Heading south from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and football hotbed it is a little over 500km before you reach the state of Santa Catarina. Bordering Argentina to the west and the Atlantic Ocean in the east it is one of the smallest in the country. Despite this it boasts a strong economy largely fuelled by tourism thanks to a few hundred kilometres of golden beaches and large areas of wildlife and even snow-capped peaks further inland. Santa Catarina proudly claims to have the highest standard of living in Brazil and possibly all of South America. However on the football pitch it lags well behind its larger neighbours in the heavily populated South East of the country.
Figueirense and Avai from the state capital of Florianopolis have made several recent appearances in Brazil’s top division without making much of an impact while Joinville enjoyed a period of moderate success in the 1980’s. Only once has a football side from the state really hit the national headlines. In 1991 a relatively unknown young Brazilian coach led a small lower league club to win the Copa de Brasil. It remains the only time that a Santa Catarina team has won a major national honour.
That team was Criciúma Esporte Clube. A club that had folded in the 1960’s and had only very recently become a force in the Campeonato Catarinense (Santa Catarina State Championship). Based in what is only the fifth biggest city in Santa Catarina and doesn’t even make the top 100 in the country, their success was it’s fair to say somewhat unexpected.
Having shocked Internacional and Sao Paulo during an unlikely run to the Semi-Finals the previous season, Criciúma were no longer a totally unknown force. However given their lowly standing in the Brazilian league structure and the previous failings of any team from the region to compete for major honours few thought their 1990 run was anything other than a one-off. However their newly appointed manager for the 1991 season had other ideas and the side set about the challenge with the belief they could repeat the heroics of the previous campaign.
The coach who was about to win his first major trophy in Brazilian football was a certain Luiz Felipe Scolari. His team’s success was no fluke. Criciúma won their five two-legged knockout ties without losing a single match and conceded just four times in the competition. A series of resolute and disciplined performances saw them overcome three top division clubs. The second leg of the final at the Estadio Heriberto Hülse in Criciúma saw the hosts play out a tense goalless draw with Gremio to triumph on the away goals rule.
Looking back the match was of huge significance not just for Criciúma who claimed their first national silverware and qualified for the Copa Libertadores but for Brazilian football as a whole. Scolari had spent a decade trying and for the most part failing to make a significant impression as a manager in both Brazil and the Middle East. He left Criciúma soon after their Copa do Brasil victory with a much enhanced reputation and took over the reins of defeated finalists Gremio in 1993. Just nine years later ‘Big Phil’ had become one of the most decorated and popular Brazilian managers of all time with eight major titles to his name including of course the 2002 World Cup. Should he repeat the feat on home soil in 2014, he will be immortalised into Brazilian football legend even if few outside of a small town in Santa Catarina remember how his managerial career really kicked off.
The following season without Scolari the Brazilian minnows almost trumped their remarkable 1991 Cup run as they competed in the Copa Libertadores. With a much improved stadium and facilities in order to comply with Libertadores rules, crowds of upwards of 30,000 roared the Serie B club into the Quarter Finals of South America’s showpiece club competition. A narrow 2-1 aggregate defeat against eventual winners Sao Paulo was the end of the clubs one and only continental venture but those two years have left something of a lasting legacy on the club.
Criciúma were also promoted to the top tier of Brazilian football that season and maintained their status amongst the country’s elite for five straight seasons. However things tailed away after that and despite a brief re-appearance in Serie A, they seemed to be heading back down to what arguably was a more natural standing in Brazil’s extensive football pyramid for a club of their size. In 2009 the side endured a dismal run in Serie C and briefly flirted with relegation to the oblivion that is the 40 team fourth division. Tales of Scolari, cup glory and Copa Libertadores campaigns must’ve seemed like a distant memory and the club were once again also-rans in a small state that barely registers on Brazil’s football map.
However fast forward to the present day and Criciúma are turning heads once again. Against the odds they have made it all the way back to the top flight and will be the only side from Santa Catarina to compete in the 2013 Campeonato.
Their rise back was eventful. Protests against the board led to the departure of president Edson Burigo in early 2010 and the return of Antenor Angeloni, a man who had twice previously held the position. Angeloni set about trying to move the club forward but even he couldn’t have expected quite the speed or indeed the manner in which Criciúma would progress. With a disillusioned and dwindling fanbase back onside the club were promoted back to Serie B in 2010. However various poor runs and disappointing showings in the Campeonato Catarinense combined with Angeloni’s ruthless ‘hire and fire’ policy saw six managers come and go in little over a year. Even by Brazilian standards the club were seriously lacking in stability ahead of the 2012 Serie B campaign and privately the president was expecting a season of struggle.
Current manager Paulo Comelli took over a side that had lost their last five matches to only finish 7th in the State Championship, the prelude to the 2012 season. At just 52 years old, incredibly this is already his 40th managerial appointment and having rarely lasted more than a season at any of his previous clubs, few were expecting the Comelli-Angeloni relationship to last long. However his appointment turned out be an unlikely masterstroke.
Comelli won seven of his first eight games as an attack-minded Criciúma soared to the top of Serie B. Their approach was bordering on reckless at times and there were several blips along an exciting yet bumpy road to an unlikely promotion. They twice found themselves 4-0 down at home, once nearly coming back to draw after a late flurry of goals against Gremio Barueri. The inspiration on the pitch was Ze Carlos, a striker who had previously drifted from one loan spell to another and was once sent off after just seven seconds of a match. For Criciúma however he was consistently brilliant scoring 39 goals in 43 appearances and the pre-season relegation candidates finished as Brazilian football’s top scorers. In the end the club had to settle for second place after losing three of their final four games, but were still promoted despite conceding 57 goals, ten more than Guarani who were relegated to Serie C.
Currently the club are competing for the Campeonato Catarinense, a title they haven’t won for eight years. Ze Carlos has left, moving to play in the Chinese Super League something that is a significant blow to Criciúma’s prospects. However the attacking philosophy has continued and there are still goal threats in the side. Four players have arrived on loan from Cruzeiro including Fabinho while the arrival of Elson from Russian club Rostov will bolster their midfield options. Their defence remains a concern however and one way or another the presence of Criciúma is sure to liven up this year’s Serie A.
For president Angeloni, it’s precisely fifty years since he first became involved with a small club recently founded by a group of teenage boys looking for something more competitive than street football. Criciúma Esporte Clube have come a long way since those days and although again there is little expectation for the coming campaign that will surely suit a club that has grown a taste for punching above their weight. Comelli’s attack-minded side are a contrast to the organised and well-disciplined unit that claimed the club’s only major silverware in the early 90’s. However they will certainly gather inspiration from Scolari and the class of 1991 and there won’t be many teams looking forward to visiting a packed Estadio Heriberto Hülse when the Campeonato kicks off in May.
You can read more from Mark Sochon on his blog From Montrose to the Maracanã.