No, not a rejected line from the Ghostbusters theme song, but the words of Corinthians coach Tite after seeing his side destroy Colombian opponents Once Caldas 4-0 in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores first round tie, last night in São Paulo.
The ghost in question was that of Deportes Tolima. Four years ago, at the same stage of the competition, Corinthians faced Tolima, a modest club from the Colombian city of Ibagué. Despite the Brazilians having a squad that included World Cup winners Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, they were held to a goalless draw in São Paulo before going down 2-0 in Colombia.
Their failure to negotiate their way past such average opposition and precocious elimination (or, as their rivals saw it, “tolimanation”) from the Copa Libertadores plunged Corinthians into a mini crisis. Fans protested, fingers were pointed and both Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos decided to part ways with the club.
A lot has changed at Corinthians since Tolima, they have since won the Brazilian championship, the Copa Libertadores and even the Club World Cup. Despite that, when these two teams were drawn together Brazil’s sports press ran amok with Tolima comparisons.
While the first leg in 2011 was a tense, uneventful affair, last night’s match at the Arena Corinthians was anything but. The action started from the very first minute, with the home side taking the lead after only 30 seconds of play. Three red cards, a wrongly disallowed goal and two wonderful passing moves later, Corinthians all but sealed their place in the Copa Libertadores group stage.
This was an overwhelmingly impressive performance from Tite’s men. Straight from the first whistle they pressed Once Caldas very high up the pitch, giving their defenders no time on the ball and forcing them into several mistakes. After winning back possession, they looked comfortable, patiently looking for openings in the Once Caldas defence.
Their real merit came in the second half however, as they were playing with a man disadvantage after Paolo Guerrero’s red card. As Once Caldas threw players forward, Corinthians remained extremely compact in a 4-2-3 shape and managed to keep their opponents at bay.
As the Colombians’ desperation became evident, Corinthians began punishing them on the counterattack and we were treated to two magnificent examples of quick passing football, ending in goals for Elias and Fagner. The comprehensiveness of the result perhaps was not an accurate representation of the 90 minutes, but was a testament to Tite’s marvellous adaptability and the squad’s determination so early in the season.
Corinthians’ performance was not perfect, gaps behind the full-backs and poor defensive positioning, already evident in the weekend’s state championship match against Marilia, reared their ugly heads once again. Once Caldas identified these weaknesses early on, and had they been able to count on a centre-forward more talented than the lumbering Sebastián Penco, it is likely they would have scored an away goal.
It is too early to tell, but after apathetic performances from the Brazilian clubs in last year’s Copa Libertadores, it is refreshing to see a motivated and energetic Corinthians side, while the group stage clássico against São Paulo on Ash Wednesday has the potential to be one of the games of the year.
World champions in 2012, Corinthians have failed to build on success and face years of austerity
This is the final post in a four-part series previewing the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first in the series, covering Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here; the second, looking forward to a promising year for Palmeiras, can be found here and the third, detailing Santos’ financial crisis, can be found here..
In December 2012, Corinthians defeated European champions Chelsea by one goal to nil to win the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. The triumph was the crowning achievement of a marvellous year for São Paulo’s largest club, who had become South American champions for the first time after beating Boca Juniors in an ultra-tense Copa Libertadores final in July. However, becoming champions of the world was just phase one of the Corinthians master plan.
A lot can change in the space of 12 months, however, and with the bursting of Brazilian football’s financial bubble accompanied by underwhelming on-pitch performances, the name Corinthians is nowhere to be seen in this year’s Money League study. As it turned out, the second phase of the Corinthians master plan was far tougher to execute than the first.
In early 2013, in an attempt to flex their financial muscles and show the world what they were capable of, Corinthians prepared a sizable investment to sign AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato. Outbidding clubs in Europe, Corinthians repatriated the 22-year-old, with the €15m transfer fee still standing as the highest paid by any Brazilian club.
Although the club seemed to solve Pato’s chronic injury problems that hampered his career at Milan, his on-pitch performances were not nearly as impressive as Corinthians had hoped. He made 57 appearances for the club in 2013, scoring 17 goals, five of those coming in state championship matches. Despite showing some flashes of quality, Pato was regularly criticised by the Corinthians fans for a perceived lack of effort and commitment to the club’s success. Their patience with the forward completely expired after he missed a crucial penalty in a cup shootout against Grêmio, having attempted a Panenka that went harmlessly into the arms of opposing goalkeeper Dida.
In February 2014, one year after his record-breaking transfer, Pato was loaned to rivals São Paulo, in a deal that sees Corinthians pay 50% of his R$ 800k monthly salary.
Corinthians coach Tite, a father of two, was visibly shaken by the events, putting the situation into perspective by affirming he would exchange the world championship they had won the year before for Kevin’s life.
Although the punishment handed to the club was remarkably lenient (they were forced to play their three home group matches behind closed doors, a decision later overturned after appeal), the incident did appear to have an effect on the squad. They advanced from their group, but faced Boca Juniors in the round of 16 and were eliminated.
They were equally disappointing in the national championship, quickly becoming known for their uninspiring football and results that read like lines of binary code. The consensus was that the team had gone stale: they had played the same system without variation for a long period of time and became starved of creativity.
Corinthians finished the 2013 season in 10th place, missing out on qualification for the Copa Libertadores. The club chose not to extend Tite’s contract as head coach, and the man who led them to South American and World titles left at the end of the season, tipped for the Brazilian national team job after the 2014 World Cup.
His replacement was an old acquaintance of the Corinthians faithful having managed the club between 2008 and 2010: former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. Born in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Menezes belongs to the escola gaúcha of Brazilian coaches (as does Tite), giving priority to defensive solidity and physicality over flair and creativity.
