James YoungComment

PREVIEWING THE BRAZILIAN STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS, PART FOUR: MINAS AND GOIÁS

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: Minas Gerais and Goiás. 

Brazil. Land of sun, surf, and mile after mile of paradisiacal beaches. Pity, then, the poor landlocked souls of Minas Gerais and Goiás, living thousands of miles from the nearest stripy deckchair. Although maybe life’s not too hard – we’ve got no mar (sea), let’s hit the bar, as the saying goes from Goiânia to Belo Horizonte.

Pity too, the Brazilian footballing cartographers who will be surprised to learn that Minas Gerais and Goiás have suddenly morphed into a single, previously unheard of footballing entity. IBWM apologies once again, then, for crimes against geography.

Landlocked would also be a good word to describe mineiro football in 2011, although awful, disastrous and miserable would do just as well. While for Atlético this was pretty much par for the course, for Cruzeiro the year came as an almighty shock.  

Some say it can all be traced back to the fateful night of May 4th. Cruzeiro, Libertadores finalists in 2009, had beaten Once Caldas 2-1 in Manizales the week before, and it would surely be a simple enough task to see out the home leg and advance into the quarter-finals. After all, Cruzeiro had steamrollered their way through the group phase, finishing with a record of five wins and a draw, 20 goals scored and only one conceded. Perennial title challengers Estudiantes had been dismantled 3-0 and 5-0. The talk was that Cruzeiro might just be the best team in the Americas.

Only no one told Once Caldas, as the Colombians won 2-0 in Sete Lagoas. Cruzeiro were sozzled, and the hangover would last for months. The Libertadores had distracted attention from the club’s poor league form, but now that it was gone there was no hiding from the unpleasant facts. Cruzeiro were in crisis, and by the 26th round of the championship, were mired in 16th, one spot above the relegation zone.

Coach Cuca, inspiration for John Le Carre’s lesser known work, The Constant Fall Guy, had gone after the Once Caldas disaster, and although things had brightened a little at first under Joel Santana, by the season’s 20th game he too had been fired. Neither youth team coach Emerson Avila nor last man standing Vagner Mancini had much more luck, and Cruzeiro went into the last day of fixtures knowing a defeat, and a win for Ceará, would see them in Serie B.

Luckily they were up against Atlético, who, as usual when sensing a historic scalp, caved completely. Cruzeiro won 6-1 to stay up, and the what the hell happened recriminations could begin. An obvious reason was that the team had lost a string of key players, such as Jonathan, Henrique, Gil, and Thiago Ribeiro, and failed utterly to replace like with like. New arrivals such as Keirrison, Brandão (on loan from Marseille), Vitor, Reis and Bobô (ex-Beskitas) flopped, and Wellington Paulista and Ernesto Farias continued to disappoint up front, as Cruzeiro struggled for goals in the wake of a long term injury to exciting front man Wallyson.

Unlikely hero of the team’s survival bid was striker Anselmo Ramon, whose CV includes on-loan spells at Avaí, Cabofriense, Cluj (Romania) and Kashiwa Reysol (Japan) in the last two years, and who ended up with ten goals. A more predictable saviour was marvellous Argentinian midfielder Montillo, and his permanence will be central to the team’s hopes for a less stressful 2012.

That, together with the urgent completion of building work at the Mineirão, or more likely, América’s Independência stadium. For playing their home games in Sete Lagoas and Uberlandia is killing both Cruzeiro and Atlético. Time Celeste’s average home crowd in 2009, their last year at the Mineirão before the Gigante da Pampulha closed for World Cup building work, was 20,000. In 2011, average home attendance had fallen to 10,000.

Not that Galo need any extra excuses to fluff their lines. In the last couple of years president Alexandre Kalil has chucked the cash around like Viv Nicholson after too much fine Salinas cachaça (the best in Brazil). Most of it, Réver aside, has gone on veterans back from Europe (and here’s the important part) just past their prime.  Guilherme (Dynamo Kyiv), Dudu Cearense (Olympiacos), Mancini (Inter), Lima (Betis), and Daniel Carvalho (Al-Arabi) were just a few of the names cluttering the Cidade Do Galo treatment rooms and reserve team bench this year.

At least Daniel Carvalho showed some form toward the end of the year, and along with Pierre (on loan from Palmeiras) and youngsters Fillipe Soutto, Bernard and André (the last, who shone at Santos in the first half of 2010, might have been one of the year’s best signings), were responsible for keeping Galo in the top flight.

