The Brazilian football season starts in earnest this evening, as state championship competitions kick off around the country. These regional tournaments are the traditional building blocks of the Brazilian game - totems to local rivalries that gained currency before cross-country travel was even possible. Unfortunately, they are also bloated: the state championships last for four months, meaning the national championship is condensed into a seven-and-a-half month Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday sprint.
Despite compelling arguments for the continued importance of local bragging rights, the state championships are also heinously unbalanced. The São Paulo competition, for instance, pits Club World Cup winners Corinthians against Penapolense, a club whose stadium holds less than 5000 people yet rarely attracts half that number.
It would be easy, then, to become jaded with the state championships. But that would be an error. There remain plenty of points of interest dotted around the country, and the potential for giant-killing is FA Cup third round day-esque. Here are five intriguing questions that will be answered in the 2013 editions:
Can Rivaldo roll back the years?
Most people assumed that Rivaldo's last spell in Brazil - for São Paulo in 2011 - would be a final hurrah in a career lasting two decades. But most people were wrong. At the ripe old age of 40, old Skeletor has signed for São Caetano, who will compete in the Campeonato Paulista.
The last decade has been a strange one for Rivaldo: his playing days in Europe ended with something of a whimper, and gave way to a nomadic existence that has seen him feature in the Uzbek and Angolan leagues. São Caetano, meanwhile, are a mere shadow of the side who challenged for domestic and continental honours in the early 2000s. A match made in heaven? Many neutrals will hope so.
How will Flamengo deal with austerity measures?
Even in a football culture known for its short-termism, loose purse strings and public grandstanding, Flamengo have always managed to stand out. The Rio side, for all their support (estimates put their fanbase at over 30 million in Brazil alone), never seem to be too far away from another public relations meltdown. How refreshing, then, to witness new president Eduardo Bandeira de Mello start his stewardship in such sensible style. Since replacing the much-maligned Patrícia Amorim, Bandeira de Mello has set about putting the club back on an even financial keel, moving big earners such as Vágner Love and Liédson off the wage bill and starting the long-overdue modernisation of Fla's commercial revenue strategy.
At a club usually obsessed with craques (marquee players), the signings Elias and Gabriel are also worthy of praise. The former has plenty to prove after flattering to deceive with Atlético Madrid and Sporting, while Gabriel was one of the best young players in last season's Brazilian championship. One simply hopes that the new project – and coach Dorival Júnior – is given ample time to progress.
Will Neymar get bored?
With Santos failing to qualify for this season's Copa Libertadores, many fear that Brazil's superstar striker will have little to motivate him in the early part of the year. Clássicos against São Paulo, Corinthians and Palmeiras aside, Neymar will be playing against journeymen, veterans and part-timers. While this is unlikely to do his confidence too much harm (Neymar chalked up 20 goals in 16 matches in the 2012 Paulistão), this is hardly a fitting stage for one of the world's best players. With the World Cup just 18 months away, his decision to remain at Santos is increasingly a double-edged sword; fans have the pleasure of seeing him score hat-tricks every other week, but he - and the seleção - could end up suffering as a result.
Who will benefit most from the reopening of the Mineirão?
After over a thousand days of frantic hammering, drilling and sanding, the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto, better known as the Mineirão, was reopened by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff last month. The stadium, the second-largest in Brazil, was sorely missed; Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, who both host games there, have been forced to trundle round surrounding cities for almost three years, their average attendance figures plummeting as a result. A dispute that threatened to exclude fans of the nominal 'away' side in derby games was quickly cleared up this month, meaning the opening game at the new-look Mineirão will be some event on February 3. Home is where the heart is, after all.
How will São Paulo fare without Lucas?
It would take a true contrarian to argue that the sale of Lucas to Paris Saint-Germain for €45m represented anything other than excellent business for São Paulo FC. While the winger was the Tricolor's standout player, the windfall has allowed the club to build a more rounded squad. Former World Cup winner Lúcio should prove to be an excellent acquisition in defence, while Wallyson and Aloísio are solid additions to an attacking roster that already includes the likes of Luís Fabiano and Paulo Henrique Ganso.
The signing of Bayern Munich centre-back Breno is a calculated gamble; he may have been convicted of arson in Germany but São Paulo will have some player on their hands if they can successfully manage his psychological issues. Most important of all, however, is coach Ney Franco, who whipped the side into shape towards the end of last season and is unlikely to take his foot off the gas with the Copa Libertadores approaching.