Menezes did not do a terrible job, largely reproducing Tite’s tactical system with some new faces in the squad, but fans demanded more from the team, unhappy with their ultra-conservative approach in away matches. Corinthians finished 4th in the Brazilian championship, qualifying them for this year’s Copa Libertadores. Despite the reasonable return in his first season back, revolt from radical factions of the club’s supporters and behind-the-scenes power plays led to the sacking of Mano Menezes. Tite, still a free agent since his dismissal the year before, was subsequently brought back to lead the team in 2015.
Corinthians did have some embarrassing results in 2014, but they primarily came off the field. In 2013, even with the disastrous investment in Alexandre Pato and poor performances on the pitch, the club managed to close the year with a slim profit of R$ 1m. In contrast, though balance sheets have yet to be released for 2014, Corinthians are expected to announce a loss of around R$ 90m for the year.
The deficit is largely due to the club’s new stadium, which opened in the middle of last year. The Arena Corinthians, despite being the pride and joy of the fans, has left the club with debt of around R$ 750m (£190m). Money from gate receipts (usually a significant source of income for the club) is all going towards repaying the stadium debt. Corinthians have yet to negotiate a naming rights contract for the stadium, which will be discounted from the R$ 750m, but their short-term future remains bleak. Their wage bill has increased 40% in relation to last season and the club is already behind on image rights payments to players and departed coach Mano Menezes.
Their transfer budget for this year has been set at a modest R$ 10m (£2.5m), with that figure relying at least R$ 38m of income from selling players. To put this into perspective, Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, arguably the club’s most important player and whose contract expires in June, is currently demanding a signing-on fee of R$ 18m to renew his deal at the club, almost double the budget Corinthians have set out for the entire year.
Not only is Guerrero the club’s principal goal threat, he is also the central figure in Tite’s vision for Corinthians in 2015. Though they seem unable to afford him, losing such a quality player could be disastrous to their chances on the pitch.
After being scandalously overlooked for the national team job after the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup, Tite spent his period of unemployment travelling, studying the game and speaking with peers. The biggest influence on his current coaching philosophy comes from the time he spent in Spain, visiting Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti.
Wanting to learn more about the 4-1-4-1 system employed at the Bernabéu, Tite went along to matches and training sessions, trying to gather as much information as he could to implement the same style in his next job. The principal virtue of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid team, superbly examined by Michael Cox, is their ability to successfully marry the two most effective philosophies in modern football: possession and counterattacking. It is this mixture that Tite wants to bring to Corinthians.
In the words of Michael Cox, Real Madrid’s attacking unit consists of “three midfield playmakers, two brilliant counterattackers and a hard-working, selfless number nine”. The midfield trio allow the team to establish control of possession, while their wide attackers exploit any space left by their opponents on transitions.
Such a complete attacking force would be too difficult to recreate in Brazilian domestic football, but with some alterations to the standard 2-2 block midfield setup in Brazil, Tite has brought his side somewhat closer to the Real Madrid model. Renato Augusto, for example, usually regarded as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, has been brought back into central midfield, along with Elias and Ralf. For their wide attackers, Tite has proposed playing a playmaker on the right (one of Nicolás Lodeiro, Danilo or Jadson) with a deep option on the left (Emerson, Malcom or Mendoza). Paolo Guerrero leads the line, getting on the end of any service coming his way, while also helping to create space for forward runs from midfield.
It will be interesting to see whether they can achieve the balance between possession and counterattack, pre-season performances indicate that it will be difficult. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Corinthians surrendered possession to their German opponents, mainly threatening from set-pieces, and in last week’s friendly against English non-league outfit Corinthian Casuals, they had the ball but lacked the guile and incisiveness to get behind a part-time defence.
Either way, instant success is unlikely. Though he has some of his old squad, Tite is a coach that requires time to make a team his own. The question is, will he be allowed that time? Since 2012, Corinthians is a completely different organisation, with loftier expectations and even less patience. Tite, partly responsible for the world and continental honours, was not given the chance to rebuild the team in 2013. Mano Menezes, with a proud history in his first spell as coach, was not even allowed to settle at the club before he was sacked. With what are sure to be some tricky and austere years ahead for Corinthians, Tite has to be prepared for much unjust criticism if results do not come along right away.
Unable to pay their players and with no revenue coming in, could this be the end of Santos as we know it?
This is the third in a series of previews of the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first, covering the league’s chronic calendar problems and looking at the prospects of Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here. The second, detailing the restructuring effort currently being made at Palmeiras, can be found here.
On the evening of the 14th April 1912, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. At the same time, in the Brazilian port city of Santos, a group of sportsmen gathered at their local athletics club to create a new football team – Santos Futebol Clube. They would go on to become one of the most important clubs in football history, helping to spread the sport worldwide during the 1960s and 70s.
Santos, however, have hit hard times. They are mired in a financial crisis that is undoubtedly the most severe in their long and proud history. Over a century after setting sail, the club are running a genuine risk of capsizing.
Nearly all major clubs in Brazil are in a ludicrous amount of debt. There are several explanations for this, but most stem from the fact clubs in Brazil are not businesses with shareholders, they are social clubs, where presidents are elected every two years by members. This system removes any personal responsibility that regular chief executives have, leading to irresponsible financial management and widespread short-termism.
For the past seven years, BDO Consulting have conducted an annual survey to calculate exactly how much Brazilian clubs owe. In their last study, covering the 2013 season, Flamengo retained the unwanted crown of being the most indebted club in Brazil, with a total bill of nearly R$ 760 million (around £190m). Santos, owing a comparatively modest R$ 297m, would appear to be some way away from Flamengo. However, the rubro-negro from Rio de Janeiro are the most popular club in the country, with a fan base countable in the tens of millions; Santos, on the other hand, do not have the structure to make a recovery any time soon.
Though they are one of the best-known Brazilian teams around the world, at home Santos are considered a small- to medium-sized club. The city of Santos is not particularly large, with a population comparable to that of Edinburgh, and it lies only 77km from the vast metropolitan area of São Paulo, which is over 40 times larger than Santos.
