Coach headbutting referee, fans threatening players — Can Brazilian football stem a troubling trend?

The match in Brazil on April 10 between Desportivo Ferroviaria and Nova Venecia was not supposed to be a major national event. It was in the quarterfinals of the championship of the state of Espirito Santo, not seen as one of the hotbeds of the Brazilian game.

But, thankfully, the game was sufficiently important to count on the presence of TV cameras. Because what happened at halftime ended up being seen all over the world. Ferroviaria coach Rafael Soriano was outraged by the officiating. He stormed on to the field to remonstrate with the referee and his assistants. Tempers flared with Marcielly Netto, a female assistant, and Soriano clearly gave her a head butt. It was an outrageous display of aggression — which Soriano immediately denied. If he was accused of a headbutt, he raged, the matter should be discussed to the police. He threatened to sue Netto, adding that she was trying to take advantage of being a woman, and other such incoherent nonsense. But there was no arguing with the TV images. Ferroviaria sacked him, and he faces a long suspension.

Soriano apologised for his actions. But the question remains; how could he have lost control of himself to the extent of such delinquency? Football is a game of emotions — in the wise words of sociologist Rogan Taylor, it is like strong beer — some people just can’t take it. But what is — or should be — of concern to the Brazilian game, is that this lamentable incident can be seen as part of a wider pattern of uncontrolled anger.

A few days before the incident involving Soriano, football did in fact become a police matter when Corinthians goalkeeper Cassio made a formal complaint about death threats he and his wife had received on social media. Cassio is a Corinthians legend. He was man of the match nearly ten years ago when the club beat Chelsea to become Club World Cup champions. But even that did not save him from the ire of some supporters who are disappointed by recent results. A police investigation managed to identify the perpetrators — a sad collection of keyboard warriors giving vent to their dissatisfaction.

But when the threats go beyond the keyboard? Bahia goalkeeper Danilo Fernandes counts himself lucky to be alive after an incident at the end of February. He was in the team bus, on the way to a game — when the bus was attacked by some of the club’s own fans, outraged by recent results. A snooker ball full of gunpowder was thrown into a bus with some 40 people on board. A tragedy could have unfolded. With leg injuries and cuts near his eye, Danilo was taken to hospital. He has recovered, but is understandably shaken.

“I just hope,” he told TV Bahia, “that someone doesn’t have to die before something is done.”

He has a point. After a disappointing away result, fans often gather at the airport to jeer and pressurise their own team on its return. Or they go to the training ground to make their protest — at times, and this is especially worrying, with the cooperation of club directors.

And the impression is that the scale of anger is escalating. There are a number of possible explanations. When tempers over-heated in a match in the Maracana, an old Brazilian coach said that “football is survival.” In a country such as Brazil, the game cannot just be a game. It is part of a struggle where there is always plenty at stake. Those who play and coach are seeking to make their living. Those who watch are frequently haunted by the prospect of humiliation — a word which carries a heavyweight in Brazilian society.

Brazilian football is also a factory of dissatisfaction. The size of the country means that the game inevitably developed on a regional basis. The focus is now national. For the clubs with serious pretentions, the old regional championships have lost significance. This means that there are fewer meaningful trophies to go round — not enough for all of the clubs to maintain their status as winners. And as seen in the case of Cassio at Corinthians, social media has clearly widened the reach of dissatisfied fans.

Referees in Uruguay recently staged a short strike in protest at threats they were receiving. It might be worth Brazil’s players considering something similar. Danilo Fernandes called for something to be done — and the players are those with the greatest interest in steps being taken. An attack on one player or official or a coach is in effect an attack on all football. A temporary withdrawal of the game at some point might be the best way to warn that a line is being crossed between emotion and criminality.

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