Sinful Sundays

Sundays are sacred in Brazil. For a population that works long hours, often Monday to Saturday, the 24 hours’ rest at the end of each week is inviolable.

A typical domingo could include a little lie-in, followed by a walk in the park and a stodgy-yet-comforting macarronada for lunch. There are often visits from family and, weather permitting, an impromptu barbecue-cum-samba is not unheard of. However the main event of the day, the one around which all other activities are scheduled, is the afternoon football.

4pm (5pm during Daylight Savings) on a Sunday is the Brazilian version of 3pm on a Saturday. But thankfully, unlike in the UK, Brazilian television networks honour the tradition and schedule the weekend’s prime fixtures for Sunday afternoon, showing the most attractive (in terms of viewing figures) to the whole country on terrestrial television.

I don’t necessarily watch the match selected for public television (being in São Paulo, it’s almost always Corinthians), but I can’t recall the last Sunday in which I wasn’t parked in front of a screen between four and six.

Many of my serenest and most satisfying moments in this country have been on Sundays, whether that be lounging on a beach, sitting outside a boteco watching the world go by or relaxing after a particularly good churrasco. However, these Sundays all incorporated the 4 o’clock kick-off.

That’s why, when the Sunday afternoon match is dull, it’s a bummer.

Yesterday’s game between São Paulo and Santos was one of these such occasions: a meeting between two sides who seemed determined to display every negative trait of Brazilian football from the past decade, made all the more unholy by the sacrosanct time at which it kicked off.

It was a match devoid of intelligence or strategy, as twenty-two players played out 90 minutes of aimless punts, fouls, set-pieces, sprints, dives and failed dribbles, apparently unaware that they were part of two 11-man teams. The final score was irrelevant (0-0, if you must know). It felt like a different sport, not the creative, spontaneous game of football, but something more rehearsed, overly individual and technical. Volleyball comes to mind.

Santos started better, consciously closing their opponents down high up the field, but when they managed to reclaim possession they had nothing to offer.

It was fitting then, that the biggest story of the match wasn’t happening on the field, but on the São Paulo bench, where creative midfielder (and ex-Santos hero) Paulo Henrique Ganso was sat, dropped from the first eleven.

São Paulo boss Muricy Ramalho justified his decision to drop Ganso, stating that he wanted a quicker attacking unit, one capable of exploiting space behind the Santos defence. A perfectly defensible stance, considering that Ganso is often so lethargic he makes Treebeard look hyperactive. However what they gained in pace, they lost in creativity.

With Luis Fabiano playing in front of an attacking midfield trio of Osvaldo, Dorlán Pabón and Douglas, and with Álvaro Pereira overlapping on the left flank, they weren’t short of attacking options, but they were short of someone to link them together. Without a midfield organiser to offer a constant passing option and vary their focus of attack, their forward quintet was like five delicious, freshly-sourced ingredients, without a chef to make them into a meal.

It’s hard to disagree with Muricy’s decision here though, as Ganso has been anonymous since the end of last season. The story of the playmaker, who at the age of twenty was (ridiculously) called the “best player in the world in his position”, seems to have unravelled completely.

Ganso came through at Santos at the same time as Neymar, and the two formed the spine of an excellent side that won the Copa Libertadores in 2011, managed by one Muricy Ramalho. In the early days, Ganso was considered the better player of the pair, possibly due to his position as an old-fashioned cerebral number 10, the like of which Brazil hadn’t produced in years. However while Neymar exploded, revealing his limitless potential and taking the world by storm, Ganso struggled with injuries and failed to develop key aspects of his game.

Neymar was handed a mammoth contract by Santos, while Ganso (who had been told for years that he was just as good, if not better, than his team-mate) was ignored. Jealousy appeared to creep in and Ganso was locked in bitter contract disputes with the club, not helped by the fractious relationship between former Santos president Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro and DIS, the investment group that own a large part of the playmaker’s image rights.

Perennially injured or squabbling with the board, the Santos fans soon turned on him and in September 2012, Ganso migrated inland to nest at São Paulo FC in the most expensive transfer between two Brazilian clubs in history.

Despite feeling valued at his new club, the midfielder’s form never recovered. He has shown flashes of his former brilliance, but it never takes long before the dejected, absent, uninterested Paulo Henrique Ganso shows up again. Even Muricy Ramalho, the coach that believed in him unconditionally, has started to drop him.

Now it could be time for us to adjust our expectations of Ganso. The limitless promise of his early years is unlikely ever to be delivered, while the chances of a big European move seem remote. He is, however, a unique player with a distinct style that is best suited to South American football, where spaces are bigger and tempo is lower.

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