São Paulo’s three giant clubs: Corinthians, São Paulo FC and Palmeiras, are such institutions that there is little space left for Santos. Even in their own city, with less than half a million inhabitants, it is common to see people walking around with the shirts of either one of the state capital’s trio de ferro (iron trio).
Santos’ stadium, the Estádio Urbano Caldeira (commonly known as Vila Belmiro), is a charming but cramped venue, with its capacity of 16,798 making it the smallest in Brazil’s top flight. Not only is it undersized, it is rarely over half-full. Brazilian football has a problem with low attendances, one that hits clubs such as Santos harder than anyone else.
In the 2014 national championship, Santos’ average attendance at home matches was a paltry 8,560. Unsurprisingly, of all 20 top-flight clubs, Santos made the least profit from match-day income last year: an insignificant R$ 813k (just over £200k). To compare, rivals Corinthians raised almost R$ 17m of match-day profit over the same time period.
Then there is the television money. Under the current broadcasting rights agreement, Brazilian clubs receive an annual payment that varies from club to club according to their popularity: those who draw the bigger audiences command more money. Therefore, the country’s two largest teams, Flamengo and Corinthians, each receive R$ 110m per year from television behemoths Rede Globo. São Paulo and Palmeiras collect R$ 80m and R$ 70m respectively, while Santos get R$ 40m.
With a smaller fan base, less TV money and a tiny stadium, Santos have always been at a disadvantage when compared to their big-city neighbours. Crucially, they have always been aware of this and have conducted their business accordingly. Like many other South American clubs, Santos stay afloat by producing and selling talented young footballers.
In 2002, the last time Santos found themselves in financial trouble, they decided to promote a number of their youth players to the first team, notably Diego, Robinho and Elano. The youngsters were so effective that they ended up winning the national championship of that year, and the eventual sales of the trio helped the club regain financial stability.
In the late 2000s however, Brazil’s economy was booming and there were sponsors and investors aplenty, prompting Brazilian clubs to start spending money. Santos, with Neymar on their books, saw what they thought was a golden opportunity and decided to abandon their usual business model. They won the Copa Libertadores of 2011 and spent a fortune holding on to Neymar despite interest from Europe’s giants.
However, the subsequent success that Santos had banked on was very short-lived. In 2012, Neymar spent an inordinate amount of time out of the country playing for the national team, managing to miss over half of the Brazilian championship season. Without their key player, Santos struggled and finished the year in mid-table, missing out on continental qualification.
Neymar eventually signed for Barcelona in May of 2013 in what was meant to be Santos’ big pay day. However, of the €57.1m paid by Barcelona for the player, only €17m went to Santos. A sizable chunk of money for a Brazilian club, but hardly sufficient to cover the massive investment made to keep him at the club during 2012. That same year, Brazil’s economy began to slow down, bursting domestic football’s financial bubble. Sponsorships and investments disappeared and Santos’ future was thrust into uncertainty.
Their situation became so desperate that without a main sponsor and next to no match-day revenue, the entire R$ 40m Santos were due to receive later this month for 2015’s television rights was already spent in September of last year. The club asked Rede Globo for an advance in order for them to pay their wage bill.
Since then, the club have failed to pay players for the months of October, November and December, with Christmas bonuses (equivalent of one month’s wages, prescribed by Brazilian law) also going unpaid. Several of Santos’ key players have taken the club to court, as three months of unpaid salaries is considered grounds for contract termination.
One of the suing players in question is centre-forward Leandro Damião, whose transfer to the club in early 2014 could yet turn out to be a deathblow. Santos have yet to pay for Damião, having struck a deal with investors Doyen Sports to bring the striker to Vila Belmiro. Doyen paid R$ 42m to Internacional, Damião’s former club, for ownership of his contract, passing on his rights to Santos.
The plan was for the player to attract a move to Europe for a fee larger than R$ 42m, with Santos retaining any profit made. In practice, the transfer failed miserably. In 44 games for the club, he scored only 11 goals and fell out of favour with the fans. He was loaned out to Cruzeiro earlier this month.
In normal circumstances, it would be very difficult for Santos to get out of this deal without making a significant loss. With this court case, however, the club stand to lose an incredible amount of money. If the judge rules in favour of Damião, he will no longer be a Santos player, the club will be unable to make anything back on his transfer, they will owe Doyen Sports the entire R$ 42m fee as well as paying Damião the remainder of his contract and a sizable sum in compensation.
The paradox is that amid this woeful financial situation that only looks to be getting worse, Santos are aware that they still need to build a competitive football squad in order to stay in Brazil’s top division. They may have lost the spine of their first team to the courts: goalkeeper Aranha, veteran centre-back Edu Dracena, full-back Eugenio Mena, defensive midfielder Arouca and Leandro Damião, without receiving any compensation for their transfers, but what they really cannot afford is to be relegated.
Big clubs who have been relegated recently, Palmeiras and Vasco da Gama, received plenty of television and media coverage in the second division, they still did fairly well with their gate receipts and had enough quality to come straight back up. With Santos, this is less likely, they would run the risk of staying there.
However, it seems they will have enough quality to survive for this season at least. The current administration, elected in January when the damage was already done, have scoured the market for some affordable signings. Three players have come in on loans that involved no extra fees for the club: Grêmio centre-back Werley and wingers Marquinhos Gabriel and Chiquinho, while Fluminense midfielder Edwin Valencia, former AC Milan forward Ricardo Oliveira and returning favourite Elano have all joined on short-term deals.
Ignoring the severity of Santos’ situation would be unwise. Brazilian clubs have an air of invincibility surrounding them, regarding themselves as too big to fail. For the most part, this is true, even if a club such as Flamengo were to see their debts double over the next 12 months, they would be unlikely to run any palpable risk of collapse. Santos, however, are not in that tier. They are taking on water, some of the crew have jumped ship. Hopefully it’s not too late to keep them from sinking.
