The One-Eyed Man

The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they knew the whole valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among them the race lived on.

-H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind


After a tense 1-1 draw away to Vasco da Gama on Thursday evening, Corinthians were crowned champions of Brazil for the sixth time in their history. Although they stumbled over the finish line somewhat, helped by second-placed Atlético Mineiro losing 4-2 away to São Paulo, Corinthians have been by far and away the best side in the country and are fully deserving of the trophy.

With three matches left to play, Corinthians have the most points, the most wins, the least defeats, the most goals scored and the least conceded. It is rare in any 38-game football season that one team can express such superiority over the chasing pack.

Tite, Corinthians’ coach, is the talk of the town. This is the second time he has won the championship with the club (the last time coming in 2011, preceding Corinthians’ Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup wins the following year), and it would be hard to look beyond him as the greatest coach in the team’s history.

His intense personality, hyperactive touchline behaviour and apparently innovative coaching methods have endeared Tite not just to Corinthians fans, but to supporters of other clubs too. After Brazil’s embarrassing 7-1 loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup, he seemed to be the national team’s only choice to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari, and deservedly so.

However, his success overshadows his shortcomings. His coaching career pre-2011 was patchy, and his teams often employ an over-pragmatic approach that is not easy on the eye. Furthermore, his efficiency is based on hours upon hours of work on the training ground, something he would not be offered were he to get the Brazil gig.

H.G. Wells once wrote about a mountain valley in South America, cut off from the rest of the world, that had in it all that the heart of man could desire. The only problem was that the people of this valley suffered from a strange disease that made them, and their children, blind.

He tells the story of a man, “who had been down to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way”, who happened upon this Country of the Blind. Discovering that all of its inhabitants were in fact blind, the man garnered aspirations to lead and command them, repeating to himself the old proverb: “In the land of the blind, the One-Eyed Man is king.”

Brazilian football is a modern-day Country of the Blind. After decades of inertia and a dearth of new ideas, the quality of the Brazilian game has suffered greatly. Tactical trends that dominate the highest levels of European football only arrive in Brazil four or five years later. For instance, the idea of high defensive lines is still unthinkable in domestic Brazilian football, with centre-backs long accustomed to playing on the edge of their own penalty box, leaving huge gaps in front of them.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those involved in Brazilian football are desperate for something new. Tite, Brazil’s One-Eyed Man, went on a Pep Guardiola-inspired sabbatical in 2014, studying strategy and training techniques while spending time with Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. He has attempted to implement these “new ideas” into his Corinthians team and has been rightfully applauded for doing so.

However, despite their overwhelming dominance in this year’s Brazilian championship, Corinthians are not a world-beating side. They are organised, well-drilled and, crucially, they do the simple things well.

This is not to take anything away from Corinthians’ success, but to criticise their opposition. That simply making fewer mistakes than their peers is enough for Tite’s side to become Brazilian champions says plenty about the quality of the rest of the league.

Tite may well turn out to be an elite-level coach, but he’s not there yet. And without competent opposition, he never will be.

Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians

This year’s Brazilian championship has made for an intriguing race, in which we are approaching the final curve. Corinthians have a significant lead, but before they get their hands on the trophy they must survive one final test when they visit second-placed Atlético Mineiro this Sunday. Continue reading Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians

Football at its best

This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.

In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.

The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.

For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.

The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.

The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.

It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.

Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.

With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.

While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.

In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.

To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.

Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.

Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.

To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.

Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.

The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.

Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.

The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.

Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.


Adiós, Osorio

After over a month of humming and hawing, back and forth and ‘will he, won’t he?’, Juan Carlos Osorio has resigned from his post as São Paulo head coach. The Colombian will take over the Mexican national team, whose World Cup qualification campaign begins next month.

The feeling is one of a missed opportunity for Brazilian football. Having arrived in São Paulo at the end of May, Osorio has not had nearly enough time to make a lasting impression on the league. Continue reading Adiós, Osorio

Sending off and on again

Chapecoense have taken an early lead against Palmeiras. The visitors look rattled and the hosts push for a second goal. Palmeiras left-back Egídio is caught out of position and winger Willian Bárbio is put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Bárbio hesitates, Egídio recovers, goes to ground and steals the ball. Bárbio is left writhing in pain on the edge of the box. Referee Jaílson Freitas blows his whistle. Free-kick. Red card.

Palmeiras players are furious, while television pictures show viewers at home that Egídio did in fact win the ball cleanly and there was no foul. Another replay shows the assistant referee, the closest official to the incident, opting not to raise his flag. It would appear that the decision to send off Egídio came from Freitas himself, who was lagging behind the play, still inside the centre circle.

Four minutes of debate ensue on the pitch. Palmeiras players appeal to the referee while Chapecoense prepare to take their free-kick. Suddenly, Freitas gets a word in his earpiece and goes to speak to his assistant. The fourth official joins them. “He got the ball? Only the ball?” the referee is seen asking the fourth official. After receiving confirmation, Freitas overturns his decision. Goal-kick to Palmeiras. Continue reading Sending off and on again

The coach

In Brazilian football, coaches are scandalously overvalued. Tite, manager of league leaders Corinthians, earns a reported R$ 500,000 (approximately £85,000) a month. The league’s best player, Renato Augusto (once of Bayer Leverkusen), earns R$ 100,000 less. Corinthians have many players on salaries between $ 400,000 and R$ 500,000, but no-one earns as much as the coach.

Take Manchester City as a comparison. Manager Manuel Pellegrini earns £325,000 a month, while the vast majority of his squad receive far more. Sergio Agüero, City’s highest earner, is paid almost three times more than his coach.

The root of this skewed economy lies in the regularity with which teams change coaches. After 28 rounds of play, this year’s Brazilian championship has seen 24 managers sacked or resign. Only four teams have yet to substitute their head coach. Continue reading The coach

Who’s up for the Cup?

The quarter finals of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, get underway this midweek. Recently adapted to include all top-flight teams (those participating in the Copa Libertadores were previously exempt) and align its final stages to the last few months of the league season, the Copa has become one of the biggest attractions of Brazilian football’s long and packed calendar. It provides full stadiums, quality football and quenches the Brazilian fan’s thirst for knockout tournaments.

The Copa do Brasil is quite different from most of the traditional European domestic cups, owing more of a debt to Spain’s Copa del Rey in its two-legged format. Major upsets are rare, while the idea of a “cup run” is alien. Due to Brazilian teams’ overcrowded fixture lists, competing seriously in the Copa is a calculated choice as opposed to naturally building momentum.

Challenging in both the league and cup is difficult. It is no coincidence that at this late stage in the tournament, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro, 1st and 2nd in the league, are already eliminated from the cup. Continue reading Who’s up for the Cup?