Common Sense FC

Months after millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against rising public transport costs, government corruption and Fifa, Brazil’s professional footballers are getting in on the act.

A group of over 70 of the league’s most influential senior players have signed a petition to demand changes to the new calendar proposed by Brazil’s football governing body, the CBF, for the 2014 season.

To factor in a month-long pause for the World Cup in July, the massive number of matches that already comprise a Brazilian season are to be squeezed into a much shorter period of time. The new calendar will also make pre-season preparation impossible, as the 2013 season ends on 8th December and the 2014 state championships are scheduled to kick off on 12th January, leaving a gap of only 35 days. Discounting 30 days for the players’ holidays, many teams will have only five days of pre-season training.

bomsensofcThe players’ movement, led by Corinthians’ Paulo André and Coritiba’s Alex and reportedly organised via a private WhatsApp group, goes by the name of Bom Senso FC (Common Sense FC) and was established without any collaboration with Brazil’s much maligned players’ union, Fenapaf. Bom Senso FC has demanded a meeting with the CBF to discuss changes to the calendar, citing the athletes’ health and the quality of the spectacle as their main concerns.

So far support for Bom Senso FC has been good, with several players, coaches, directors and journalists speaking out in favour of their cause. Grêmio’s playboy head coach Renato Gaúcho quipped yesterday that a short pre-season was like “a honeymoon without your wife”.

National team head coach Felipão, as is expected of a CBF employee with authoritarian tendencies, distanced himself from the movement and toed the party line, suggesting that although the dialogue is important, Brazil’s calendar isn’t terribly different from Europe’s major leagues.

I can’t be sure whether Felipão really believes that or not, either way it is wildly inaccurate.

In their 2012-13 season Bayern Munich won the treble by playing a total of 59 matches: 34 in the Bundesliga, 13 in the Champions League, 11 in the DFB-Pokal and the one-off DFL-Supercup final.

The Brasileirão’s current leaders Cruzeiro, who did not participate in any continental tournament and only played four matches before being eliminated in the last 16 of the Copa do Brasil, will have played 60 times by the end of the 2013 season.

Corinthians will have played at least 75 times come the New Year, Atlético-MG aren’t far behind with 71. For a Brazilian team to repeat Bayern’s successes and win the treble, they would need to play around 80 matches in a single season.

Fluminense’s Rafael Sóbis, who has previously played in Spain and the United Arab Emirates, last week gave one of the clearest demonstrations of the dangers facing these overworked professionals. After the final whistle of Flu’s home match against Coritiba, Sóbis collapsed on the pitch, vomited in the centre circle and had to be carried down the tunnel by Fluminense’s medical staff.

In a subsequent interview with Lance!Net, Sóbis admitted that he and other players regularly have to play with injuries.

“I feel angry because we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “We’re not machines.”

The obvious problem is Brazil’s state championships, which are played at the start of every year. Relics of a time when a Brazilian national championship was impractical, the estaduais were once highly regarded and fiercely contested. Now, Brazil’s principal state championships (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, Bahia and Pernambuco) consist of a handful of top division teams inanely battering part-time opposition, often in harsh weather and on woeful pitches.

Santos's Walter Montillo (blue) during a Campeonato Paulista match this year. Photo: Gazeta Press
Santos’s Walter Montillo (blue) during a Campeonato Paulista match this year. Photo: Gazeta Press

Realistically, these tournaments aren’t going anywhere, regardless of player protests. Brazil’s football governing body, the CBF, is a confederation of Brazil’s 27 states and one federal district, which breeds a culture of exchanging favours and attempts to keep each state happy. Scrapping the state federations’ principal tournaments would be political suicide for anyone at the head of the CBF.

However what does need to happen is the slimming down of some of the more jowly tournaments. São Paulo’s state championship, the Campeonato Paulista, consists of an opening phase of 19 matches before a final knockout stage with eight teams. The 20-team tournament could just as easily be split into two, three or even four groups, dramatically reducing its length.

Brazilian football’s long-term problem is the calendar itself. Instead of the July-May season used in most of the world (and recently adopted by several South American nations), Brazil’s football season is in line with the Gregorian calendar.

Playing from February to December makes perfect sense considering Brazil’s climate, but being out of sync with the rest of the world brings myriad setbacks.

For example, Brazil’s football season does not make space for Fifa’s international dates, meaning that the bigger clubs are regularly losing their top players to international duty. The international transfer window also comes at a terrible time for Brazilian clubs, making long-term planning impossible as top talents are poached by European clubs during the season.