Next time: They say you should never return to a club where you have already had success, obviously no-one told Tite. After becoming world champions in his first spell, where can he take Corinthians second time around?
Rigorous restructuring and zealous transfer policy put Palmeiras in good shape for 2015 after centenary disaster
This is the second piece in a series of previews of the forthcoming Brazilian football season. The first in the sequence, focusing on chronic calendar problems and the fortunes of the two big Minas Gerais clubs, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here.
Last season, I dedicated an above-average amount of space on this blog to discussing Palmeiras. Justifiably so, as their political meltdown and anencephalic management has been one of modern Brazilian football’s major tragedies. Once regarded among the biggest and toughest clubs in the country, two relegations in the space of a decade and perennial battles against the drop have, for the time being, wounded Palmeiras’ reputation. Were they to be involved in another survival scrap in 2015, the club’s stature could suffer irreparable damage.
Early signs for this year, however, are promising. Firstly (and crucially), after the annus horribilis of 2014 where Palmeiras ricocheted head-first from one disaster to another and very nearly found themselves relegated amid muted centennial celebrations, club president Paulo Nobre has recognised that major changes must be made. This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation, but is a welcoming change from previous regimes who have played down such disasters, such as that of Mustafá Contursi who, after Palmeiras were relegated in 2002, stated that football would become “third priority” at the club, promising to instead focus on improving facilities at their exclusive social club in the leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Perdizes in São Paulo’s expanded centre. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, which Nobre, with his zealous attitude towards restructuring Palmeiras’ department of football, appears to have done.
Before dealing with the playing squad, the first changes made at Palmeiras for 2015 came off the pitch. Head coach Dorival Junior, director of football José Carlos Brunoro and his right-hand man Omar Feitosa were all dismissed, with Oswaldo de Oliveira, Alexandre Mattos and Cícero Souza brought in as their respective replacements. Oddly enough, it was Mattos, Palmeiras’ new director of football, whose appointment grabbed the most headlines.
The excitement around Alexandre Mattos – not a 20 goal-a-season centre-forward capped by the Brazilian national team but an executive with an MBA in Sports Management – stems from the fact he was Cruzeiro’s director of football during their two consecutive national championship-winning seasons. The off-the-pitch administration of the Belo Horizonte club, as I discussed earlier this week, is widely regarded to have been a crucial part in their success, and Mattos was responsible for the majority of Cruzeiro’s intelligent transfer dealings over the last three years.
Upon arrival, Mattos received the full VIP treatment. He was unveiled at the club’s training ground, handed a replica shirt and gave a press conference which was packed to the rafters with journalists. The entire affair is worrying for the future of the Brazilian game, where a director of football is treated as a marquee transfer. Mattos will undoubtedly help things run smoother at Palmeiras, while his intelligence, work ethic and connections should allow them to build a stronger playing squad. The supporters should not get carried away, however. Directors don’t win football matches.
The new coach, Oswaldo de Oliveira, appears to be a smart appointment but, like his director of football, he cannot be expected to transform the club’s fortunes on his own. Oswaldo has been around the block in Brazilian football, with his move to Palmeiras making him the first coach in history to coach all eight major clubs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. More importantly, he has evolved over the course of his coaching career, particularly in his four years spent in Japanese football with Kashima Antlers, where he won every trophy available to him. His strategic nous and man management abilities will be important if Palmeiras are to have a good year in 2015.
Oswaldo de Oliveira has made it clear to the Palmeiras directors that he would like to work with a squad of 34: four goalkeepers and three players for each position in his preferred 4-2-3-1 tactical system, preferably with the third-string option being from the youth system. Consequently, the club have wasted no time in signing several players for the new season. At the time of writing, 15 incoming transfers have been announced in the last eight days.
After Palmeiras confirmed the arrival of four new recruits this Monday alone, leading sports news portal Globoesporte.com ran a sarcastic headline the following day, registering their shock that the club had “not announced any new signings in over 12 hours”, before reporting that Alan Patrick of Shakhtar Donetsk had joined on a one-year deal.
However, while old regimes at Palmeiras have adopted a cheap and cheerful approach to the transfer market, recruitment for 2015 has been primarily concerned with quality and necessity.
Among the new faces are Zé Roberto (of Bayern Munich fame), Coritiba playmaker Robinho, explosive Porto forward Kelvin, Internacional centre-back Jackson and Goiás captain Amaral. Oswaldo de Oliveira has also brought in some of his favourites from his strong Botafogo team of 2013, with right-back Lucas, centre-forward Rafael Marques and promising young defensive midfielder Gabriel all wearing the famous green jersey in 2015.
The club are still hoping to finalise the transfer of Santos’ defensive midfielder Arouca, who has taken his current club to court over months of unpaid wages. Were he to succeed in his legal case, he will be free to sign for Palmeiras, where the number 5 shirt has already been reserved for him.
Perhaps the transfer that created most commotion, however, was that of speedy Dynamo Kiev winger Dudu. The 22-year-old, who spent the 2014 season on loan at Grêmio, became the subject of interest for a number of Brazilian clubs in this preseason. His Ukrainian owners were unwilling to allow Dudu to go out on loan again, instead wanting to cash in on the player. Flamengo and Internacional had offers rejected, before Corinthians appeared to reach an agreement to bring the winger to Itaquera.
Dudu seemed set for Corinthians, in an interview with news portal Terra he spoke as if the deal had already been completed. However, rivals São Paulo hijacked the deal, prompting a drawn-out transfer novela which took up many column inches in Brazil’s sports dailies. It was your classic tug-of-war: one day Dudu was a Corinthians player, the next he was ready to be announced by São Paulo, then Corinthians, São Paulo, Corinthians, São Paulo…
Corinthians, struggling financially, appeared to drop out of the race, leaving Dudu free to sign for their rivals. Final contract discussions were scheduled and the club appeared to finally have their man. Then, out of the blue, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, Dudu was announced as having signed not for São Paulo, not for Corinthians, but for Palmeiras.
