Monday, January 17, 2011

Brazilian State Championships

The state soccer championships are getting under way throughout Brazil. These tournaments are unlike anything else in world sport.
The main Brazilian championship, with a traditional format, runs from May to December. But before that,  every team in Brazil spends a few months competing in its state championship.Each of the 27 state championships includes big, medium and small teams from one Brazilian state, all in one competition. Imagine if the baseball season lasted only from June to November, and the Yankees and Mets spent April and May contesting the New York state championships against the likes of Buffalo and Binghamton.
Each state's championship has a slightly different format, and many of them are rather complicated. Let's take a look at Rio de Janeiro's as an example, since it is one of the biggest and includes several unusual features.

Sixteen teams, including top division one teams and tiny regional sides, are divided into two groups of eight. The state's "big four," Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, and Vasco da Gama are always divided two and two between the groups.
First, the teams play all the others in their own group once, for a total of seven matches. The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals. (Yes, this is usually the big four.) These teams then "criss-cross," with the top finisher of each group facing the second finisher in the other group in a semifinal. The semis and the final are single-game knockouts, all held at the Maracana, the 80,000-seat spiritual home of Brazilian football.
The winner of this final four has won, not the state championship, but merely the first half title.

For the second half of the season, the slate is wiped clean, and each team now plays all the teams in the other group, for eight matches in total. Again, the top two teams from each group advance.
If it strikes you as odd that teams are being ranked within a group, while not playing any of the teams in that group, you're right. Imagine if the Ivy League basketball championship, say, were decided not by games against fellow Ivies, but by each team's record in matches against the Big 10 teams!  Such a system is very rare in world sport. The Anglo-Welsh Cup in rugby union just started using it, and it was used, with disastrous results, in the 1997 rugby league World Club Championship. (See the afternote of this post for more on that debacle.)

Once again, after the group stage, the top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals. (Again, this is usually the big four.) These teams then "criss-cross," with the top finisher of each group facing the second finisher in the other group ... wait. Hold on, something's not right.
O.K., this is an obscure and perhaps confusing complaint, but if First Round Bye can't complain about flawed details in complex sports systems 5,000 miles away, who will?
The reason teams criss-cross for knockout stages is to insure that for the first round at least they don't play a team from their own group, who they just played in the group stage. But this particular group stage involved playing teams in the other group! The top team in each group really should play the second team in the same group to insure no repetition. Are the organizers blind to this, or are they afraid that it would add another layer of confusion to an already twisted system?
In any case, the final four is again at the Maracana, and a second half winner is chosen. If the same team wins both halves, as Botafogo did last year, it wins the title outright. Otherwise, there is a final playoff over two legs, again at the Maracana, to determine the overall winner. 

So how often does an upstart battle through all these rounds and knock off the big four to become Rio's champion? How often would the Columbus Clippers win the Ohio baseball championship over the Reds and Indians? Not often. The last 44 championships have been won by a big four side.  (Bangu pulled off a shocker  in 1966.)

Determining a group's standings based on how its teams perform in matches against a separate group has at least one serious danger. And nowhere was this more exposed than in the 1997 World Club Challenge. This tournament, pitting European (mostly English) and Australasian rugby league teams against each other is often cited as a financial disaster, but it was also a structural disaster.
Such a  system may work if the two groups are relatively evenly matched, but what if one is far stronger than the other? That was the case in the club challenge, where, for a variety of reasons, including home field advantage, seriousness of purpose, timing, and simple talent, the Australasian teams were far, far stronger than the European ones.
The event was a special competition, and organizers wanted virtually all matches to be between teams from two different continents. An Australasian group of  six  teams played against the six teams of a European group. The top three teams from each group would advance.
Trouble was, the European teams just couldn't win. When each team had played six games, Australasian teams were 39-3. The records of those teams were 6-0,6-0,6-0,6-0, 5-1, and 4-2, while the European teams were  2-4, 1-5, 0-6, 0-6, 0-6, and 0-6. But three from each continent advanced to the next round. Yes, the Penrith Panthers won all six games, but were eliminated because their point differential was only +136. And the Bradford Bulls lost all six matches, but their comparatively robust -146 point differential meant they kept playing.
(The other two quarterfinalists were chosen from similarly structured "B" pools. Needless to say, the winner of the Australasian B pool was 6-0, while Europe's B winner had just one win.)
The quarterfinals were ugly, with all four Australasian team winning, 62-14, 66-12, 40-16, and, surprisingly, 22-18 (nice losing effort, Wigan Warriors).
A cautionary tale for those who might want to use such a system anywhere else.

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