James YoungComment

PREVIEWING THE BRAZILIAN STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS, PART THREE: RIO

James YoungComment

Brazil's upcoming state championships are among the most idiosyncratic, historic events in world football. To take a closer, region by region look at the past year in Brazilian football, we brought in James Young. Today: Rio de Janeiro. 

Vasco gave it a hell of a shot. Fluminense left it late but finished a whisker away from glory. Botafogo, as usual, were a little off the pace. But in the end, as Ronaldinho says, it was uma vez Flamengo…

There are pressing problems in Carioca football. One of the biggest, in the absence of the Maracanã, is how to persuade Rio fans to endure the arduous 15 minute air-conditioned metro journey (Central to Engenho de Dentro) to the Engenhão. In a city of around 12 million people, the average attendance of the four big Rio clubs is a puny 14,000. Fluminense, who finished 3rd in Serie A, could coax just 11,569 lonely souls to each of their games  - only a paltry 400 more than Serie C Joinville’s average gate.

Another is the bizarre Alice through the Looking Glass world of the Campeonato Carioca state championship. Lovers of logic and sanity should look away now. In the first phase, the Taça Guanabara, sixteen teams are divided into two groups of eight. Each team plays the seven other teams in its group once. The top two in each group qualify for the semi-finals, the winners of which meet in a final.

Obviously, everything then starts over with the second phase, or Taça Rio, which again has two groups of eight. This time, however, each team plays the teams from the other group once (giving eight, rather than seven games). The top two in each group qualify for the semi-finals, leading on to a final. The winners of the Taça Guanabara and the winners of the Taça Rio then meet in a grand finale to decide the overall champion. In what must have been a veritable eureka! moment, the Rio football authorities at least decided that there would be no grand final in the event that the same team lifted both Taças Guanabara and Rio. In a mundo bizarro such as this, Flamengo v Flamengo might not have seemed that out of place. 

That the Campeonato Carioca boasts almost no intermediate level teams to break up the big four’s party and make things interesting (unlike São Paulo, for example), seems to matter not a jot. The entire unholy mess sprawls over four months, and is one of the finest examples of the knuckleheaded, anachronistic thinking that plagues Brazilian football administration. Still, it at least gives Rio football fans the chance to visit one of the best named grounds in the country – Bangu’s Moça Bonita, or Pretty Lady, stadium. Very carioca.

In any case, such trifles were cast aside on March 20th 2011, when, as mentioned above, Flamengo took the honours. True, Vasco had sent a package of shirts with an anti-racism message to the White House a little before, but when it mattered, it was Flamengo’s doughty president Patricia Amorim ducking past security, tearing off her replica shirt and shoving it in Mr. Obama’s bewildered face during his visit to Rio. Barack was now Flamenguista, and that was all that mattered.  

Such playing to the gallery stunts are common enough in Brazilian football and more common still in Rio, the spiritual home of Brazilian showmanship. Ronaldinho’s unveiling party in January, complete with 20,000 fans on the Gávea pitch, sambistas Dudo Nobre and Diogo Nogueira, and, preposterously, Vagner Love, was a fine example. That by the end of the season Flamengo were paying players’ salaries late shows how priorities can often become skewed.  

On the pitch at least, Vasco Da Gama were kings of Rio, and what a remarkable year it was for the Gigante Da Colina. 2011 began with Vasco’s worst start to the Campeonato Carioca in history, with the team losing to such flyweights as Resende, Nova Iguacu and Boavista. That brought internal strife, and midfielders Felipe and Carlos Alberto were suspended for public moaning. The former would return, the terminally-troubled latter would not.

It was the Copa Do Brasil which brought redemption. Having dropped into Serie B in 2008 and without a major trophy in eight years, victory over Coritiba in the final brought self-belief back to São Januário. That was the spring-board for an impressive league campaign that saw Vasco battle Corinthians for the title until the final day, despite, or perhaps even aided by (motivationally speaking), the life-threatening stroke suffered by coach Ricardo Gomes during a league game against Flamengo on August 28th.

Vasco also reached the semi-finals of the Copa Sul-Americana, before succumbing to tiredness and an excellent Universidad de Chile side.  Highlight of that cup run was a remarkable quarter final second leg against Universitario of Lima. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, and 2-1 down midway through the second game, Vasco scored four to turn the tie around.

Hero of that and many other a stirring Vasco win was giant zagueiro Dedé. Currently the most coveted player in Brazil not called Neymar, Dedé has it all – pace, strength, composure, plus that strange, indefinable magnetism that sets the special ones apart. Whether it’s leadership, charisma or star quality, Dedé has become the totem of this team. He can look coltishly clumsy, and needs to work on his positioning, but if these are corrected, Vasco fans might soon be able to say they watched the future best center half in the world in 2011.

