James Young1 Comment

PREVIEWING THE BRAZILIAN STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS, PART ONE: THE SOUTH

James Young1 Comment

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. 

It was the Guerra Dos Farrapos that started it all, way back in 1835, before even Túlio Maravilha poached the first of his 975 (and counting) goals. The southern separatist movement limps on in the República Dos Pampas today, in the form of the Movimento Pró Pampa, though nobody pays much attention.

This is a proudly independent corner of Brazil. It is also the richest corner. Lazy commentators have talked in the recent past of a Switzerland in the south of the country and an Africa in the north. While this is wide of the mark, particularly in today’s changing Brazil, the sul still leads the country in most economic quality of life indicators. 

Bordered by Uruguay and Argentina, football in Rio Grande do Sul has a distinctly different flavour. Unlike the rest of Brazil, crowd noise does not depend so much on the ebb and flow of the home team’s attacks, but borrows, albeit in a diluted form, from the Argentinian model of a more continuous din. Unfortunately in 2011 the form of Grêmio and Internacional mirrored that of Alejandro Sabella and Co, and not of Mr Tabárez`s shock troops. 

Internacional are a club with high standards, and annually vie with São Paulo for the title of having the most professional infrastructure in the country. Instead of season tickets, Brazilian clubs guarantee their monthly income through sócio, or membership, packages. Inter boast 106,000 sócios, while small-fry like Corinthians claim only a puny 80,000. The club makes around R$40 million (€16.5 million) a year from sócio income.

All of which makes 2011’s disappointments that bit more surprising. The year started well enough, with victory over Grêmio in the Campeonato Gaúcho final. But the Gaúcho is one of Brazil`s more crackpot state championships. Inter and Grêmio played around twenty games before meeting in an inevitable final, mostly against minnows from the interior of the state. Urgent restructuring is required for the flabbier state championships, perhaps into a one month, World Cup style format, though the complete culling of the estaduais favoured by more firebrand critics is a wrongheaded solution, ignoring the wishes of the ordinary football fan, as well as much of the cultural and historical fabric of Brazilian football.

Many would blame the rigours of the Gaúcho for the game that scarred Inter’s season, and marked the death knell for tecnico Roberto Falcäo, one of the stars of the 1982 seleção and former teammate of Socrates. On May 5th, following a 1-1 draw at the Estádio Centenário in Montevideo a week earlier, Inter lost 2-1 at home to eventual finalists Peñarol, and were eliminated from the Libertadores in the first knock-out round.  A few weeks later, following a 3-0 home defeat by São Paulo, the Falcäo experiment was over.

With him went vice president Roberto Siegmann, as Inter’s season spiralled into crisis. Rumours of backroom rifts and power struggles emerged, with President Giovanni Luigi and ex-president and power broker Fernando Carvalho in the contra Falcäo camp, and Siegmann and director Alexandre Charles Barcellos in the pro.

Falcäo had stated of his desire to break longevity records at Inter, but Brazilian football is a hot-headed employer. Innovation is rarely given much time, particularly if accompanied by poor results.

At least the story had a happy ending, if not for Falcäo, who’s now back in the broadcast booth. Dorival Júnior, no stranger to shabby treatment during his spell at Santos in 2010, and at the time in a slump at Atlético Mineiro, took over in August. Inter recovered enough to flirt with the title race in the closing weeks, but in the end settled for a Libertadores play-off spot, secured with a last day victory over Grêmio.

It was no less than should have been expected, for this is as talented a squad as there is in Serie A. Mercurial midfield pair D’Alessandro and Oscar, the latter a standout at this year’s Sul Americano Sub-20, provide the bullets for Leandro Damião up front, Tinga and Guiñazú are volantes with bite, and Kléber is still sound at lateral esquerdo. If there is a weakness it is at the heart of defence, where Bolivar and Indio are aging. The emergence of strapping zagueiro Rodrigo Moledo is a plus, particularly as Bolivar seems to be on his way to Flamengo.    

Anything Inter can do, we can do worse, seemed to be the motto over at Grêmio. Without even a Gaúcho triumph as consolation, Immortal Tricolor were dumped out of the Libertadores by Universidad Católica at the same premature stage as their neighbours, and suffered a miserable league campaign, spending a great deal of their time hovering around the relegation zone.

