rules to ensure that the title always will return to the next edition of Serie A. At the end of the Serie A season, of course, some team will hold the title and put it up in its state league after the holidays. But the only state league teams that will be allowed to challenge for the title will be those that are ticketed for Serie A the next season.

For example, let's take our first edition of the Brazilian traveling championship in 2016-17. Corinthians, which won the Serie A in 2015, took the first title defense. But Palmeiras came out on top of these standings, much due to an 11-game title run that began on Sept. 8 and ended on Oct. 30.

At the end of the Serie A season, though, the titleholder was neither of those Sao Paulan stalwarts, but a Rio club, Flamengo, which nabbed the prize from Santos with a 2-0 home win on Nov. 27 and closed out the slate with a nil-nil draw at Atletico Paranaense on Dec. 11. Thus, Flamengo took the national prize into its state league, the Carioca.

However, only three other Carioca clubs were granted standing to challenge Flamengo's national traveling title, and it was the predictable group of Botafogo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, which all were ticketed for Serie A in 2018. Turns out that Flamengo could have turned its Carioca season into a national traveling title run if it had been a little more successful in Serie A, because its nine state league games for the prize ended with five wins and four draws.

At the end of the 2017 Carioca, Flamengo still held the title. The club finished with 12 games of championship, second to Palmeiras at 16. But Flamengo still held it at the end, and thus carried the national traveling championship to the 2017 Serie A.

As always, there would be more Brazilian football to come.

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