As it turned out, Alexandre Mattos had been holding surreptitious contact with Dudu’s agents and was able to agree terms to bring the player to Allianz Parque. Reportedly, the winger went into the final contract talks with São Paulo already aware of the agreement made with Palmeiras.
For a club surrounded by rivals and with dangerously low self-esteem, gazumping both Corinthians and São Paulo to sign a player is huge for the ego of many long-suffering Palmeiras supporters. “If anyone didn’t respect Palmeiras before (…), from now on, they will have to,” boasted Mattos.
This transfer saga was the latest in a long line of disputes between Palmeiras and São Paulo, whose deep-seated rivalry dates back to the 1940s, when the latter club attempted to seize Palmeiras’ stadium, claiming they (who had just been forced to change their name from Palestra Italia) were connected to the Axis powers of the Second World War. This perceived betrayal was made all the worse by the fact that a decade earlier, Palmeiras had organised a charity tournament to save a nascent São Paulo from bankruptcy.
The current presidents of both clubs, Paulo Nobre and São Paulo’s Carlos Miguel Aidar, are not on speaking terms and have used their platforms of influence to enact their petty squabbles. This behaviour can only hurt all elements involved: in the case of Dudu, the commotion created by his transfer will increase expectations upon him to insane levels, so much so that it will be almost impossible for the player to adequately live up to the hype surrounding him. In financial terms, Palmeiras are probably overpaying for Dudu (only time will tell) and São Paulo were very nearly drawn into paying the player R$400,000 (around £100,000) per month in wages, at the same time the board are about to announce a deficit of R$71 million for 2014.
The disagreement has no end in sight, as only yesterday São Paulo managed to hijack Palmeiras’ impending transfer for Ponte Preta attacker Jonathan Cafu. Although Nobre’s club are in a healthier financial position, neither can afford to enter into a pissing contest.
Though almost every piece of news coming out of Palmeiras this preseason has been positive, all involved with the club must keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Palmeiras fans have become conditioned to hoping for the best and expecting the worst, and though they may yet have plenty to celebrate come December with their remarkably competitive squad, it is important to be realistic and recognise the club’s sole objective in 2015 is not to win trophies or qualify for the Copa Libertadores, but to win back their self-respect and avoid being involved in another relegation fight.
Next time, Santos in trouble: coastal club set to take Palmeiras’ place in the danger zone amid financial chaos.
Brazilian football is hamstrung by its calendar, while Minas Gerais duo remain favourites for silverware in 2015
Exactly one month after the 2014 season came to a close, the majority of Brazil’s big football clubs got together last week to begin their pre-season training. In under 20 days, these teams will play their first competitive match of the Brazilian season, one of the longest and most demanding campaigns in the sport, comprising several competitions and precious little rest.
São Paulo FC, as an example, will play a bare minimum of 62 competitive matches in 2015. If they advance beyond the first round of the bloated São Paulo state championships, the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores (all of which are extremely likely), that figure would surpass 70 matches. Were they to reach the finals in all competitions (unlikely, but not impossible), they would have contested 81 games over the space of 44 weeks.
This obvious overkill of football has a predictably high number of negative consequences for the game in Brazil. The most important of these is the detrimental effect this calendar has on the quality of football being played. The hectic schedule allows a minimal amount of time for squads to train together, with players spending the days between matches catching their collective breaths rather than developing tactical strategy or working on their skills. As a result, Brazilian league matches are often turgid events, littered with fouls and misplaced passes, with results usually decided by goals from set-piece situations.
The spectacle is disappearing, fans are put off by the lack of quality and scandalous ticket prices, pitches are ravaged due to not having sufficient time to recover and even with the golden opportunity of having the World Cup in their back yard last year, the popularity of the Brazilian domestic game has not increased overseas. For those of us left behind, the devoted fans, regardless of how tedious the league may be, all that remains is the hope of a brighter future.
Things move quickly in Brazilian football. One week away from the game and you are likely to miss a manager losing his job, a high-profile falling out, a headline transfer move and the birth of a new craque. During the off-season, this is intensified, with clubs trying to pack months’ worth of rebuilding into the space of a few weeks.
Brazil’s anticlimactic state championships all but destroy the magical pre-season anticipation found in other leagues around the world, but with so many changes and question marks, there is still plenty to fill the pages of Brazilian sport pull-outs in the month of January.
Over the next few weeks, I shall be posting a series of blogs looking forward to the Brazilian football in 2015, focusing on several big clubs and the questions surrounding them going into this new season, beginning with a trip to the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais.
For the last two years, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, Minas’ big two from the state capital of Belo Horizonte, have ruled the roost in domestic Brazilian football. The former, with their iconic ocean blue shirts, have won the national championship two years in a row and should be the favourites to clinch a third successive title in 2015, a feat only achieved once previously, by Muricy Ramalho’s São Paulo side of 2006-2008.
Cruzeiro’s secret has been in their stability, which has in turn bred consistency. For the last decade, while under the presidency of the “Perrela brothers”, the club had a reputation for being mismanaged, with woeful transfer policy and rumours of shady behind-the-scenes activities. When Zezé Perrela (now a Senator for the State of Minas Gerais) left the club in 2011, he did so on the back of a disastrous season in which Cruzeiro avoided relegation by only two points.
His successor, Gilvan Tavares, has managed to successfully transform Cruzeiro into one of the best run clubs in the country. As opposed to the “savage capitalism” approach adopted by the Perrelas, the transfer policy of Tavares’ Cruzeiro is far more intelligent. There is no annual rush to cash in on every remotely talented footballer in the squad as would happen under the previous regime, instead the club look to maintain the spine of their team year on year, only selling when the time (and price) is judged to be right.
