RIO DE JANEIRO: The Brazilian championship, which this year will use the conventional league system for the first time in its history, kicks off at the weekend amid an atmosphere of unbridled optimism.
Over the next nine months, the 24 teams will play each other twice and the side with the most points will win the title – a time-honoured system in the rest of the world but one which has been overlooked in Brazil in favour of often incomprehensible formats.
Since the competition started in 1971 it has been squeezed into four or five months, using a variety of weird and wonderful formats critics say have created numerous injustices.
Last year, for example, Sao Paulo won the first stage of the competition, only to be knocked out in the quarter-finals by eighth-placed Santos, who had finished 13 points behind them.
But, under mounting pressure from the smaller teams who tend to miss out on the knockout stages and are left twiddling their thumbs for the rest of the year, club directors voted to try the European system.
“Tomorrow begins the Brazilian championship of my dreams with the simplest and most successful formula possible, which benefits the best team,” said Cesar Seabra, columnist in the specialist sports daily Lance.
Despite the new-found optimism, the disorganisation that has plagued Brazilian football in the past has not gone away completely.
Clubs have still not decided how to divide up the money from television rights and this week Portuguesa, who were relegated last year, were still trying to get themselves reinstated on a minor technicality.
Critics say 24 clubs is too many, pointing out that the tournament kicks off on the same day Brazil's national team faced Portugal in a friendly international in Porto – blatantly ignoring FIFA's international calendar.
Defending champions Santos, runners-up Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro are among the title favourites.
Santos, who delighted the country with their flowing, attacking football last year, have managed to keep the base of the team together, including Diego and Robinho.
The two effervescent teenagers are among a number of outstanding young players who compensate for the fact that only a few members of Brazil's World Cup-winning squad will be taking part in the competition.
Pele's former team have already qualified for the second round of South America's Libertadores Cup, having scored 15 goals in five group games.
Corinthians, despite losing coach Carlos Alberto Parreira to the Brazilian national side, have also made a good start to the year under his replacement Geninho, winning the Paulista (Sao Paulo state) championship.
New signings Liedson, from Flamengo, and Jorge Wagner, from Cruzeiro, have endeared themselves to the Gavioes da Fiel (Hawks of the Faithful), the club's notoriously demanding supporters.
Sao Paulo, where 20-year-old midfielder Kaka is the big attraction, are widely regarded as having the best squad in the country but have to shake off their reputation as perennial under-achievers.
The pressure on coach Oswaldo Oliveira is enormous and every draw or defeat leads to speculation about his future at the club.
Free-scoring Cruzeiro, under former Brazil coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, have won 11 and drawn three of their 14 games so far this year in the Mineiro (Minas Gerais state) championship and Copa Brasil.
The outlook is not so bright for the Rio de Janeiro clubs. – Reuters