Tough times ahead for Timão

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.

Weeks after Corinthians’ win in Japan, British professional services firm Deloitte released their annual Football Money League report. Corinthians’ revenue of €94.1m saw them reach 31st place, an all-time high for South American clubs. With their brand-new stadium close to completion, the plan was to consolidate their position as the biggest club on the continent and break into the world’s top 20.

The following year, the project appeared to be well on track, with the club jumping seven places in the ranking and becoming the 24th richest club in world football, ahead of the likes of Benfica, Newcastle United and Ajax.

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.

Besides the disastrous Pato investment, Corinthians had many other reasons to lament their fortunes in 2013. Their march towards retaining the Copa Libertadores title veered off course in their first group match, an away trip to Bolivia to play San José, a game that ended in tragedy. Only five minutes into the first half, one of the home supporters, 14-year-old Kevin Beltrán, was struck in the eye and fatally wounded by a flare released by a member of Corinthians’ travelling support.

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.

After being snubbed by the Brazilian national team, Tite is back for another spell at Corinthians. Photograph: Folhapress
After being snubbed by the Brazilian national team, Tite is back for another spell at Corinthians. Photograph: Folhapress

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.

Santos in crisis

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.

Robinho (L) and Diego, the “Vila boys”, proved in 2002 that in Brazilian football, you can win things with kids. Photograph: Ari Ferreira
Robinho (L) and Diego, the “Vila boys”, proved in 2002 that in Brazilian football, you can win things with kids. Photograph: Ari Ferreira

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?

A year to remember?

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.

After cleaning up behind-the-scenes, Nobre, Mattos & co. could turn their attentions to the playing squad. The clear-out of deadwood, promised for years at the club, appears to have finally happened. Twenty-one players have been let go or told under no uncertain terms that they should look for another club, while several others should also leave Palmeiras before the start of the national championship in May.

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.

New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira's primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação
New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira’s primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação

After Palmeiras confirmed the arrival of four new recruits this Monday alone, leading sports news portal 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.

Cover image: Fernando Dantas / Gazeta Press

The football season that never ends

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.

Cruzeiro head coach Marcelo Oliveira is hoping to lead his side to a third consecutive national championship in 2015. Photograph: Washington Alves/Vipcomm

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.

Cover image: Bruno Cantini / Atlético-MG

Checking in with the Seleção: part II

When we last spoke about the Seleção the London Olympics were just around the corner, and coming off the back of a promising run of friendlies, Mano Menezes’s boys looked dead certs to grab gold.

Prata com gosto de lata

However, as we know football is rarely so cut-and-dried. In the tournament’s early stages, Brazil lived up to expectations to some degree, winning all five of their matches on the way to the final, scoring three goals in each. Although, their second-half struggle against Egypt and difficulty in putting away Honduras hinted towards a deeper defensive problem.

In the final at Wembley, Brazil faced a quick and expansive Mexico side who managed to take the lead in the first minute of the match. The seleção failed to recover properly and lost the match 2-1 – forcing them to make do with the silver medal.

Of course, an Olympic medal of any substance should not be sniffed at. But for Brazil, this really was uma prata com gosto de lata – a silver that tastes like tin. Continue reading Checking in with the Seleção: part II

Menezes’ Seleção take a huge leap towards Olympic success

The appointment of Mano Menezes as Brazil head coach didn’t really blow anyone away. He took the job in 2010 after the Seleção’s disappointing World Cup display, and was the CBF’s official second choice to take the reins behind Muricy Ramalho, who had just signed a lengthy contract with Fluminense (and unofficially the third choice behind Luiz Felipe Scolari, who signed an equally long contract with Palmeiras).

Right away, he emphasised the need for a change in the Seleção’s style, correctly identifying that as hosts in 2014, they would not be able to rely on counter-attacking football to earn results. Menezes – always well-spoken and thoughtful in his press conferences – talked about Brazil needing to “take the game to their opponents” and often repeated the importance of being “the game’s protagonist”. Continue reading Menezes’ Seleção take a huge leap towards Olympic success