Brazil's upcoming state championships are among the most idiosyncratic and historic events in world football. To take a closer, region by region look at the last year in Brazilian football, we brought in James Young. Today's final part examines the Norte and Nordeste.
In 2004 the Brazilian government began the epic, some might say quixotic, project known as the transposition of the São Francisco River. The São Francisco stretches almost 3000km from its source in Medeiros, Minas Gerais to the Atlantic coast of Alagoas, crossing four states in the north east of Brazil in the process. The idea is to divert the waters of Velho Chico towards the parched communities of the sertão, or dry lands, of the region (or towards the enormous properties of a few agro-industrial monoliths, depending on your political standpoint).
Many would say the fortunes of clubs in the norte and nordeste are in need of similar re-routing, for the footballing waters in this part the world run mainly in a downward direction. Previous articles in this series have talked of trophy winning chances, Libertadores qualification, and the signing of big name stars from Europe. In the norte and nordeste, the talk is generally of Serie A survival, or of teams trying to escape the division they’re in.
Teams from the norte and nordeste regions have won the Brasileirão twice in its 40 year history: once as a result of bureaucratic bungling on the part of the stranger-to-competence that is the CBF (Sport in 1987) and once legitimately (Bahia in 1988). Sport also won the Copa Do Brasil in 2008. And that, for a region that comprises an area of 60% of the country, and has a population of around 70 million people, is your lot. Relegation is a far more common sight in the north than silverware.
Money is the main reason for this continued lack of success, though provincial thinking and administrative clownery (plus the occasional generous dash of internal corruption) don’t help. In a region in which large chunks of the population live below the poverty line, and per capita earnings trail those in the sul and sudeste by an upcountry mile, ticket prices, TV contracts, sponsorship deals, sócio packages and merchandise sales are far lower than in other parts of the country.
Top dogs in the nordeste in 2011 were Bahia, who avoided relegation from Serie A by a heady five points, and qualified for next year’s Copa Sul-Americana. Former Flamengo reserve, goalkeeper Marcelo Lomba, was perhaps the team’s standout. Veteran Souza at times blended well enough with former Corinthians prospect Lulinha up front, and the team were blessed with two promising youngsters at lateral esquerdo, Avine and Dodô, though the latter would suffer serious injury at the hands of Inter’s Bolivar. The club’s average gate of 22,000 was second only to Corinthians in Serie A, and would have been much higher had the Fonte Nova been open. Finally, in Joel Santana it may be that Bahia have found a manager as colourful and idiosyncratic as the club itself. Expectations are, if not optimistic, at least hopeful for 2012.
Only remarkable blundering cost Bahia`s Salvador neighbours Vitoria promotion from a weak Serie B. Black Saturday came on November 19th, when Leão, hanging on to the last promotion spot, were at home against lowly São Caetano in the penultimate game of the year. With only two minutes left, Vitoria were 1-0 up, before brain freeze struck, allowing São Caetano to score twice while 35,000 gaped in horror from the stands. That let Sport sneak into the promotion places, and despite a last day win over ASA, Vitoria missed out. In 2012, Toninho Cerezo, marvellously elegant meia of the 1982 Seleção, will try to recreate the success of his first spell as coach of the club in 1999. Wellington Saci, who spent last year at Sport, should be a useful addition, while despite a difficult end to the season, Neto Baiano remains the club’s best hope for goals.
Further down the league, Bahia’s other two representatives in the Brasileirão, Vitoria Da Conquista and Bahia de Feira, failed to make it out of the same Serie D group. Bahia de Feira at least have the memories of their remarkable Campeonato Baiano triumph to hold on to, and will bank on folclorico striker Brasão, once of Santa Cruz, to repeat the trick in 2012.
But for four points, Ceará might have been celebrating Serie A survival alongside Bahia. In the end Cruzeiro’s stunning 6-1 win over Atlético on the season’s last day, combined with Vovô’s inability to win in Salvador, spelt disaster. It had all started so differently for Ceará, another club who missed their traditional home, as the Casteläo closed for World Cup refurbishment. Fresh from reaching the semi-finals of the Copa Do Brasil in June, the team had climbed to the dizzy heights of 9th after 12 games. But the nose dive started soon after that, coach Vagner Mancini was fired, and neither Estevam Soares nor Dimas Filgueiras could stop the slide. The club’s few bright spots were atacante Felipe Azevedo, with 11 goals, and much sought after youngster Osvaldo, also a striker.
