The Brasileirão, Brazil's top league, has seen a huge improvement in recent years. It has gone from being a mediocre league with few star players to arguably becoming the 6th best league in the world, and the finest outside Europe.
When one thinks of Brazilian football, the national team of course comes to mind. Older fans of the beautiful game will remember the star-studded squads of the 1958, 1962 and 1970 who wowed the world with their attacking flair, not to mention the greatest side not to win the World Cup in 1982. Younger fans will have fondly recall the teams of 1994 and 2002. Yet the Brasileirão never received the same levels of attention. Although it has produced some great sides, such as Pelé's Santos of the 1960s, it has rarely been considered one of the world's top leagues. Since the early 1990s, and rise of satellite television, Brazilian players have been leaving at progressively younger ages to reach the promised lands of Europe, and to a lesser extent (although financially equal) Asia and the Middle East. Ronaldo, a case in point, joined PSV at the age of 18. Ronaldinho was a PSG star at 21, as was Kaka at Milan.
In the past few years there has been a trend towards staying longer in Brazil, thanks in no small part to the country's recent economic boom, which has translated into superior wages. Neymar, for example, is believed to be on £550,000 a month. Now of course Neymar is the biggest star, but the average wage has seen a steady increase as well. Other players capable of getting into most teams in Europe are Paulo Henrique Ganso, 22, Leandro Damião, 23, Paulinho, 24 and Dedé, 24. Of course, many players are still leaving at an early age, and for big money. Two extremely talented players have made moves to Europe in the past two weeks: Oscar, 20, to Chelsea and Lucas Moura, 20, to PSG. However a few years ago the older player would most likely have left already.
Added to younger players staying for longer, there has been a huge increase in star players returning to their homeland. Starting with the likes of Ronaldo and Adriano, there are now countless world renowned footballers plying their trade in Brazil once more. Some of the biggest names are Gilberto Silva, Juninho Pernambucano, Deco and most significantly Ronaldinho. These players have helped boost foreign interest, and ESPN has even started broadcasting Brazilian football to British homes. A major landmark was achieved this summer when two foreign players, albeit in the twilight of their careers, made big money moves to Brazil. Clarence Seedorf joining Botafogo and Diego Forlan signing for Internacional will hopefully pave the way for older players to consider Brazil as an alternative to the MLS, China and the Middle East. This would further increase interest and ultimately revenue from television and sponsorship deals.
Another reason for the Brasilerão gaining popularity is its unpredictability. There have been 7 different champions in the past 10 years, and 4 in the last 4. Whilst the champion rarely comes from outside the four major footballing cities of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte (although Santos is in fact 55km from Sao Paulo), there are roughly 10 big teams who could feasibly win the league each season. This provides untold entertainment and is a welcome tonic to the predictability of Europe's main leagues, particularly the Premier League and La Liga. It also leads to the occasional relegation of a big club, such as Corinthians', Brazil's second biggest club, in 2007.
The Brasileirão's improvements are showing no signs of slowing down. With players staying longer, more star names than ever before and all teams capable of beating each other, it is certainly worth a watch.