James YoungComment

PREVIEWING THE BRAZILIAN STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS, PART TWO: SÃO PAULO

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: São Paulo.

There are around 20 million reasons why São Paulo (and IBWM apologises to santistas for the taking of geographical liberties) teams have lifted six of the nine Campeonatos Brasileiros since pontos corridos was introduced in 2003. As Peter Robb puts it, Rio is huge and lovely and terrifying. Sao Paulo is huger and more terrifying and not lovely at all. The terrifying might be an exaggeration these days, depending on where you’re walking, but the rest is probably true.

The same comparison (almost) works for the recent footballing history of the two cities. Teams from the cidade maravilhosa have done their best to at least swash the occasional bit of buckle from time to time, with greater (successive title wins for Flamengo and Fluminense in 2009 and 2010) or lesser (Vasco’s relegation in 2008, Botafogo almost any year you care to mention) degrees of success.

Meanwhile, setting aside the 2004 Santos side of Robinho, Diego and Elano, and the occasionally buccaneering 2005 Corinthians of Tevez and Nilmar, the Paulistas have been a hard-working, functional bunch. Muricy Ramalho’s efficient but rarely joyful São Paulo triple title winners of 2006 to 2008 were a fine example.

Corinthians’ title win last year fell somewhere between the two. There was busyness from Willian and craft and guile from Alex, while Danilo provided languorous drive and Liédson (when fit) the finishing touches.  But the real strength of the team was its tough spine - volantes Ralf and Paulinho were the league’s best pairing, and zagueiros Leandro Castan and Paulo André sturdy behind them.   

This doggedness, coupled with tecnico Tite’s sure touch, helped to explain the winning run with which Corinthians closed out their title. Back on November 6th, Timão blew a chance to extend their lead at the top over Vasco, going down 2-1 to bottom club América in Minas Gerais. At the same time, blowhard president Andres Sanchez threw oil on the flames by publicly decrying his players as ridiculous. Pressure is always intense at the Pacaembu, and it seemed like Corinthians might go into meltdown again.

It was left to Tite to sooth fevered brows. Narrow victories followed over Atlético-PR (2-1), Ceará (1-0), Atlético Mineiro (2-1, after trailing), and Figueirense (1-0), before a final day war of attrition against Palmeiras brought a single, priceless, point. The last time Corinthians had won a game by more than a single goal was back on October 9th, when Atlético-GO were beaten 3-0, but it didn’t matter. While it was rarely pretty, it worked.

If Corinthians’ watchword was efficiency, then São Paulo were profligacy in footballing form. This is a talented team – zagueiro Rhodolfo was a revelation after signing from Atlético-PR in February, while João Felipe did well alongside him. Lucas and classy volante Casemiro are two of Brazil`s brightest young players, though the latter`s stock has plummeted of late, with the club stating recently that he’s for sale at R$24 million (€10 million). Arsenal are reputedly interested. Up front Dagoberto (who will play for Internacional in 2012), and Luis Fabiano should have been a deadly pairing, with the promising Marlos waiting in the wings.

But O Fabuloso spent most of the year doing laps of the training pitch as he worked his way back from a knee injury, and his debut against Flamengo on October 2nd in front of 60,000 at the Morumbi was one of the few highlights of the year (though, in keeping with much of the last twelve months, São Paulo lost 2-1).

The revolving door with tecnico stamped across the window didn’t help. There were three this year, a change from the club’s customary stability. Following the disastrous home Copa Do Brasil elimination by Avaí, and Campeonato Paulista semi-final defeat against Santos, three Serie A defeats in a row (including a 5-0 clássico thrashing against Corinthians) did for Paulo Cesar Carpegiani in July. Former Cruzeiro boss Adilson Batista took over and lasted three months, before grizzled veteran Emerson Leão saw out the year in underwhelming fashion.

None of it made a difference. São Paulo missed out on a Libertadores spot for the second year in a row and have now gone three years without a trophy. If things don’t change soon, the vast open spaces of the Morumbi terracing (tricolores have an unfortunate habit of only showing up when there’s a trophy at stake, or a party planned) will get emptier still.

At least irascible president Juvenal Juvêncio cannot be accused of sitting on his hands. Five new faces, including Botafogo`s excitable right back Cortes, have been brought in. Young talent, such as Rafinha and Ademilson, will also get a shot in 2012.