Like Inter, Grêmio had bet their chips on a former idol to carry the team to glory. Strapping striker Renato Gaúcho had been a hero of Grêmio’s Libertadores and Mundial Interclubes triumphs in the 1980s, and a successful coach at Fluminense and Vasco, more recently.

But following a bright start in 2010, this year at Grêmio was his annus horribilis, and Gaúcho resigned in June. Celso Roth took over and if nothing else, plugged the leaks, leading Grêmio to a should-have-been-better, could-have-been-worse, 12th spot.

The team`s greatest failings were in front of goal, where Jonas, sold to Valencia in January for a paltry R$1.25 million thanks to a puny contractual escape clause, was sorely missed. Ezequiel Mirelles, signed from Colo-Colo, was not the solution (though new coach Caio Júnior has requested the renewal of his contract for 2012), while youngster Leandro, occasionally and foolishly dubbed the new Neymar, might be one day.

Douglas had his usual standout year as midfield creator (though he may be off to Palmeiras or Corinthians) and Fabio Rochemback can still motor around at volante. At right back, Mario Fernandes, now recovered from the injuries that plagued the second half of his 2010, had a great year, and a transfer to Real Madrid looks set to be his reward.

Perhaps the brightest spot in Grêmio’s year was the signing of the gladiador, Kleber, from Palmeiras in November. If he can avoid the controversies that have dogged him at seemingly every club he’s played for, Kleber can be a hero at the Estádio Olimpico. Abrasive, muscular and direct, he might have been formed in the club’s image. The rumoured arrival of Giuliani, so impressive during Inter’s 2010 Libertadores run, from Dnipro, would excite gremistas still further.  

Away from the capital, Juventude’s woes continued, as the team were knocked out of the Serie D promotion play-offs by Mirrasol. It has been quite a fall from the biggest club in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, who finished 7th in Serie A in 2004. Caixas remain in Serie C, while relegated Brasil de Pelotas will at least provide some company for Juventude in Serie D in 2012. 

In footballing terms the earlier reference to Switzerland perhaps applies best of all to the state of Santa Catarina. Florianopolis is surely a lovely place to live, but, domestic disputes aside, clubs from the city have not unduly troubled the trophy engravers of Brazil.

Figueirense did their best to rattle Carioca and Paulista cages in 2011. In a remarkable campaign that fell away only slightly towards the end, Figueirense finished 7th, missing out on a Libertadores spot by a couple of points. The pity is that the team has now been so quickly dismantled. Tecnico Jorginho is off to Kashima Antlers, zagueiro Edson Silva and volante Maicon have signed for São Paulo, Silva’s partner Roger Carvalho may be headed to Roma, and laterais Bruno and Juninho will play for Fluminense and Palmeiras respectively. Talented striker Wellington Nem has gone back to Fluminense, after a year’s loan at the Orlando Scarpelli.

Even without a Libertadores spot, Figueirense fans can at least celebrate the demise of their city rivals Avaí. Unable to repeat the miracle of 2009, when the team finished 6th in Serie A, the highest position every attained by a club from Santa Catarina, Avaí finished bottom this year, and were relegated three games from the end of the season.

Elsewhere, Criciúma finished a disappointing 14th in Serie B, and Chapecoense will play in Serie C again next year. Second best story of the year in Catarinense football was Joinville, arguably the best supported club in the state, who won the Serie C title, beating CRB 7-1 on aggregate.

Continuing north into Paraná, Curitiba mirrored Santa Catarina’s fame as a tale of two, or three, cities. While Coritiba enjoyed an almost terrific year, finalists in the Copa Do Brasil and a hair’s breadth away from a Libertadores spot in the league, rivals Atlético-PR, Libertadores finalists in 2005, were relegated.  Two Coritiba players to watch are Rafinha, being chased by Atlético Mineiro, and Emerson, who was called up to the Brazil squad for the domestic players only contests against Argentina in September.

Still, it could be worse for Atlético. Rivals Paraná Clube, who finished 5th in Serie A in 2006 and played in the Libertadores in 2007, ended up a lowly 13th in Serie B. Worse, a woeful campaign in the Campeonato Paranaense means Parana will play in the second tier of the state championship in 2012. Ouch. 

James is a writer and author based in Goiânia. To read more from him, visit The Dirty Tackle and I See A Darkness. He can be found on Twitter @seeadarkness

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