A transition to a world calendar is unlikely, because (as you may have guessed) the CBF are an ultra-conservative bunch and it would require something huge to force a change. Theoretically, Brazil’s big clubs could break away and form their own league à la the Premier League, but many of these organisations are struggling with their own massive debts (Rangers FC were liquidated for having debts eleven times smaller than Flamengo’s current arrears).

The arrival of Bom Senso FC is certainly an exciting development, but after just a few years in Brazil, I have become somewhat pessimistic about such things. Brazilians have a popular phrase used in times like these, “tudo acaba em pizza”, literally, everything ends in pizza. It encapsulates a tendency in Brazil of whenever reform is on the table, favours are exchanged, compromises are made, and everyone ends up with a slice of the pie, therefore blocking any genuine change.

When the leaders of Bom Senso FC meet with the heads of the CBF, let’s hope pizza isn’t on the menu.

From AmorimCartoons
From AmorimCartoons
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Muricy and the Ganso question

Two months ago, on the eve of Ney Franco’s dismissal from São Paulo, I floated the theory that Muricy Ramalho would soon return to the club after four years away. And I wasn’t the only one.

It soon emerged that a return for Muricy would be too costly for the São Paulo board at that moment and another former coach, Paulo Autuori, was called in to fill the vacancy instead. Three wins in 17 matches later, Autuori was sacked and with desperation kicking in, Muricy was brought back.

With São Paulo entrenched in a relegation fight, Muricy has nothing to lose upon returning to the Morumbi. If he manages to steer them to safety, he will be the hero; if they eventually suffer relegation, he will argue that the damage was done before his arrival.

The 1-0 win in his first match in charge, at home to Ponte Preta, proves very little. Ponte Preta did not pose much of a threat to São Paulo, and footballers often give above-average performances under a new coach in an attempt to impress and consolidate their place in the team. São Paulo has a difficult month of fixtures ahead and once the “Muricy novelty” wears off, it will be interesting to see where they stand come October.

São Paulo has long been recognised as having one of the best squads in Brazil, an invention with which I struggle to agree. They do have some supremely talented players, like Luis Fabiano and Ganso, and several with great work-rate and fitness, but few are well-rounded or complete. In fact, I regard Jadson as being the only complete player in São Paulo’s squad, someone who has talent, technique, ability and creativity.

Besides Jadson, the São Paulo squad is bursting with creative players who can’t mark, quick wingers with no creativity and hard-workers with no ability. Even more worrying is that Jadson’s role in the squad is being marginalised and he is played out of position (or left on the bench) in order to make space for Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Ney Franco and Paulo Autuori struggled with the Ganso question and their inability to find a suitable solution ultimately contributed to their downfall. When the club’s backroom staff brought the playmaker to the Morumbi for R$ 24 million in 2012, São Paulo already had Jadson playing in Ganso’s position and on magnificent form. Due to the exceptional amount of money spent on the transfer, there was huge pressure placed on the head coach to select him and get him playing well. However, one year into his São Paulo career, Ganso has yet to look comfortable in the tricolor shirt.

Not long before he was given his marching orders, Paulo Autuori uncovered a potential solution to the Ganso question. Two weeks ago, with Luis Fabiano suspended for an away match against Botafogo, Autuori set up São Paulo in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Ganso as a false nine. With Jadson and Lucas Evangelista marking the opposition full-backs and Osvaldo making bursting runs from attacking midfield, Ganso was allowed the freedom to focus on his own game, staying in advanced positions and organising São Paulo’s attacking moves.

spfc-bota

The match finished 0-0, but it was one of São Paulo’s most convincing performances of the season and they successfully neutralised an excellent Botafogo team.

Unfortunately, this was the one and only time São Paulo has played that way, as Luis Fabiano returned from suspension for the following match and went back to his role as centre-forward. Luis Fabiano is a poacher who, like Ganso, contributes nothing to defensive phases. When they play together, the rest of the team is left with much more work to do and they are easily overrun in midfield.

That is not to say that they cannot play together, but when a team plays with these talented “luxury” players, these players need to make up for their lack of defensive work by scoring goals or providing assists.

Brazil is full of good examples of this type of attacker, such as D’Alessandro at Internacional, Douglas at Corinthians, Valdivia at Palmeiras and Alex at Coritiba. Neither of them make much of a contribution to their team’s defensive play, but all of them consistently create goals.

Paulo Autuori’s last match in charge, a 2-0 away defeat to Coritiba, highlighted this perfectly. On one side there was Luis Fabiano and Ganso; on the other, Alex.

Luis Fabiano and Ganso were easily marked and made next to no impact on the match. Alex organised his entire team, created several chances and scored both of Coritiba’s goals. He didn’t mark, he didn’t need to.

