Why top Brazilian club Cuiabá Arsenal is hosting a playoff game in empty Estadio Dutra?

AFI believes the following article is important for international American football. In what started as a preview for the first round CBFA Superliga match between the Cuiabá Arsenal and the Goiânia Rednecks, soon became an study on challenges American football clubs around the globe often face: bureaucracy.

 A special thanks to Goiania, Goias, Brazil based attorney, Marcelo Lauria contributed extensive research to this article.

What is happening in Football City?

What could be the celebration of another great season for one of Brazil’s most storied franchises (Cuiabá Arsenal), and a historic playoff appearance for one of the leagues up-and-comers (Goiânia Rednecks), is overshadowed by the sad reality of a playoff game being played in front of no one.

Five or six years ago in Brazil, it was not unheard of to have an American football game played in front of very few people, maybe even to the point that there were no ‘’fans’’ in attendance (defined for this sentence as: people who follow/support a specific team without any direct familial connection to it).

But fast forward to 2016, and the teams of Brazil’s CBFA Superliga regularly play in front of crowds of thousands, and the fans of the city of Cuiaba, Mato Grosso, are renowned throughout South America for filling bleachers at Arsenal games.

What we know:

Number one seed Cuiaba is playing it’s first round home CBFA Superliga playoff game at Estadio Eurico Gaspar Dutra, better known as Dutrinha, and the game is closed to the public.

The stands at the stadium (where Cuiaba holds the attendance record for with their 2012 National Championship win) have been closed since February 26, 2015 (you read that correctly, it’s been more than a year and a half) after a judge ruled that the stadium needed to be brought up to code. These specifications were specifically in regard to security, as the event that triggered the judges motion was a scuffle between the fans of soccer clubs Mixto (based out of Cuiaba) and Luverdense.

Before we move forward, a few points of clarity and context for those unfamiliar with the sport’s facility circumstances in Cuiaba;

  • It is not clear to AFI how many buildings in Cuiaba are not up to code, as Dutrinha has been alleged, and still operate without entry restrictions.
  • To date, there have been zero recorded instances of fans at Arsenal games starting fights or creating unsafe conditions for others fans.
  • There are at least three other public buildings that could be available for this game.
    1. Two are training centers, which were originally proposed to have bleachers (more on this later) for the 2014 World Cup (Cuiaba was a host city).
    2. Cuiaba’s 2014 World Cup stadium, Arena Pantanal.
  • Dutrinha is a city property, while Arena Pantanal and the training centers are run by the state (one of the training centers is located at the Federal University of Mato Grosso, so, federal property, but the state of Mato Grosso was/is in charge of the construction).
  • The two aforementioned World Cup training centers are not completed yet. To save the reader from rereading the previous sentence in disbelief, or from thinking it involves a typo, we reword: There are publicly funded structures in Cuiaba, Mato Grosso, that were intended for (and, again publicly funded!) an event that took place more than two years ago, that are still ‘’under construction.’’
  • It was unclear to AFI why these projects remain incomplete. AFI inquired to the state of Mato Grosso for clarification.
That said, why could the Arsenal not use one of these other facilities in Cuiaba? Were they in use or ‘under maintenance’? Is cost an issue?
  • In viewing websites for the state of Mato Grosso, multiple Facebook pages (including one that used the seal of the state of Mato Grosso in photos and on their profile picture), AFI was unable to identify a single event taking place in Arena Pantanal (the publicly funded facility built for the World Cup that was completed, at least to the point of usability) on either October 22 or October 23, 2016 (the weekend for the first round of the CBFA Superliga playoffs). Inquiries were sent to the state of Mato Grosso regarding events (or lack thereof) for the dates in question.
  • It was not clear to AFI if all specifications for the initial completion of Arena Pantanal were ever met, if all contractors were paid in full, if any definitions of ‘’completion of the stadium’’ remain disputed, and/or if any contracts or relationships birthed out of the construction of the arena remain in litigation.
    • An article from the state of Mato Grosso website, posted on a Facebook page that used the seal of the State of Mato Grosso on October 22, 2016,  cited an engineering firm ”returning” to ”complete” unfinished work at the Arena Pantanal, after a ruling over an unpaid contract of 28.5 million Reals and more than 3,000 unfinished points of construction. AFI inquired to the state of Mato Grosso with for clarification.
  • In an article by news agency Globo, linked here, Arsenal President, Paulo Cesar Machado, was quoted as saying, that the costs to hold a game at Arena Pantanal were expensive.
    • According to a 2016 investigative report from the magazine Epoca, linked here, it cost the state of Mato Grosso 4.2 million Reals to keep the Arena operational in 2015. In other words: the state provided funding to allow events to take place at Arena Pantanal.
Let’s take a closer look at the events hosted at Cuiaba’s Arean Pantanal since the 2014 World Cup.