And yet there is enough talent at Atlético for the team to be winning titles, rather than fighting against relegation. That will be tecnico Cuca’s challenge in 2012. In his favour is the publicly stated determination of a number of players to make amends for the worst year of their careers.  The mental scars of that final day hiding against Cruzeiro may yet turn out to have a positive effect.  The return of Danilinho from Tigres (Mexico), and the arrival of the eager Leandro Donizete (Coritiba), is a good start.  

There was a time when the first two teams covered in a round-up such as this would have been Atlético and América. Those days have long since been lost in the mist, so that today even the presence of Coelho in Serie A represents an achievement. 2011 was the club’s first appearance in the top flight in 10 years, and it didn’t last long. After winning just two of their first 19 games, the season was over almost before it had begun, but at least América left with some happy memories. Most of those came in a remarkable three game winning run against Corinthians (h), Fluminense (a) and Botafogo (a) in November.  Individually, striker Kempes scored as many league goals as Neymar (13), and lateral direito Marcos Rocha, who will return to Atlético next season, did well enough.

In Serie B, Boa Esporte (née Ituiutaba), currently of the coffee rich town of Varginha in the interior of Minas (also known as the land of ET following a supposed extra-terrestrial visit in 1996), finished an impressive 7th, just four points of the promotion spots. That means there will be three mineiro derbies in Serie B in 2012, after Ipatinga won promotion from Serie C.

Finally, a round of applause for Tupi, of Juiz de Fora in the south of Minas, who beat Santa Cruz of Recife to win the Serie D title.

Up the road in Goiás, football is a funny creature. The state has had some national success, notably with Goiás, a fairly constant presence in the top half of Serie A during the 1980s and 1990s, including a 3rd place finish in 2005. That led to a stirring Libertadores campaign in 2006, when the team were eliminated in the last 16 by Estudiantes.

And yet the feel of the place is that this is one of those luckless Brazilian states where most of the population support one of the Rio or São Paulo big boys. Corinthians shirts abound, and there is a São Paulo club shop, complete with a leering life-size cardboard replica of Rogério Ceni in the window, in Goiânia’s smartest shopping mall.  

Since Goiás’ relegation to Serie B in 2010, however, Brazil’s answer to Norwich City (most of Goiás is something of a rural idyll) have been Atlético Goianiense, who finished 16th in Serie A and reached the semi-finals of the Copa Do Brasil in 2010, and ended last year in 13th spot, qualifying for the Copa Sul Americana in 2012. Highlights were ever-present goalkeeper Marcio, striker Anselmo, who finished with 12 goals, meia Vitor Junior, whose memorable solo effort against Avaí helped earn him a move to Corinthians, zagueiro Anderson, who has signed for Fluminense, and dependable lateral esquerdo Thiago Feltri, off to Vasco.

In Serie B, Goiás endured a difficult year but recovered enough to flirt with the promotion spots towards season’s end. Lateral direito Douglas had a good year, and looks to be heading to Internacional, while promising zagueiro Rafael Toloí will surely be on the move soon.

Bottom of the goianiense pile were Vila Nova, the city’s time do povo, or team of the people, after a pitiful campaign that saw Tigräo relegated to Serie C. A large slice of the blame was put on the decision to contract out the running of footballing operations to the dubious talents of sports management company New Ville. After finishing the season with effectively a team of juniors, and with little money, the road back to respectability for Vila Nova may be a long one. 

Budding sleuths, however, will have been most interested in goianiense goings on in Serie D. The Case of The Falling Footballers has all the makings of a Holmesian classic. Interior big boys Itumbiara got off to a flying start in Group A5, and second spot was guaranteed on goal difference when state rivals Anapolina could only beat Tocantinópolis 4-1 on September 19th. That was until somebody pointed out that an inordinate number of Tocantinópolis players had spent most of the second half falling to the ground, to the extent that with twenty minutes left, the visitors had had three men sent off, and had used all their substitutes. When two more “injured” players limped off, Tocantinópolis were down to six men, below the required minimum, and the game was aborted. The Anapolina players and management, needing only one more goal to snatch second spot from Itumbiara, were not best pleased.

It took about a month for the footballing courts to sort it out, during which time the rest of Serie D rumbled on. Eventually, the game was replayed, with Anapolina winning 6-1, eliminating Itumbiara, who had already played the first leg of their last 16 contest against Vila Nova (MG). Anapolina went on to beat Vila Nova themselves, before losing to Tupi in the quarter finals, and everyone, finally, could go home.  

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

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