Meanwhile, down in Serie C, rivals Fortaleza’s gloom continues. Tricolor do Piçi failed to escape their first round group, finishing behind Guarany de Sobral, from the dusty interior of the state and Serie D champions in 2010. The mission for Ceará as a state will be to make sure at least one, if not two, of the Fortaleza big boys make it into Serie A for 2013 and 2014, when the Castelão will be a Copa Das Confederacoes base, as well as hosting at least six World Cup games, two of which should feature the Seleção.
With apologies to Fortaleza and Salvador, there are many that would say Recife is the biggest football capital in the nordeste (though your writer must declare a slight bias). It was certainly the most successful in 2011. Sport and Nautico both achieved promotion to Serie A, while the best supported club in Brazil over the last two years, Santa Cruz, finally clambered out of Serie D.
After a disappointing Campeonato Pernambucano, many thought Nautico were more likely to drop into Serie C than challenge for promotion. Yet Timbu discovered a serenity seldom seen in these parts. The same tecnico, Waldemar Lemos, was in charge for the entire season. The team were unbeaten at their compact Aflitos stadium, and spent 25 rounds in the top four positions, eventually coming 2nd behind Portuguesa. Strengths were goalkeeper Gideão, volantes Elicarlos and Derley, clever meia Eduardo Ramos, and young strikers Kieza (top goalscorer in Serie B) and Rogerio.
Sport’s season was very different. A coachload of tecnicos, including PC Gusmão and Helio dos Anjos, came and went in 2011, and the club spent most of the year lurking in mid table, while coming in for fierce criticism from the fans (the Ilha do Retiro saw the highest crowds in the division, an average of almost 19,000). It was only at the end that Sport managed to recover, pinching that last promotion spot from Vitoria with a week left of the season. Much credit goes to interim coach Mazola Junior, while on the pitch Marcelinho Paraiba shone when lung and leg power allowed, Bruno Mineiro poached 13 goals, Tobi was resolute in defence, and Magrão, as always, was heroic in goal. Rafael Marques, ex-Grêmio zagueiro, should be a good signing for 2012, as should Fluminense volante Diogo, but the team look light up front for Serie A.
Despite the achievements of Sport and Nautico, team of the year award in Recife goes to Santa Cruz. After beating Sport in front of 63,000 to win the Campeonato Pernambucano in May, O Mais Querido finally escaped from Serie D after 3 nightmarish years. It wasn’t easy, as Santa seemed to forget how to score, following striker Gilberto’s transfer to Internacional, but following a painful 0-0 home draw with Treze in the Serie D quarter-finals, watched by another 60,000 crowd, Santa were up. Keys to As Repúblicas Independentes do Arruda go to tecnico Zé Teodoro, goalkeeper Thiago Cardoso, zagueiro Leandro Souza, meia Weslley, and youngsters such as Memo, Natan and Renatinho, among others.
Up in the norte, it was yet another year of suffering for the two giants from Belém. Paysandu, who in 2002 beat Boca Juniors at La Bombonera in the second round of the Libertadores (Boca won the return leg in Belém 4-2), finished third in their Serie C group and remain stalled in the third tier. Striker Rafael Oliveira, who grabbed 28 goals in 2011, will play for Portuguesa in 2012.
At least Paysandu did better than their Paraense neighbours Remo, who claim over a million supporters in the region, but failed even to qualify for Serie D in 2011, and, remarkably, didn`t compete at a national level.
And that, with a quick nod to defiers of footballing gravity such as CRB (from Maceio in Alagoas), and América (of heel-dragging World Cup host city Natal in Rio Grande do Norte), both promoted to Serie B, plus ABC (also of Natal) and ASA (from the interior of Alagoas) who avoided relegation to Serie C, is pretty much that.
Apologies too, in closing, to supporters of teams from such brave footballing outposts as Espirito Santo, Sergipe, Paraiba, Maranhão, Amazonia, Acre, Amapa, Rondonia, Roraima, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Piaui, Tocantins, and the Distrito Federal, the occasionally compelling fortunes of whom could not, unfortunately, be squeezed into these articles.