Against Ponte Preta on Thursday evening, Ganso played a good through ball for Luis Fabiano to score the only goal of the match, justifying their selection.

Time will tell

On Sunday evening, this year’s Brazilian championship reaches its half-way stage. Cruzeiro currently lead the way with 37 points, four clear of their nearest rivals. Regardless of their result against Flamengo this weekend, the Minas Gerais side has already won the symbolic title of “campeão do primeiro turno”, or first term champions.

Although there is no trophy or financial reward for being on top of the league after 19 matches, in Brazil, the “winner” of the first term usually ends up holding on to their place come the 38th round. In fact, in the last ten editions of the Brasileirão, seven of the first term champions have gone on to win the trophy.

It is not by chance that Cruzeiro are in front. They play some of the most attractive football in the country and have one of the most talented squads to back that up. Since Marcelo Oliveira (a forward for Cruzeiro’s bitter rivals Atlético-MG in the 1970s) took charge in January, he has implanted his successful playing style and tactical system: a 4-2-3-1 built on constant movement and quick passing triangles. This approach brought good results during Marcelo’s two years at Coritiba and now with a more talented group of players at his disposal, the Belo Horizonte-born coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

One impressive quality of this Cruzeiro team is the vast number of options they have in attack. For the line of three behind the centre-forward, there are nine relevant players able to occupy the three positions. Éverton Ribeiro, Dagoberto, Luan, Martinuccio, Willian, Lucca, Élber, Ricardo Goulart and Júlio Baptista. Their team is missing a craque to organise the play and serve as an attacking reference, like Seedorf at Botafogo or Alex at Coritiba, but by that same token they are not over reliant on one player to make the team tick.

cruz

There have been some defensive troubles, however. Since joining from Vasco, centre-back Dedé has struggled to regain his form and has made several high-profile errors, while his defensive partner Bruno Rodrigo is little more than an average stopper.

The real issues appear to be in midfield, where first-choice pairing Nílton and Souza have only started together in half of Cruzeiro’s matches. When they are at full strength, the team looks solid and rarely concedes, but substitutes Leandro Guerreiro and Lucas Silva are not up to the job, as they demonstrated at home last weekend by allowing Vasco to score three times.

The only other team that looks genuinely equipped to challenge Cruzeiro is current world champions Corinthians. The Timão made a slow start to the national championship, but have now lost only one of their last eleven league matches.

While his starting eleven has been more or less constant for the last two years, Corinthians coach Tite has been varying his tactics a lot this year, trying to find a suitable balance in the wake of bellwether midfielder Paulinho’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur.

Their defensive solidity has remained however, thanks in part to the signing of former Cruzeiro centre-back Gil from French side Valenciennes. Corinthians have the most secure defence in the league by some distance, conceding only eight goals in eighteen matches. The second best defence is that of Santos, who have conceded fourteen goals after playing two fewer games.

Antithetical to the league leaders, Corinthians have been responsible at the back yet shy in front of goal. At times they seem content to stay strong in defence, getting bodies behind the ball, hoping that they can win the match on a stray counterattack or set-piece. This approach has worked for them before, namely in the 2012 Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup final against Chelsea, but when you are inviting pressure and not creating many chances it becomes an ineffective way to play.

Alexandre Pato has yet to live up to the expectation of being the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club, but at the very least Corinthians have got him playing and injury-free, something Milan were never able to do. Pato is a strange case, in that he is regarded as an elite centre-forward without having done anything in his career to properly merit such a status. Fame and his lengthy injuries have contributed to this, making us see something that was never there.

Behind Cruzeiro and Corinthians, there is a small group of outsiders comprising Botafogo, Grêmio and Atlético-PR.

Botafogo started the season extremely well, playing a modern, attractive style of play led by veteran playmaker Clarence Seedorf. The surprise departure of Vitinho leaves them a little sluggish in attack though, they will miss his direct threat.

21 year-old Hyuri made his debut for the club on Thursday night against Coritiba, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. I don’t know much about the player, who joined the club on loan last month from Audax after an impressive state championship campaign, but Botafogo’s knowledgeable coach Oswaldo de Oliveira seems to believe Hyuri has what it takes to fill Vitinho’s absence. Time will tell.

Renato Gaúcho has made a good start to his time at Grêmio, as has Vagner Mancini in charge of Atlético-PR. Both teams are organised and on a good run of form, Grêmio playing a 3-5-2 system that focuses on width and attacking support from their wing-backs, while Atlético have constructed a dangerous attacking unit, with plenty of speed and off-the-ball movement, spurred on by the evergreen Paulo Baier.