<
>

Atletico Mineiro, Flamengo, Palmeiras eye Brazil's top prize amid a shifting landscape

play
Mascot banned after intimidatory behaviour towards players (0:26)

Atletico Mineiro's rooster mascot has been banned for one game after "intimidatory" behaviour against Cruzeiro. (0:26)

Brazil's first division, which kicks off at the weekend, is frequently referred to inside the country as the most competitive in the world. This may not be true. But it is certainly one of the most difficult. It can also be one of the most interesting, and is likely to become even more so.

The view of the Brazilian Championship -- known as the Brasileirão -- as the world's most competitive now comes across as a little outdated. It emerges from the perception of the country having 12 traditional giant clubs -- four each from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, two each from Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre -- all of whom go into the competition with equal chances of victory.

- 2022 World Cup finals bracket and fixtures
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

This may once have applied. But these days it is a work of fiction. There has been a dynamic of change. Gaps have opened up. Three of the traditional dozen -- Vasco da Gama, Cruzeiro and Gremio -- are not even currently part of the first division. They have fallen back. New forces have emerged, such as Fortaleza and Red Bull Bragantino, who have joined Athletico Paranaense in a quest to storm the citadel.

But can these clubs put in a credible title bid? It is unlikely, although Athletico Paranaense may disagree. The league is certainly difficult. The games come thick and fast, and there is plenty of travelling. Having a good team is not good enough to win the title. A good squad is required. The recent winners have been the clubs with pockets sufficiently deep to assemble both quality and quantity -- Atletico Mineiro, Flamengo and Palmeiras, and these are the obvious candidates to come out on top in 2022.

Intriguing questions swirl around all three. Reigning champions Atletico Mineiro have undergone a change of command, with Argentina's Antonio Mohamed stepping in. He has wisely not tried to fix what was not broken, and so far things have gone smoothly. At some point he will come under pressure. How will he react?

There is plenty of early pressure for Flamengo's new coach, Portugal's Paulo Sousa, who ditched the Poland national team for a tropical adventure. He has a mandate to move the team out of the shadow of their glorious 2019 season, under compatriot Jorge Jesus, when Flamengo were champions of Brazil and South America. But there are teething troubles. Sousa's back-three system is not looking a natural fit for the players at his disposal, and the team will have to click during the course of the competition.

There are fewer complaints about Palmeiras, twice continental champions and going great guns under another Portuguese, Abel Ferreira. Just one doubt remains. Ferreira can be cautious, and so far at least his risk averse methods have been more conducive to cup competitions than the marathon of the league. Can he tweak the balance of his side?

Of the others, there are hopes that Corinthians might emerge from years in the financial wilderness and put in a challenge. There is no lack of quality -- the team have acquired the likes of Willian, Paulinho and Giuliano to play alongside Renato Augusto. There may even be too much experience. Is the team too old for a gruelling league campaign? Might efforts be better expended chasing a cup? This is a decision that confronts all the challenges in the Brazilian league. There are so many games crammed into such little time that at some point the teams, even the deepest ones, are obliged to prioritise.

The most glittering prize is the Copa Libertadores, with the second-tier Copa Sulamericana an important trophy for all but the biggest clubs. And the domestic cup has grown in importance, and offers huge prize money. It can be a dangerous policy, but some clubs will coast for a few rounds in the league, resting their best players for cup matches. One of the reasons that, as it stands, the Brazilian league cannot be the most competitive in the world is that not all the clubs are going out to compete in it to the best of their ability. The calendar does not permit it.

But the calendar might be changing soon. At present the national league splits the year with each of Brazil's 27 state competitions. These have outlived their usefulness, and clutter up the big clubs with an excess of meaningless fixtures. As Brazilian football moves towards a more business-orientated environment, there will surely be a rethink. A more rational, year-long format for the Brazilian league is likely in the near future -- and a better calendar, together with improved pitches, will do much to raise the level of play and make the league more attractive to fans both at home and abroad.

The future of the Brazilian game looks fascinating. And the present is interesting enough, as 20 clubs up and down this giant country get the ball rolling in the 2022 Brasileirão.