Another key factor to their recent success has been coach Marcelo Oliveira. In his time at Cruzeiro he has been able to form an effective tactical system, but far more important has been his ability to manage his squad.
In recent years, Cruzeiro have had one of the deepest rosters in Brazilian football, with several talented options available in key positions, as well as promising youngsters pushing the senior players for places. Generally, the more the merrier when it comes to personnel in Brazil, especially considering the gruelling calendar, but this pressure cooker of egos so often ends up exploding all over the manager’s face. Where Oliveira has succeeded is in keeping his entire squad happy, rotating and substituting at the right time, making sure everyone feels valued.
In these last few victorious seasons, Cruzeiro have always had some form of rebuilding to do, but thanks to being able to hold on to most of their first team year on year, it has been minimal. This off-season, however, could be the exception. Marcelo Moreno, their long-haired Bolivian goal-getter, has left Cruzeiro after a season-long loan, returning to parent club Grêmio. In an attempt to replace him, the club has moved for Santos’ Leandro Damião, generally regarded as one of the biggest flops in Brazilian football in 2015.
There is no doubt that Cruzeiro is a better fit for Damião than Santos – the champions focus a lot of their attacks on high balls into the penalty area, where the 17-times capped striker excels – but Cruzeiro’s system requires their No 9 to be a lot more than just an aerial threat. The reason Marcelo Moreno was so successful at Cruzeiro was his off-the-ball movement, creating space for the attacking midfield trio to infiltrate the area and score goals. Leandro Damião is far more cumbersome than the Bolivian, and may struggle to fulfil the role asked of him.
Elsewhere, last year’s star player Ricardo Goulart seems set to sign for Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, reliable left-back Egídio is on his way to Ukraine to play for Dnipro, while talented midfielder Lucas Silva is likely to join Real Madrid at some point during Europe’s winter transfer window. Cruzeiro have recruited Chilean midfielder Felipe Seymour to fill Silva’s shoes, and although it will be interesting to see how he gets on in Brazil, it certainly feels like the Foxes will go into 2015 with a considerably weaker side than in previous years.
While Cruzeiro have been the gold standard in consistency, the best side over the course of a 38-game season, their city rivals Atlético Mineiro have proved themselves to be the knockout specialists. When the stakes are high and the chips are down, there are few teams capable of getting past Atlético, including Cruzeiro.
After going through a transformation not too dissimilar to Cruzeiro’s in 2011 (albeit with the same president, the outspoken Alexandre Kalil), Atlético managed to build a team that dazzled spectators, led by attacking coach Cuca and his number 10: Ronaldinho Gaúcho. In a campaign that had several last-minute winners, incredulous comebacks and saved penalties, Atlético were crowned the best in South America after winning the 2013 Copa Libertadores, the first time the club had lifted the continent’s grand prize. Even with the odds stacked against them, Atlético always pulled through, playing an extremely fast tempo brand of football which constantly forced their opponents into making mistakes and became known as estilo galo doido, or “crazy rooster style”, a play on the club’s nickname, Galo.
Earlier last year, however, many thought the Galo bubble had burst. They had embarrassed themselves at the 2013 Club World Cup, not reaching the anticipated final against Bayern Munich and losing to Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals; coach Cuca had gone to China; nippy winger Bernard was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk; Ronaldinho was playing poorly and on his way out and new coach Levir Culpi seemed unable to control his squad.
The 2014 Copa do Brasil dispelled those doubts and marked the return of the galo doido. Curly-haired Luan took Bernard’s old role on the flank, Argentine midfielder Jesús Dátolo, who had gotten off to a slow start to his Atlético career the previous year, became a critical part of the team, scoring seven goals and laying on 20 assists in all competitions, while Diego Tardelli seemed to be playing in five positions at once in attack, capping a superb return to form with a call-up to the Brazilian national team. The dramatic turnarounds returned, and Atlético marched on to the Copa do Brasil title, playing their rivals Cruzeiro off the park in the two-legged final.
This January the doubts have returned, all revolving around one issue: Diego Tardelli, will he stay, or will he go? The forward seems set on securing a transfer to Chinese football, the announcement of which could happen any day now. If he is to leave, Atlético will soon reach the harsh conclusion that he is irreplaceable. That is not to say that Galo are destined to fall short of expectations without Tardelli, however his departure would force a style change at the club, as there is no-one available on the market that would be capable of performing his function.
Striker Lucas Pratto has arrived from Argentinian club Vélez Sarsfield, where he has been elected player of the year for the past two seasons, but he offers the team a different threat, more physical and able to lead the line, with a touch of flair and creativity thrown in. If Tardelli stays, they could form a very formidable partnership; if he leaves, Culpi’s reshuffle will no doubt be designed around his new Argentinian striker.
Next time, Palmeiras and São Paulo: a dispute that goes back more than 70 years resurfaces – football loses.
A century after the club’s foundation by a group of Italian immigrants in São Paulo, 2014 was meant to be a year of celebration for Palmeiras. However, thanks to a string of woeful executive decisions, their centennial turned out to be their annus horribilis, with Verdão fans left desperate to ring in the New Year as soon as possible.
With their return to Brazil’s first division, the impending inauguration of their gorgeous new stadium Allianz Parque and the small matter of the club’s centenary celebrations, Palmeiras supporters demanded the board spare no expense and think big for the 2014 season. Initially, it seemed those in charge would oblige. Prestigious managerial candidates were interviewed and potential multi-million signings were floated, but club president Paulo Nobre’s obsession for austerity spoke louder.
The quality reinforcements did not come, Palmeiras instead brought in aging world champion centre-back Lúcio on a free transfer (out of action for six months after being dropped by rivals São Paulo) and loaned Uruguayan defender Mauricio Victorino (on the sidelines for over a year with a heel injury) and midfielder Bruno César, who arrived from Saudi Arabia comically overweight. Jobbing head coach Gilson Kleina, who led the team to the second division title in 2013, was kept on, although it was made abundantly clear he was not their first choice and would walk the plank should results falter.
