Anyone who tells you that there's no football on over the summer is a damned liar. Jack Lang has been kind enough to provide us with this essential guide to one of the world's most entertaining leagues.
Sing it from the rooftops, good people! Real football – or rather, real futebol – is finally back! After four months of patchy and predictable state championship action, next week sees the return of the Campeonato Brasileiro; Brazil’s premier national league. With 38 rounds crammed into a 28 week period, and a strikingly open field of competitors, the Brasileirão is a breathless and competitive affair; one which tends to defy initially plausible pre-season predictions. Reigning champions Fluminense, for instance, had almost been relegated the previous year, whilst 2009 winners Flamengo only just managed to avoid the drop last time out. The lesson is clear; fill out a Série A betting form at your peril.
This unpredictability can be attributed in part to the inevitable disruption that the European transfer window brings; clubs find themselves shorn of their standout performers just when they are beginning to find their rhythm. This year, things will be even more convoluted; the Copa América (which takes place in July) is likely to deprive a number of sides of their most important players.
The Campeonato also represents a unique geographical challenge. In England, Carlisle fans might moan about an away trip to Plymouth Argyle, but consider the poor fans of Ceará on the country's north coast; they face two round trips of 8500km to play Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre! These outliers provide an interesting juxtaposition to the dense footballing conglomerations of Rio and São Paulo. Local derbies are also plentiful; no fewer than 36 clássicos will take place during this season.
Fluminense (nicknamed Tricolor)
The reigning champions have endured a tough start to 2011, losing coach Muricy Ramalho and crashing out of the Libertadores. The arrival of Abel Braga, however, ought to steady the ship, and the Rio giants still have a strong squad at their disposal. If Darío Conca can reproduce the form of last year, they should be competitors for a Libertadores spot.
Players to watch; Darío Conca, Fred, Rafael Moura, Mariano.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Manchester City – hefty backing, a proud history, but overshadowed by local rivals with the red kit.
Cruzeiro (nicknamed Raposa – the fox)
With one of the most settled squads in Brazil, Cruzeiro have become known for their consistency. Solid at the back, and able to call upon the mercurial Walter Montillo in attack, the Belo Horizonte side will be looking to go one better than last year’s second place finish. My tip for the championship, if you’re asking.
Players to watch; Walter Montillo, Thiago Ribeiro, Henrique, Fábio.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Birmingham City – the one starting lineup you can accurately predict every week.
Corinthians (nicknamed Timão – the big team)
A squad in transition since the loss of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, Corinthians will likely be reliant on recent acquisition Liédson to fire them to glory. The Portugal international may have hoped for a partnership with Adriano, but an injury will keep O Imperador out of action for the first half of the campaign. With Bruno César off to Benfica next month, the midfield looks rather functional, meaning that the onus will be on the likes of Willian and Jorge Henrique to supplement Liédson’s threat.
Players to watch; Liédson, Júlio César, Ralf, Willian.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; West Ham United – trying to steady the ship before historic relocation to new stadium.
Grêmio (nicknamed Imortal Tricolor – the immortal tricolour)
Inconsistency personified. A good late run allowed them to sneak into fourth last time round, but they seem unlikely to repeat the feat; top scorer Jonas joined Valencia, whilst coach Renato Gaúcho doesn’t quite have the tactical nous to complement his undoubted charisma. A strong midfield is likely to be let down by infuriating strikers.
Players to watch; Douglas, Victor, Fábio Rochemback, Adílson.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Tottenham Hotspur – strong midfield, but hamstrung by defensive frailties and scattershot forwards.
Atlético Paranaense (nicknamed Furacão – the tornado)
Having punched well above their weight in 2010, Atlético will likely be happy with mid-table safety this season. The addition of World Cup winner Kléberson will lend quality to the squad, and the form of veteran playmaker Paulo Baier shows no sign of abating. The lack of a proven goalscorer, however, is likely to hold them back.
Players to watch; Paulo Baier, Kléberson, Madson, Wagner Diniz.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Bolton Wanderers – hardly a name which screams glamour, they nonetheless produce a likeable brand of football.