According to the Wikipedia page for Arena Pantanal, these are attendance facts for 2015 sporting events at the arena: The largest crowd in Arena Pantanal in 2015 was recorded as being 16,602, for a soccer match between legendary Brazilian Séria A (Brazil top division) rivals from Rio de Janeiro, Vasco da Gama and Flamengo (one of the most popular sports clubs in South America). The second largest crowd that year for a sporting event was 15,197, for a CBFA Superliga semi-final between the Arsenal and the Coritiba Crocodiles.

Another look at the same numbers from 2015 from a different angle reveals this: if one discounts ‘’imported’’ games (games with first division soccer teams from other cities brought to Arena Pantanal intermittently (which brought between 11,074 and 16,602 fans in 2015, according to the Arena’s Wikipedia page), the largest ‘’one day’’ attendance that the arena saw was the aforementioned Arsenal American football game, with its attendance of 15,197. The next closest number? 8,270 … in the inaugural non-World Cup games for the stadium … in a double header featuring Mixto and the cities other team, Cuiaba. In 2015, there were seven games featuring at least one team from Mato Grosso (again, Arena Pantanal – a state property) that drew over 2,000 spectators. There were 18 games of the same criteria that drew under 1,000. In one particularly sparsely attended event on April 5 of 2015, 150 eager fans crowded the stands of the 42,968 seat arena to watch Clube Esportivo Operario Varzea Grande battle Rondonopolis.

In 2016, the aforementioned behemoth, Flamengo, squared off against Santos, the club that produced Pele and Neymar, and 21,799 fans packed the stands of Arena Pantanal. Outside of that, the biggest single draw of a Mato Grosso sports club not named ‘’Cuiaba Arsenal’’ was 2,068, again in an opening day double header (or: 1,034 per game). Not to be outdone by the 150 person crowd on April 5 of 2015, the good people of Clube Esportivo Operario Varzea Grande once again went for the ‘’all time low’’ attendance record, this time on the 19th of March, and in a 4-0 loss to Araguiaia, they succeeded once again, drawing a jaw-dropping, awe-inducing, mind-boggling 12 (twelve) officially-recorded-by-Arena-Pantanal’s-Wikipedia-page fans. In the same year, the Cuiabá Arsenal hosted the São Paulo-based Corinthians, and according to news agency, Globo’s, (admittedly, on their part) preliminary estimates, drew approximately 12,000, although later reports have the number in the 8,000 range.

A post from a Facebook page associating itself with Arena Pantanal, and using a State of Mato Grosso Seal also recently advertised a free event, it was not clear where the funding came from to make the event free.

It was unclear to AFI how there could be free events, or events with 150 attendees at the arena, yet it remain too expensive for the cities most successful, non-profit registered, sports organization. It was additionally unclear how two soccer teams can hold entire seasons in the arena while drawing a fraction of a fraction of the public that the Arsenal draws while remaining financially solvent. There are a multitude of potentially plausible explanations for this, and AFI inquiries were made to the state of Mato Grosso.

And so, Arena Pantanal sits empty.

According to the Mato Grosso website, the third party ticket vendor, Superingressos, and the most recently updated Facebook page for the Arena (that features a government of Mato Grosso logo on its profile picture), the Arena will sit empty on Saturday afternoon, while the most successful sports team in the history of the state capital plays a football game in front of zero fans. Inquiries have been sent to the state to determine if there are to be events held at the arena this weekend, and when they were scheduled.

The Arsenal are, the case can strongly be made, the most successful sports team in the history of not only Cuiaba, but the state of Mato Grosso. They have won two top division titles (2010 and 2012), are a #1 seed in this seasons playoffs, and along with Flamengo, are the only undefeated team in Superliga.

The impact of the Arsenal can be felt, perhaps even more strongly, off the field, where they have launched countless initiatives for youth sports, blood drives, visits to children’s hospitals and countless other acts of community outreach.

Further, while the city of Cuiaba and State of Mato Grosso might not pay attention to the Arsenal, the team has certainly attracted international attention.