The nightmare began with the São Paulo state championship: Palmeiras progressed from the first stage without any major surprises, but in their quarter-final match against minnows Ituano, they were beaten 1-0 and eliminated in front of their own fans. Kleina kept his job, but would receive his inevitable marching orders two months later, after only three matches of the Brazilian championship campaign.
As if that was not sufficiently suicidal, Paulo Nobre then pulled off his most ambitious (and under the circumstances, short-sighted) move of a disastrous year and brought in Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca to replace Kleina. Intelligent and forward-thinking, Gareca came highly recommended after some great years in his homeland with Vélez Sarsfield, but when thrown into the hectic environment that is the Palmeiras training ground, with the league season already well underway, he was destined to fail.
Gareca’s Palmeiras showed some promising signs, their midfield looked more organised than it had been in a long time, but a leaky defence, lack of mental toughness and a complete inability to hold onto results saw them plummet to the lower half of the table. There was also reports that some members of the squad were less than happy about playing under an Argentinian manager.
Foreign coaches are almost unheard of in Brazilian football and Ricardo Gareca’s scandalously brief stint in São Paulo will do nothing to help that. Granted, the universal preference for home-grown coaches in Brazil is not a matter of prejudice or intolerance, there are practical motives behind it. In general, Brazilian players respond best to coaches who are able to relate to and mentor them. The harsh reality is that many footballers in Brazil come from poorer backgrounds and may have had to leave their family at an early age. In these cases, the football coach fills the role of a father figure, something which cannot be achieved across a language barrier.
The Argentinian was given a grand total of nine league matches over the space of six weeks before getting the sack, this coming after the club had spent an approximated R$ 30 million (around £7 million) to bring in four Argentinian players, Fernando Tóbio, Pablo Mouche, Agustín Allione and Jonathan Cristaldo on Gareca’s request.
Trying to salvage something from an already disappointing centenary, Paulo Nobre rushed to appoint Gareca’s replacement, announcing Dorival Júnior, the bespectacled former Palmeiras midfielder fresh from a string of managerial failures at Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense, as the man tasked with keeping the Verdão in the first division.
Thanks to some naïve tactical choices, bad luck with injuries, his reluctance to play his four unhappy Argentinians and a crippling mental inferiority that spread throughout the entire squad, Dorival very nearly commanded Palmeiras to their third relegation in the 21st century.
After some embarrassing results (a 6-0 defeat to Goiás, a 2-0 defeat at home to Atlético Mineiro’s B team and losing 2-0 to Sport Recife in the inaugural game at the stunning Allianz Parque), Palmeiras went into the last match of the season needing (at the very least) a point at home against Atlético Paranaense to avoid the drop. Their opponents had no stake in the result and fielded a reserve side, but Palmeiras coughed and spluttered to a 1-1 draw with the help of a dubious first-half penalty kick. The Verdão’s salvation came when news filtered through that Santos (traditionally one of Palmeiras’ rivals) had scored a last-minute winner to relegate north-eastern club Vitória. The club ended the division in 16th place with 20 losses and 40 points. Since the Brazilian championship made the switch to the 38-game season, no club had ever avoided relegation with 40 points.
As it was when they won the second division last year, when their place in the first division was confirmed for 2015, there was no celebration from Palmeiras fans, with the team booed off the field accompanied by chants of “time sem vergonha!”, literally “shameless team”.
Palmeiras’ woeful performance in 2014, amid centennial celebrations, is another dent in the reputation of one of Brazil’s proudest football clubs. In the words of Brazilian journalist Mauricio Savarese, despite remaining in the first division, Palmeiras were relegated in 2014.
Next year could well be the most crucial in Palmeiras’ 100-year history. Another relegation fight (or worse, another relegation) could see them reduced to yo-yo club status, and at a time when the country’s better-run big clubs (Cruzeiro, Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro, São Paulo) are threatening to distance themselves from the rest in a way Brazilian football has never seen before, such a step down could create an insurmountable gap between Palmeiras and Brazil’s elite.
As far as Brazilian football tournaments go, the country’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, ticks all the boxes.
Firstly, it provides a straightforward path into South America’s most prestigious tournament: the Copa Libertadores. Since the mid-1990s, Brazil’s bloated state championships have become more and more irrelevant, while the Libertadores, South America’s answer to the Champions League, is king. The four best-placed clubs at the end of the Brazilian championship gain qualification to the continent’s premier competition, but the easiest way in is by winning the Copa do Brasil. Earning a place in the national championship’s top four requires consistency and squad depth over 38 matches, while a club can reach the cup final with a brief spurt of investment and a successful run of only six or eight games.
Secondly, it offers something that fourth place in the league cannot: silverware. If there is one thing that Brazilian clubs crave above all else, it is trophies. With so many big clubs distributed among the country’s several big cities, only a small fraction of these equally traditional teams can be successful at one time, leaving an ever-present and sizeable demographic of upset Brazilian football fans.
Winning the cup serves to temporarily placate these supporters and quench their trophylust. According to Mauricio Savarese, journalist and co-author of “A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football” along with myself: “Between finishing second in the league and winning the Copa do Brasil, everyone prefers winning the cup.”
The cup competition also satisfies a basal desire of the neutral fan, which is decisive, winner-take-all knockout football. Since the beginning, the sudden death format (which is emphatically referred to in Brazil as mata-mata, literally “kill-kill”) has been deeply ingrained in the Brazilian football experience.
Before 2003, the national championship comprised a league structure followed by a deciding knockout phase to determine which club went home with the trophy. This was definitely counter-intuitive, as the idea of a long championship is to crown the team that has performed best overall, not just in the final two weeks, and the second half of the league phase was hampered by tiny attendances and equally poor television ratings.