Botafogo (nicknamed O Glorioso – the glorious one)
With loveable coach Joel Santana having recently handed in his notice, Botafogo seem set for a season of consolidation under Caio Júnior. A decent roster of attacking talent should guarantee goals, but the squad looks remarkably light in other areas; star goalkeeper Jefferson could be a busy boy. Crucial to their chances will be convincing nomadic Uruguayan striker Loco Abreu to stay in Rio for one more year.
Players to watch; Loco Abreu, Maicosuel, Jefferson, Caio.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Everton – not as fashionable as their neighbours, but consistently do well on a limited budget.
Internacional (nicknamed Colorado – the reds)
Cup specialists in recent times, Internacional’s recent Libertadores exit means that they can focus on domestic matters. Club icon Paulo Roberto Falcão has recently taken the reigns at the Beira-Rio, and has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal. Question marks persist, however, about Inter’s ageing defence; reinforcements may be necessary.
Players to watch; Andrés D’Alessandro, Leandro Damião, Mario Bolatti, Oscar.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Manchester United – impressive youth system, relatively patient with coaches, and have excelled in continental competition in the last few years.
Santos (nicknamed Peixe – the fish)
Despite their stellar squad, Santos could not manage a title challenge last term, finishing in a disappointing eighth place. New coach Muricy Ramalho, a four time Brasileirão champion, will be looking for a marked improvement this time out. The likes of Neymar and Ganso rightly draw most of the attention, but the Peixe also boast a sturdy defence and an impressive midfield engine room. The imminent departures of Zé Eduardo, Maikon Leite, and Keirrison, however, might leave Santos a striker or two short.
Players to watch; Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Elano, Rafael.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Arsenal – youthful merchants of tippy-tappy football; undoubtedly talented, but question marks over mental strength.
São Paulo (nicknamed Tricolor)
Coach Paulo César Carpeggiani continues to divide opinion, but a potent blend of experience (Rogério, Rivaldo, Luís Fabiano) and youthful exuberance (Lucas, Casemiro) should ensure that São Paulo mount a title challenge. Talented defender Miranda, however, will need to be replaced; he’s off to Atlético Madrid in the summer.
Players to watch; Luís Fabiano, Lucas, Rogério Ceni, Dagoberto.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Chelsea – wealthy fan base from the right side of the tracks, they became a dominant force after the turn of the millennium.
Palmeiras (nicknamed Verdão – the big green)
It’s been a tumultuous start to 2011 for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side; a strong start in the São Paulo state championship dissolved into ignominy, with mutterings of dissatisfaction in the dressing room and among fans. With a young squad, Palmeiras will be reliant on the likes of Kléber and Valdivia to lead the way on the pitch. Should that pair continue to be hampered by injuries, mid-table anonymity looks likely.
Players to watch; Kléber, Marcos Assunção, Jorge Valdivia, Wellington Paulista.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Stoke City – not the most fluid, but defensively sound, and offer a threat from dead balls
Vasco da Gama (nicknamed Gigante da Colina – the giant of the hill)
A team that appears to be on the up after a troubled year. Former Monaco boss Ricardo Gomes has quietly gone about accumulating attackers, whilst the athletic Dedé forms the foundation of an improving defence. The signing of free-kick wizard Juninho Pernambucano also boosts expectation levels, although idiotic registration rules mean that he’ll only be available in August.
Players to watch; Juninho Pernambucano, Éder Luís, Dedé, Diego Souza.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Aston Villa – a tradition of success has segued into a barren spell of late.
Ceará (nicknamed Vovô – the grandfather)
Last season’s surprise package, Ceará will probably find things tougher this term. An impressive defence is the cornerstone of their approach, and a good thing too; Marcelo Nicácio, their best striker this year, has just left the club after failing to agree terms on a new contract. It could be a difficult campaign for the Fortaleza side.
Players to watch; Geraldo, Ernandes, Fabrício, Thiago Humberto.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Sunderland – northern outliers.
Atlético Mineiro (nicknamed Galo – the cockerel)
A revolving door transfer policy (18 new faces this year alone) means that there’s never a dull moment with Atlético-MG. A squad of undoubted talent, it remains to be seen whether Dorival Júnior can mould his charges into a unit capable of reaching the upper echelons of the league. If he can’t, it could all come crashing down.
Players to watch; Mancini, Guilherme, Magno Alves, Réver.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Fulham – playthings of a charismatic businessman.