He had plenty of help last year. Rumour has it that at some point last season, goalkeeper Fernando Prass made a mistake, but no one can remember when it might have been. Fagner was a revelation at right back, perhaps second only to Gremio’s Mario Fernandes nationally, and volante Rõmulo shows real promise, with Juventus and Genoa reputedly on his trail.

Showing that age doesn`t necessarily wither beauty, Felipe and Juninho Pernambucano alternated duties in the midfield schemer role, and both flourished. Somewhere just in front of them, Diego Souza had his best season since 2009, when at Palmeiras, and Eder Luis buzzed around to great effect. The challenge for 2012 will be maintaining the team spirit that took Vasco so far last year, and spreading a thin squad over what will be an even more taxing fixture list.

For Fluminense it was a what if kind of year. There were fine moments, true enough, in the early part of the year, particularly that remarkable Libertadores triumph away to Argentina Juniors (Flu won 4-2, with Fred’s final, decisive goal that pushed the team past Nacional in the standings on goal difference coming in the dying minutes). But the team were brushed aside by Libertad in the next round, failed to challenge for the Carioca title, and finished the first “turn” of Serie A in a humble 11th spot.

There were a number of reasons. Much of the first part of 2011 was spent waiting for the arrival of coach Abel Braga, Libertadores and Mundial winner with Internacional in 2006, who was busy extricating himself from his contractual ties to Al -Jazira. The best player of the 2010 Brasileirão, pixyish Argentinian midfielder Dario Conca, was sold to Guangzhou Evergrande of China. Fred wandered off to the Copa America for a month.

Once the pieces were in place, however, Fluminense were a different team. The best record of the second half of the year was posted, and Flu finished in 3rd. Fred was a stallion (scoring 19 goals in 15 games), Deco finally began to justify his remarkable wages, and playing under mentor Braga, striker Rafael Sobis found his form again. What if, then, Fred had played a few games more, and Braga had been around earlier to knock things into shape? Corinthians might not want to wonder too much about the answer.

Things look bright for next year. As well as those mentioned above, Argentinian midfield promise Lanzini, if his loan spell from River Plate can be extended, should shine, and the arrival of midfielder Wagner (ex-Cruzeiro) from Turkish football suggests Fluminense have big plans for 2012.  

Life at Flamengo was the customary novela. Whether it was Ronaldinho’s love of Fanta, crisps and disco dancing, financial confusion (the non or late payment of salaries, the potential rift with Traffic over Ronaldinho’s wages), the Obama affair, or pumgate (with Flamengo mired in a losing run in September an unnamed player released a pum, or fart, during a training session meeting, infuriating coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo), there was never a dull moment at the Gávea.

When the ball was actually in play, Flamengo started well, ended well, but lost their way in the middle, eventually ending up in 4th, at least guaranteeing a Libertadores spot. Ronaldinho had his moments, but did not consistently dominate the opposition as had perhaps been hoped, and was less effective overall than midfield partner Thiago Neves. Good cheer came with the introduction of youngsters such as Negueba, Tomás and Muralha towards the season’s end. Low point was that fateful night in October when an impossibly complacent Flamengo side were humiliated 4-0 in Rio by Universidad de Chile.

Bringing up the rear were Botafogo, but for a time there it looked as if this year really was going to be different. Intelligent coach Caio Junior had assembled an attractive side, built around an excellent midfield of Renato, Maicoseul and wideman Elkeson, and attacking lateral direito Bruno Cortes. Even Loco Abreu had a new spring in his step.

On October 12th Botafogo beat eventual champions Corinthians 2-0 at the Pacaembu, in some style, to move within two points of the top. With three games left the team remained in the Libertadores positions. Yet somehow Fogão finished in 9th, and in the year’s most cowardly sacking, Caio Junior was dismissed.  Although this is a talented team, and while this writer wishes Fogão the very best, it is difficult to see how 2012 will be much different to 2011. New signings such as Andrezinho, in from Internacional, are unlikely to set pulses racing.

Away from the Big Four, there are not many carioca stories to tell, which perhaps explains a little about the weakness of the local championship. In Serie B, Duque de Caxias’ campaign was remarkable only for how very few people wanted to watch their games. Duque’s average crowd was a princely 146 people. Presumably not feeling the love, the team were relegated, in last place, managing only 2 wins in 38 games. Madureira and Macaé faltered at the first hurdle in Serie C, while Volta Redonda and football-club-cum-supermarket Audax Rio didn’t get far in Serie D.

To read more from James, visit The Dirty Tackle, and I See A Darkness. Follow him on Twitter @seeadarkness

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