SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s Serie A kicks off this weekend with teams from Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre the favourites for the title amid familiar worries over fan violence, low crowds and chronic disorganisation.
Brazilian football has lost much of its magic, with its best players in Europe and the standard lower than ever.
The 2014 World Cup hosts’ 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany deepened fears about the domestic game’s future.
The average attendance in Brazil is lower than in the United States and Japan with fans scared off by high ticket prices and crowd violence.
The league is not even a priority for many clubs this season.
Atletico Mineiro, Corinthians, Cruzeiro, Internacional, and Sao Paulo are in the Libertadores Cup knockout stages and likely to field under-strength teams in league games before crunch fixtures.
The Brazilian Cup, with a place in next year’s Libertadores for the winners, is another distraction for many teams.
Organisers are experimenting with games on Sunday mornings, while other matches finish so late because of TV commitments that public transport has stopped.
The league will also be disrupted for the third consecutive season because of international commitments.
The Copa America takes place in Chile in June and Corinthians, Gremio, and Santos are among the teams that will lose key players for a month.
The upside is that the title race could be the most competitive for years.
“There are lots of favourites,” said Palmeiras centre half Victor Ramos. “We are doing very well and we have everything we need to fight for the title. Palmeiras invested, it’s a big club, we’re challenging, and that’s our aim.”
Palmeiras could be one of the dark horses.
They narrowly avoided relegation last year but have a new manager, a new stadium and a host of new signings.
Palmeiras reached the Paulista state championship final last weekend where they lost to Santos on penalties.
Santos also look strong — losing two of their 19 games so far this season — but there are questions marks over whether veterans such as Elano, Ricardo Oliveira and Renato have the legs for a punishing season.
European clubs could come calling for impressive youngsters such as Lucas Lima when the transfer window opens in August.
State rivals Corinthians were unbeatable for most of this year under coach Tite but have won once in their last seven games.
Reigning champions Cruzeiro have lost the backbone of the squads that won the title in 2013 and 2014 and, although Leandro Damiao, Chilean full back Eugenio Mena and Uruguayan midfielder Giorgian de Arrascaeta have come in, they look less commanding.
Rivals Atletico Mineiro knocked them out in the Minas Gerais state league on their way to a 43rd title last Sunday and they will again fancy a crack at Serie A which they last won in 1971.
The other main contenders are from Porto Alegre.
Gremio and Internacional are two of the best run clubs in the country and, although their involvement in the Libertadores will test their resources, they are always dangerous.
Unusually, the Rio teams are not among the favourites.
Vasco da Gama will aim to consolidate after a year in Serie B and Fluminense are struggling after losing their main sponsor. Flamengo, in constant crisis, could be the side to watch.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris