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Why is Brazil playing Ghana in Stockholm?

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10:31 CEST+02:00
Almost fifty years ago Brazil won the first of their five World Cups in a 5-2 victory over Sweden at Stockholm's Råsunda stadium. The game rounded off a thrilling tournament for teenage sensation Pele, who scored twice, and secured Sweden a very special place in Brazilian hearts. It was here, in June 1958, that the legend truly began.

But Brazil's appearances here in 2007, to play in friendly matches against the underwhelming Chile and Ghana, are taking place under rather more bizarre circumstances. With Swedish football fans' attention firmly fixed on the Euro 2008 qualifier against Northern Ireland, and the March temperatures nowhere near the Copacabana average, questions have been raised as to just why Brazil are facing a team from their own continent, and another from Africa, in the middle of Scandinavia.

Like its neighbours Argentina, the Brazilian football association (CBF) has signed a lucrative deal with a foreign sports rights agency that arranges their friendly fixtures. The CBF contract with Swiss company Kentaro means that, under new manager Dunga, Brazil have played seven friendlies – all of them in Europe. Brazilian football fans, among the most colourful and vocal in the world, very rarely get to watch their team play live.

The notion that England fans wouldn't see their national side play in England, or that supporters of the BlåGul would have to leave Europe to watch Sweden, seems utterly implausible.

So why is a Swiss sports rights company arranging games for the South Americans in Sweden? Far from some altruistic mission to bring the Brazilian superstars to the Swedish masses, the real explanation involves a horse, Swedish schlager, and H&M underwear.

The co-owner of Kentaro is one Philippe Huber, a Swiss entrepreneur who secured the TV rights to the Allsvenskan and Swedish national team. He in turn brokered the sale of those rights throughout Sweden and the rest of the world. But his penchant for all things Swedish doesn't end there: Kentaro represents top showjumper Malin Baryard and Huber owns her horses.

On their website, the agency proudly mentions Baryard's pop tune “Do You Wanna Ride?”, claiming that it demonstrates the “interesting areas of interaction between the worlds of sport and entertainment.” As shareholders in management company Hagenburg, Kentaro are also involved with representing former Eurovision hopefuls Alcazar and Jessica Folker. The website doesn't, however, mention their relationship with the CBF, but according to the Brazilian media, the football association receives somewhere in the region of $1.5 million per game. Huber insists his involvement is not about the money.

“The whole point is that Brazil is going to improve and win trophies. To achieve that they have to meet the right teams at the right places,” Huber told Dagens Nyheter. What constitutes “the right places” is open to interpretation – Swedish pitches in the close-season are nowhere near peak condition, and Sweden is not known for its hordes of Brazilian immigrants.

Huber's choice of words is all the more peculiar when you consider that he was speaking after last October's Brazil – Ecuador game, which had been hastily re-located to Stockholm after its initial venue, the Camp Nou in Barcelona, cancelled. The Swedish FA's Lars-Ake Lagrell also gave a mystifying statement at the time: “This will be an interesting test on how many people an international game without Sweden can attract.”

Companies like Kentaro now wield enormous power in shaping the football calendar, with little attention paid to the supporters of these national sides, for whom a trip to Europe to watch their team is about as likely as Malta winning the next World Cup. Brazil's preparations for the 2006 World Cup were roundly criticized back home, after a friendly against Russia in freezing Moscow conditions and warm-up games versus the minnows of New Zealand and FC Lucerne.

Like most of the Brazilian population, you probably haven't heard of FC Lucerne. They play in the Swiss league, and it was in Lucerne that Kentaro set up Brazil's training camp before the World Cup last summer. The Swiss businessmen brought the beautiful game to their country and sold tickets for public training sessions at 120 kr a head. Brazil, on the other hand, brought disappointment to their country, crashing out in the quarter-finals and being verbally and physically barracked on their return to Rio.

Huber told DN that “I picked Sweden with my heart. It's nothing more than that.” But he is an insider at the Swedish football association, and knows a lot of key players in various industries, from the H&M-underwear-sponsored Baryard to the Swedish media. His unique position allows him to secure the use of the impressive Ullevi and Råsunda stadia, although it may just be because they are largely unused throughout the winter whilst the Allsvenskan takes a break.

There is certainly a keen audience in Sweden to watch the team led by talismanic Ronaldinho (who, rumour says, is contractually obliged to play in every friendly if fit – an allegation Kentaro firmly denies). 3000 people watched the Brazilians train on Friday, and some 40,000 packed into the Ullevi stadium for Saturday night's game with Chile. But apart from the 1958 fairytale, which doesn't preoccupy many Swedish football fans so many years on, there is no obvious reason for Brazil to play here other than the possibility that it is convenient for Kentaro.

But the Brazilians might not be returning any time soon. Both Kentaro and the security arrangements are under fire after a group of spectators raided Brazil's public training session in Gothenburg on Friday and threw stones at the players. Following the final whistle on Saturday's 4-0 win over Chile, another pitch invasion further marred the Brazilians' stay in Sweden.

The scenes at the Grand Hotel on Sunday were altogether more tranquil, as a group of around fifty young fans awaited the arrival of the team bus. Smiling as ever, Ronaldinho waved at the supporters and was clearly delighted that his brace against the Chileans ended his eighteen-month goalless period for the national side.

Eddie de Oliveira


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