SAO PAULO, Oct 10 (Reuters) - While football fans in European capitals will be watching their teams trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup this week, Brazil supporters will need to travel all the way to Sweden and Poland - to see their side play Iraq and Japan.
That might seem odd but it is part of a trend of teams facing off thousands of miles from their home fans against often less-than-traditional opponents. Among the reasons: Time, money, and globalisation.
Sometimes the trend is a resounding success, such as when Brazil and Argentina filled Giants Stadium for a seven-goal thriller in June. Sometimes not, like last week, when another game between the two was cancelled after the lights failed in the run-down Argentine stadium where it was scheduled to take place.
Often, the matchups and venues sound completely random. Ireland played Italy in Belgium and Oman in England. England played Brazil in Qatar and Italy in Switzerland. Argentina played Nigeria in Bangladesh and Venezuela in India.
The trend is unusual to older supporters who are used to seeing their national side playing at their national stadium. A debate is raging over where the globe-trotting is ultimately good or bad for fans - particularly in Brazil, the undisputed leader in the field.
Part of Brazil’s travelling is because it will host the 2014 World Cup. Therefore, it qualifies automatically and is forced to prepare with friendly matches.
Brazil will face Iraq in Malmo on Oct. 11 and then head to Wroclaw to face Japan five days later. So far this year, seven of their nine friendlies have been played overseas.
Meanwhile, decent venues are hard to find in Brazil as many of the biggest stadiums are undergoing renovation for 2014. With most powerful South American and European teams involved in the qualifying rounds, top class rivals are also hard to come by.
Yet there are other, arguably more important factors that are not related to Brazil hosting the Cup.
Time is one of them because most Brazilian internationals play in Europe. Fifteen of the 23 Brazilians named for this week’s double header play their club football in the Old World.
Holding matches close to their bases, rather than making players cross the Atlantic twice in four or five days, keeps the players fresh and their clubs happy.
The Brazilian Soccer Federation, or CBF, has an agreement with European clubs not to make their players fly more than five hours for friendly matches that are not staged on official FIFA dates. That rules out an 11-hour flight to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
A bigger element, however, could be cash.
The CBF last year signed a long-term deal that handed over control of its friendly matches to the Saudi-based International Sports Events (ISE).
ISE, who pay the CBF a reported $1.05 million for each game, chooses Brazil’s opponent and the city where the game will be played.
The games are “organised, promoted and commercialised” by Pitch International, a London-based sports marketing firm.
The deal, signed by Ricardo Teixeira, the CBF president who resigned his position in March after a spate of corruption scandals, is not popular with Brazilians, who feel facing third-rate opposition in small cities far from home is degrading for the only team to win the World Cup five times.
The managing director of Pitch Int. declined requests to explain how the deal works. Teixeira’s successor, Jose Maria Marin, told Reuters: “If Brazil plays abroad it is because it is good for the CBF and good for the Brazil team.”
But he and other top confederation officials have suggested elsewhere that not being able to choose who or where they play is hardly ideal.
“We want strong opponents,” Marin told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper last month. “But that is not always possible. What is important is getting used to pressure.”
That pressure is another complicating factor in how and where Brazil prepare for 2014.
The Brazilian team is one of the favourites to win the tournament on home soil. But they cannot count on unstinting support from their own fans, particularly in the two biggest cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
Brazil will open the World Cup at Corinthians’ Itaquera stadium in Sao Paulo and the final will be held at the Maracana in Rio.
However, fans in the two cities have booed their own players in recent years, perhaps encouraging the CBF to embrace games abroad or in the provinces, where supporters have fewer chances to see their idols close-up and are more supportive.
Thousands of fans turned on the team during last month’s 1-0 win over South Africa in Sao Paulo. A few days later, there was a more festive atmosphere in Recife and the team thrashed China 8-0.
Even outside Brazil, the inability to choose where and when the teams plays has caused embarrassment. A friendly against Argentina was cancelled last week with the players already in uniform and on the field.
The floodlights failed at the home of Club Atletico Sarmiento in Resistencia, a small city in northern Argentina. The club plays in the fourth tier of Argentine football and many wondered why one of the biggest draws in international football were playing at such an run-down venue.
The concern is unlikely to dissipate in the run up to the World Cup and there are calls for the CBF to abrogate the contract with ISE. Especially with fans increasingly alienated from the once-loved national side.
“Down with the Seleçao,” read a recent front page headline in sports newspaper Lance. “Lance supports Brazil but things can’t keep on the way they are,” the paper’s editor-in-chief Luiz Fernando Gomes wrote in an editorial. (Editing by Brian Winter)