If there is any consolation for São Paulo fans it is that they don’t support Palmeiras. While São Paulo’s year was a bad one mostly because of the club’s high standards, Palmeiras’ 2011 stunk on every level. Felipão floundered terribly, alienating key players such as Kleber and Pierre (the former being sold to Grêmio, and the latter loaned to Atlético Mineiro), and failing to motivate those who stayed. Rumours of boardroom splits abounded, as Felipão, whose “unlimited” credit at Palmeiras, after leading the club to Libertadores glory in 1999 may be running out, criticised the youth team set-up and fell out with footballing vice president Roberto Frizzo.        

Palmeiras’ end of season report: 11th spot in Serie A and humiliated 6-2 by Coritiba in the Copa Do Brasil.  That volante Marcos Assunção finished only one goal behind top scorer Luan tells most of the story - only relegated Atlético-PR scored fewer than Palmeiras’ 43 goals. A fit and productive Valdivia would help immeasurably in 2012.

Rumour has it that just down the road in Santos, Peixe have a couple of promising youngsters worth watching out for. Whether it’s true or not IBWM can’t say, but either way Santos had a terrific year. Correction. Make that half a year. January to June brought Campeonato Paulista and Libertadores glory. July to December brought uninspiring league form (though despite finishing 10th, Santos’ Serie A performance actually improved in the second half of the year) and the traumatic events of December 18th.

Pre the Melodrama in Yokohama, egged on by a hyperbolic and nationalistic local football media, almost every football writer and fan in Brazil made the same mistake (and your scribe was no exception). Muricy Ramalho was a Baixada Santista Pep Guardiola, Ganso Ananindeua’s answer to Xavi, Neymar the Messi from Mogi Dos Cruzes, Praça dos Andradas a sweeter smelling Ramblas, and so on. This was the cream of South America against the elite of Europe, and Santos really did have a chance.

Wrong. And while post Peñarol tiredness, Ganso and Neymar’s trips away with the Seleção (including a month at the Copa America), plus a lack of motivation (knowing that a place in next year`s Libertadores was already guaranteed) are valid excuses for the poor league form, the truth is that this is a flawed Santos side that hasn’t played well for six months. An aging defence was so much cannon fodder for Barça’s big guns, and with Ganso’s slump looking like it’s here to stay, the team badly lacked a midfield leader. Ibson has been a disappointment.

Muricy Ramalho, whose Libertadores failures at São Paulo had led to questioning of his top level credentials even while sweeping all before him in the Brasileirão, grouched and grumbled his way through his time in Japan, even more charmless than usual, and failed emphatically to inspire either motivationally or tactically.  

In short, this Santos team, which has been selling off meninos da vila not called Neymar and Ganso for a while now in an attempt to balance the books, is still a work in progress. Libertadores holders or not, this team is a long way from the best South America has to offer.

Maybe the best team in Serie B would have done better against Barça, and it is a shame to leave a side such as Portuguesa to (almost) last. Barcelusa led the division from the outset, and finished as champions with a remarkable record of 23 victories, 12 draws and only 3 defeats. Standouts were midfielders Marco Aurélio and Ananias (on loan from Bahia), along with veteran striker Edno. Palmas too for tecnico Jorginho, who even seems to want to stay, if the team can be strengthened.

The other 435 other paulista teams in Serie B had a mixed year. Ponte Preta will join Portuguesa in Serie A next year, while Bragantina and Americana (also known as Guaratinguetá, depending on what day of the week it is) were in the promotion hunt until the last weeks of the season. Grêmio Barueri, Guarani and São Caetano finished in mid table.

The paulista presence in Serie C was more discrete, with only Santo André and Marilia involved. Neither did much, and Marilia were relegated to Serie D. Going the other way are Oeste, from Itápolis in the interior of the state, and, according to Wikipedia, the biggest orange producing town in the world. Fascinating stuff.

Finally, no discussion of São Paulo would be complete without a look at the city’s architecture. The Mercado Municipal, Teatro Municipal and Pinacoteca are unmissable sights, and in the next two years Corinthians’ new stadium at Itaquera and Palmeiras’ Aréna Palestra Italia will join them. The announcement that the former will be São Paulo’s World Cup 2014 stadium at least put an end to months of unedifying squabbling between FIFA, São Paulo City Council, and São Paulo FC, whose Morumbi ground had been the city`s Mundial candidate.      

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 

IBWM is open to everyone to share their stories. If you'd like to submit an article on any topic, please contact us.