However, mata-mata is so important to Brazilian fans, who revel in the spectacle and tension the games provide. So much so, that there are still many who defend the return of a knockout system to the national league. When the Brazilian championship made the switch to a straight points system, the Copa do Brasil grew in importance, providing the sudden death format loved by the fans without the obvious drawbacks.
Although those involved may tell you otherwise, the Copa do Brasil was created as a political tool. To fully understand why, we need to take a step back to the 1970s as Brazil’s military dictatorship’s iron grip on the country began to slip.
The generals’ ruling party, Arena, began holding local elections around Brazil which were inconsequential but gave the impression of a fair, democratic system to overseas onlookers. The plan began to backfire around 1974, as Arena were beaten at the polls in many regions. Aware of the popular power in football, the dictatorship attempted to appease locals in the areas they had suffered bad results, by building stadiums and promoting regional clubs to Brazil’s top division.
This process continued for some time and reached a critical mass as the Brazilian championship swelled to an incomprehensible size. In 1979, as democracy was about to return to the country, the tournament had an incredible 94 teams. When the generals were deposed, the championship returned to a practical number.
Although the military dictatorship was defeated, Brazilian football’s ruling body, the CBF (previously CBD), lived on and still craved these confederal relations in order for them to remain in power. With a number of upset associations throughout the country, the CBF created the Copa do Brasil to reclaim their favour, guaranteeing that major clubs from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre would travel Brazil, once again playing in these local stadiums against these smaller clubs.
Such interests are still very much alive, as was shown last year when a leaked fax showed Parnahyba Sport Club from the northern state of Piauí requesting that their state federation lobby the CBF so the club could draw Flamengo or Santos in the first round of the cup.
One leg good, two legs bad
A criticism often aimed at the Copa do Brasil is its insistence in having two-legged ties. With the Brazilian calendar incredibly crowded as it is, having all of these extra fixtures seems nonsensical. Furthermore, it makes life incredibly difficult for smaller clubs who, even if they manage a heroic victory over one of the biggest clubs in the country, are required to play a second leg, making progress to the next round even less likely.
One such example happened earlier this season, as fourth division Londrina played Santos in the third round. Londrina have built an interesting side and are dead certs for promotion this season, and in their home leg they managed an incredibly tense and well-deserved 2-1 win against the first division club. Such a result should have been rewarded with a place in the last 16, but a 2-0 victory in Santos cut them down to size.
Traditional cup competitions around the world, such as the FA Cup and the Coupe de France, are made richer by these rare moments of giantkilling, but the very format of the Copa do Brasil makes these situations near impossible.
This brings up an interesting topic however: do Brazilian fans actually like giantkilling? Leonardo Bertozzi, journalist and pundit at ESPN Brasil, doesn’t believe so. “The Brazilian television audience is interested in seeing big, well-known teams. There’s also a large slice of that population that is only interested in watching their own team.”
“Therefore, these big achievements of smaller sides aren’t received with much enthusiasm, especially from those who hold the television broadcasting rights, as invariably these matches see a decrease in audience figures.”
Teams from the second division have performed well this year, but ultimately, a final between national champions Cruzeiro and second division Bragantino would be seen as a non-event, not a spectacle. “Seeing the small sides is fun, but it takes away some of the weight of the title,” says Mauricio Savarese.
Furthermore, when these giantkillings do happen in Brazil, it is interesting to observe how they are remembered. The focus is always placed on the shame of the slain giant instead of the glory of the plucky underdog. “Flamengo lost the 2004 cup final to Santo André, and that has gone down as one of their biggest embarrassments in history,” recalls Savarese. The 2004 Copa da Brasil is not referred to as the one Santo André won, but the one Flamengo lost.
One of the underdogs in this year’s tournament, the aforementioned Bragantino, are entirely aware that the odds are stacked against them and after drawing some high-profile teams, they have decided to use their presence for their own financial gain. After being pitted against (and defeating) São Paulo FC and progressing to play Corinthians, Bragantino opted to move both of their home legs to other cities in order to make more money from gate receipts.
First, against São Paulo, the fixture was moved to the city of Ribeirão Preto and the 30,000-capacity Estádio Santa Cruz; then, against Corinthians, they went all in and took the game to Cuiabá and the Arena Pantanal, one of the 2014 World Cup stadiums. Such an attitude would be unthinkable in the FA Cup, for example, where home advantage and the cramped, noisy atmosphere of lower league stadiums can make all the difference, but the decision becomes more understandable when you consider Bragantino’s financial position.
In this year’s second division, Bragantino have an average home attendance of 732. They are not a newly-formed club without any tradition, having been founded in 1928. When going through such difficult times, smaller clubs such as Bragantino are forced to look elsewhere to make money. Aware that clubs such as São Paulo and Corinthians have huge pockets of support all over the country who don’t often get a chance to watch their club, Bragantino used that to their advantage.
Bragantino may well have the chance to earn even more money from gate receipts in this year’s cup, as they managed to win their first leg against Corinthians, 1-0 in Cuiabá. Tonight though, they will face Mano Menezes’ side in São Paulo for a much tougher test.
This year’s Copa do Brasil hasn’t exactly been one of giantkillings, but bigger clubs being defeated by lower-ranked, but still competent sides. The biggest surprises have been a pair of second-division sides from Brazil’s north-east: Ceará and América-RN. Their home cities of Fortaleza and Natal have always been difficult away trips for the traditional big clubs in the south-east, but both sides have been playing incredibly well, even away from home. Both are in action this evening, against Botafogo and Atlético Paranaense respectively, hoping to book their place in the quarter-finals.
Elsewhere, the biggest tie of the round was set to be Grêmio v Santos, but after the away side’s goalkeeper Aranha was racially abused by home fans in the Arena Grêmio during the first leg, the second leg was suspended and is unlikely ever to be played, with Grêmio facing expulsion from the tournament. That, unfortunately, is a story for another day.