Flamengo (nicknamed Rubro-Negro – ruby and black)
Despite their array of attacking midfielders, Fla’s Campeonato Carioca win was largely down to their defensive solidity. That foundation allows like likes of Ronaldinho and Thiago Neves the freedom to drift around the pitch; a set-up which hasn’t proved all that effective thus far. If Vanderlei Luxemburgo can find a No.9, though, the pieces could all fall into place.
Players to watch; Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Thiago Neves, Léo Moura, Felipe.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Liverpool – big in the eighties, swinging between crisis and restoration ever since.
Avaí (nicknamed Leão da Ilha – the lion of the island)
Hailing from beautiful Florianópolis, the seasiders produced some similarly attractive football last season. Unfortunately, their squad has undergone a radical makeover, with Róbson the only one of their diminutive attackers to have remained at the club. The experienced Marquinhos will be crucial in the centre of the park, as will young hitman Rafael Coelho. And if it all goes awry, at least the impeccably named George Lucas will always raise a smile.
Players to watch; Marquinhos, Róbson, Rafael Coelho.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; West Bromwich Albion – often considered lightweights, but have a penchant for slick passing football.
Atlético Goianiense (nicknamed Dragão – the dragon)
Having secured safety by the skins of their teeth last term, Atlético will be hoping to consolidate their place in Série A. It seems doubtful, however, whether they have the resources to do so; star midfielders Elias and Robston have departed, leaving the squad with a decidedly budget look. Fans, then, will be hoping that a previously unheralded player will step up to the plate; Élvis and Keninha (little Ken) seem good options, in name at least.
Players to watch; Pituca, Marcão, Márcio.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Wigan Athletic – trying to hang onto top-flight status after an impressive ascent through the divisions.
Coritiba (nicknamed Coxa – the thigh)
Obvious contenders for the ‘surprise package’ label; except their likely success this year probably won’t shock anyone. Having won 24 consecutive games (until the time of writing) in 2011, including an astonishing 6-0 cup victory over Palmeiras, Marcelo Oliveira’s side would be forgiven for dreaming of a top half finish. That, in truth, may be overly optimistic, but the Coxa are well placed to avoid relegation strife.
Players to watch; Léo Gago, Davi, Bill, Pereira.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Newcastle United – back where they belong after runaway promotion success.
Figueirense (nicknamed Furacão do Estreito – the tornado of the Estreito district)
Back in Série A after two years in the doldrums, Figueirense seem likely to be battling for safety. Coach Jorginho (a former Brazil fullback and Dunga’s former right-hand man) has done an impressive job thus far, but his squad looks rather short of star quality. Maintaining the defensive solidity they displayed in their promotion push seems their best bet.
Players to watch; Maicon, Reinaldo, Ygor.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Wolverhampton Wanderers – loveable relegation fodder.
Bahia (nicknamed Tricolor de Aço – the steel tricolour)
René Simões’ side has employed an interesting tactic in their quest for Brasileirão safety this year; the Salvador club has signed a number of players who, although undoubtedly talented, have seen their careers go off course. Lulinha and Zezinho, both of whom were touted as The Next Big Thing© a couple of years ago, have been brought in, as has Jóbson, a superb striker who has been troubled by drug addiction. If those three click, Bahia would benefit enormously.
Players to watch; Jóbson, Lulinha, Zezinho, Souza.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Blackpool – seasiders back in the major leagues after a lengthy absence.
América Mineiro (nicknamed Coelho – the rabbit)
In what will be only their fifth season in Série A since 1980, Belo Horizonte’s third biggest side are likely to struggle. A thin squad will be reliant on journeyman striker Fábio Júnior in attack, although new signing Amaral should give some bite to the midfield. Coach Mauro Fernandes is also relatively inexperienced at the top level, and will be only too aware of the difficulty of his task.
Players to watch; Fábio Júnior, Gabriel Santos, Amaral.
If they were a Premier League team, they’d be; Blackburn Rovers – the unfancied, unfashionable, underdogs of their region.
So there you have it; twenty teams, at least ten of which will be aiming to mount a title challenge. The opening round, which gets underway on Saturday 21st May, should be an exciting one; Fluminense host São Paulo, Grêmio face Corinthians, and Internacional travel to Santos. The futebol season, dear reader, is upon us. I, for one, could hardly be more excited.