Former athletes, Wesley Jardim (one of the top defensive players in the NAIA until a season ending knee injury a couple of weeks ago with Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska) and Luis Constantino (a redshirt freshman defensive lineman at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska) are making impacts in the college ranks.  Igor Mota became one of the first Brazilians ever to play arena-level football in the USA, spending a season with the Omaha Beef. If that weren’t enough, Brazil’s first born NFL player, Leandro Veal, and first round pick and ten-year NFL veteran, Damione Lewis, have both made pilgrimages to Cuiaba to spend time with the Arsenal and help them with their community outreach.

Other than the Arsenal, the last time a Cuiaba team played in Brazil’s top division, it was the soccer club, Mixto, approximately 40 years ago. The cities two top soccer clubs, Mixto and Cuiaba, have more recently spent time playing in Série C and Série D, Brazils third and fourth divisions. It should be noted that the previous sentence is not to knock on either clubs Cuiaba or Mixto – both organizations do a respectable job of competing from a relatively small, isolated city far from the more densely populated areas of Brazil. It is, rather, an illustration of the herculean accomplishments of the Cuiaba Arsenal, and the case can be made that the previously mentioned attendance numbers speak volumes to the rooting interests of the citizens who live in the city where these publicly funded (and unavailable-to-the-Arsenal) venues are located.

Arsenal head coach and star athlete, Ken Joshen, had the following to say on the situation:

”It’s a shame that we have to play in Dutrinha without any public. The Arsenal are the best team in the city of Cuiaba and compete every year on a national level. People actually want to see us play, and that should be an extra incentive for the city (state) officials to embrace us and help us grow. I just don’t understand the logic behind it. We are changing so many kids lives each and every year by participating in the sport and keeping them off the streets. The sport has been here in Cuiaba for 10 years and still lacks the financial support and marketing (seen elsewhere in the city). With the proper structure and investments this sport could surpass he traditional game of soccer here in the city. Maybe fear is standing in the way of progress.”

Call to action:

Those wishing to comment or inquire with the city of Cuiaba and/or the state of Mato Grosso, can do so here:

City of Cuiabá inquiry form: http://www.cuiaba.mt.gov.br/fale-conosco/

State of Mato Grosso inquiry form: http://www.ouvidoria.mt.gov.br/falecidadao/

Translations of the emails and inquiries sent from AFI to the city of Cuiaba and the State of Mato Grosso will be made available on later updates of this article.

Now onto the American football game on the field…

CBFA Superliga Playoffs – #1 Cuiaba Arsenal v. #4 Goiania Rednecks

Estadio Eurico Gaspar Dutra – Cuiaba, Mato Grosso
Saturday, October 22, 3 PM local time

On to the actual game (Bill Belichik voice).

In short: doesn’t look good for the Rednecks, even with the ‘’no one in attendance’’ thing (although it should be noted that for an Arsenal game at Dutrinha, crowd noise is absolutely a factor…when the Arsenal fans are allowed by the city to attend games. Which they currently aren’t).

AFI would bet every fan in attendance today $1,ooo,ooo (Dr. Evil voice) that either Brandon Watkins or Ken Joshen score a touchdown. These two have put up staggering numbers this season: 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which, if this weren’t an article that mentioned 12 people attending a soccer game in a World Cup stadium, or zero people being able to attend a #1 seeded teams playoff game, would be the most unbelievable numbers in this article.

This game is a huge step for Goiania, who was a flag football team three years ago, and in 2016, have knocked off teams that have been in existence for up to a decade. They are moving in the right direction, and that is, in some part, due to a great relationship with the Arsenal, who, on multiple occasions, have sent coaches and athletes to Goiania to consult with the team and help them grow as athletes, a coaching staff, and an organization.

Alas, no one will see how Goiania’s first game turns out. What could have been a special day for the explosion of football West-Central Brazil, and another crowning achievement of what has been accomplished in Cuiabá, will go unseen, but at least they will set an attendance record – with apologies to the fans of Clube Esportivo Operario Varzea Grande – your record of having twelve people at a sporting event, anywhere in the world, will be broken today. Our deepest sympathies, but please, don’t blame the Cuiaba Arsenal, blame the city of Cuiaba and the State of Mato Grosso.

Clayton Lovett
Clayton Lovett has served football in Brasil in a variety of roles, including as the member of the coaching staff of two CBFA national champions (Cuiaba Arsenal 2010, 2012). Football is his hobby. Professionally, he is the founder of CS Educacional, which provides educational and competitive opportunities abroad for student-athletes.
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