Why is Brazil's soccer league unable to reach its potential?

The Brazilian Serie A kicks off this weekend -- which means that the countdown is on for Palmeiras fans until they have to say farewell to 17-year old-sensation Endrick. The hero of Brazil's recent European tour scored at Wembley and at the Bernabeu -- where in a few months he will be playing his football for Real Madrid. Endrick was decisive in Palmeiras winning last year's championship, but he will be on the other side of the Atlantic long before this year's version comes to a close in early December.

The absence of Endrick might open up space for his teammate Estêvão, who turns 17 later this month and is already attracting plenty of attention. Or maybe it will be the moment for Luis Guilherme, a comparative veteran at 18, to step into the breach. Elsewhere, Atletico MIneiro have high hopes of Alisson Santana, their own teenage wonderkid, while Gremio are optimistic that this could be the campaign where 19-year-old Nathan Fernandes makes the tricky transition from promise to reality.

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One thing seems certain: If any of these highly talented teenagers do make a major breakthrough, then they will surely soon be following Endrick to the other side of the Atlantic. It is the reality of the contemporary market -- which might come as a surprise to anyone picking up a 2014 copy of that wonderful book "Soccernomics," by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

A decade ago, amid all the investments for the World Cup, the authors were supremely confident that "post-2014, Brazil could have a very good league." They would subsequently admit that what they called their "rosy prediction" has not been entirely accurate. But they were not completely wrong.

"Once the comfort level rises in the shiny new stadium," they wrote, "more middle class Brazilians and their families should start coming to league matches." This has certainly happened. Last year's average crowds of almost 27,000 were the highest ever.

Other comments were less accurate. "Already," they wrote, "Brazilian clubs can afford to keep more of their better players at home." This was not true then, and has become less true since, with Real Madrid's signing of Vinícius Júnior something of a landmark. As much as ever before, Brazilian football is an exporter of its brightest promises, and now they leave as early as possible.

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It is also true, though, that with increased revenue from sponsorship, TV rights and the box office, the big Brazilian clubs are able to buy back South American veterans from Europe, or younger players who made the move but did not make the grade, and also cherry pick players from the rest of the continent. But the evidence from the Club World Cup -- which means so much to Brazilian clubs -- is that the technical and financial chasm with Europe remains enormous.

The "Soccernomics" prediction has not come true -- yet -- because their analysis of Brazil places too much faith on data -- size of the market, etc. -- and does not give enough importance to aspects such as politics, culture and organization. Such things matter, and they are preventing domestic Brazilian football from reaching its massive potential.

The most glaring example is the calendar -- a point which this year is especially easy to make. The action runs all the way through from Saturday until early December. In the middle, of course, comes the Copa América -- an official FIFA date, when clubs are obliged to release their players. It is likely, then, that around 30 players will be on national team duty in June and July, forced out of as many as nine rounds of the Brazilian league.

These include big names -- Endrick, of course, as well as Flamengo's Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Palmeiras captain Gustavo Gómez (of Paraguay), Colombia's James Rodríguez of Sao Paulo, and Ecuador center-back Félix Torres, a recent recruit of Corinthians. These are important names.

Can any one imagine the Premier League, for example, agreeing to a calendar in which some of its biggest stars miss around a quarter of the competition?

The Premier League comparison is appropriate, because it has become a consensus that Brazil's clubs need to administer their own competition, on English lines. There was even a short lived attempt in 1987, five years before the birth of the Premier League. But it soon fizzled out, and things went back to the way they were before, and have been since -- with the dominant force in the organization of the calendar being the state federations, and not the clubs.

These federations -- Brazil is divided into 27 states -- have one main aim; to keep alive their individual state championships, which kick off the year and go on from late January until last weekend. In their current form, these tournaments have long outlived their usefulness. They condemn many small clubs to a calendar of matches that only lasts three months, while cluttering the calendar of the big clubs and taking away one of the key elements of a successful league campaign: the pause before the action which serves to build suspense.

One of the great mysteries of the Brazilian game is why the big clubs have yet to break away from such a structure that clearly does not serve their interests. Perhaps the time will come -- but not yet.

There are attempts to set up a league run by the clubs, but the issue of the calendar is not even under discussion. The probable reason -- the state of Sao Paulo is by far the wealthiest, and its football has enough depth to make its state competition much better than the others. The Sao Paulo clubs, then, are not keen to throw away what they see as a competitive advantage.

Whatever the reason, the vital reorganization of the calendar is not on the agenda -- and nor are other areas which would greatly enhance the championship as a spectacle, such as improving the quality of the pitches. For the time being, predictably, the only real live issue is the distribution of TV money. Brazil's clubs have divided themselves into two competing blocks, each negotiating in a bid to secure the most favorable TV deal. And in the meantime, it is business as usual.

This has its merits -- the league deserves its informal title of "Brasileirao" -- or big Brazilian Championship. It certainly is epic. A country the size of a continent has room for plenty of clubs with mass support. But the outcome is not as unpredictable as many locals would like to think. As financial gaps have opened up, the silverware now tends to be shared around the same sides -- in recent times Palmeiras and Flamengo, with Atletico MIneiro straining hard.

This trio have claimed the last six titles, and going into the final round of last year's campaign, they were the three teams with a chance of winning. Endrick helped tip the balance the way of Palmeiras in 2023. It will be someone else's turn this year to help clinch a title which is well worth winning, but which could be worth much more.