Tite and Corinthians overcome Tolima trauma

“Ghosts don’t frighten me.”

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.

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The convenient magic of the Cup

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.

Origins

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.

Intelligent itinerants

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.

Contradictions and disguises

With the Copa Libertadores group stage underway, I have decided to take this opportunity to get back into regular blogging here on I like football me. My original plan today was to discuss the opening round of matches and give my opinion on some of the fascinating encounters we enjoyed this week.

Unfortunately though, football has to take a back seat after events on Wednesday evening in Huancayo. During the second half of an interesting match between Peruvian side Real Garcilaso and Brazilian champions Cruzeiro, which Garcilaso deservedly went on to win 2-1, Cruzeiro’s black midfielder Tinga (formerly of Borussia Dortmund) was greeted with monkey noises from the home fans whenever he touched the ball.

To see such behaviour coming from Peruvian fans, a people who have suffered greatly from oppression and persecution throughout their history, is upsetting. Even more so considering the abuse took place in Huancayo, a city with such a proud Quechua heritage.

However, the reality is that the black population in Peru is relatively small (approximately 2% of the total population) and racism towards Afro-Peruvians is not unheard of. Furthermore, the fact that Peruvians have historically had to endure similar prejudice themselves perhaps goes some way towards explaining the racist actions of those Garcilaso fans on Wednesday evening. In the same way that an abused child may grow up to become an abusive parent, the oppressed becoming oppressors isn’t a difficult concept to understand.

Of course, that doesn’t make Wednesday’s acts of racism any more or less deplorable, but it makes them more tragic.

While match reports from Peruvian sports media (as well as Conmebol’s official report, written by AFP) refused to make any reference to the monkey noises (the first mention of the incident in Peru came from sports daily Depor who managed to mix up Tinga and Dede, Cruzeiro’s two black players, in the article’s photograph), the reaction in Brazil was one of widespread disgust and outrage.

Several Brazilian footballers of various ethnic backgrounds expressed their solidarity with Tinga, while clubs, ministers and even President Dilma released statements condemning the incident and supporting punishment for Real Garcilaso. Alexandre Kalil, the outspoken president of Cruzeiro’s fierce local rivals Atlético, called the events “lamentable”, and claimed they “took away all of the pleasure in seeing Cruzeiro lose”.

Although the majority of reactions were refreshing to see, I couldn’t help but notice a streak of tribalism in some of the responses. Most were fairly subtle, but Cruzeiro director Alexandre Mattos chose to fight fire with fire, or in this case, fight racism with xenophobia, saying that Peru is a “small place in which football shouldn’t even exist”.

There is a clear contradiction here, as Brazilian society, especially Brazilian football, is rife with masked racism and frankly blatant homophobia. The idea of Brazil being a racial democracy is one that has been proved time and time again as a complete fallacy.

One encounters racism at almost every turn here in Brazil, albeit disguised. In football, black goalkeepers are often seen as unreliable, while black coaches are a rarity. Take the example of Cristóvão Borges, an intelligent and competent coach, who came in as a caretaker and took Vasco da Gama to a second place finish in the Brasileirao, was fired the following year and couldn’t find a job. Or Andrade, who was also a caretaker coach at Flamengo, won the Brazilian championship in 2009 and ended up unemployed. Contrast that to white managers like Joel Santana, Adilson Batista, Caio Júnior and Dorival Júnior, who are bounced around the biggest clubs in the country, despite their relatively poor records.

Outside the realm of football, there is Rede Globo’s “comedy” show Zorra Total, shown at primetime every Saturday night, which features a recurring sketch in which two actors in blackface ridicule poor black women.

Homophobia is also common, but far more obvious. During Brazilian football matches, it is common for one set of fans to call opposition players viados – an extremely pejorative homophobic slur – in chants that are often loud enough to be easily heard by people watching at home on television. Unfortunately, there is an institutional difference between racism and homophobia in Brazil. Racism is illegal, while homophobia is not legally considered a hate crime.

The objective of this blog is not to undermine the severity of what happened in Huancayo, or any feelings of genuine disgust from Brazilians, but simply to point out that this is an issue that exists all over Latin America, not just in Peru, and is increasingly prominent in Brazil.

Hopefully, Conmebol will arise from their slumber and, considering the influence that the Brazilian champions wield among the organisation, hand out serious sanctions to Real Garcilaso. One doesn’t hold much hope however, as this is the same organisation that last year was quoted as saying that Olimpia’s Salustiano Candia calling Newell’s forward Maxi Urruti a “black piece of shit” was not evidence of racism.

I’ll talk about football next week. Honest.

Copa do Brasil

The round of 16 of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, got underway this midweek. For the first time, clubs that were involved in this year’s Copa Libertadores have been allowed to participate, making this the Copa’s most cut-throat edition yet.

The idea of a national cup competition is a fairly new one in Brazil, down in part to the size of the country and the local importance once placed on the waning state championships. However, winning trophies is a fundamental piece of the Brazilian football fan’s psyche, and any competition that allows a club to lift some silverware after only a handful of matches will always have a place in Brazil’s football calendar.

For the less superficial, the Copa do Brasil is still an inviting prospect for clubs. The winner of the tournament earns a place in the group stages of the following year’s Copa Libertadores, and the only other way for Brazilian teams to qualify for the continent’s premier club competition is to finish among the top four in the national championship, the Brasileirão.

Therein lays one of the main problems with the Copa do Brasil: its impact on the Brasileirão. South American football clubs have an inherent problem with juggling multiple competitions at once. Whether by choice or by lack of squad depth, South American sides in general can only focus on one tournament at a time. Mid-table or bottom half teams may well abandon their league exploits and go all in on the cup, a far-more realistic avenue towards Libertadores qualification.

This particular strategy has its risks, however. If a club was to ignore their results in the league in search of a cup win, one contentious red card or a late goal in the final could throw their entire season into turmoil. The Brazilian league calendar is extremely bloated and just a few weeks of bad form is enough to plunge teams into crisis.

Even winning the cup has its dangers. Palmeiras, last year’s champions, completely shifted their attentions towards the Copa do Brasil and away from the league. By the time their title celebrations had died down, they realised that they were entrenched in the relegation zone. More and more league fixtures came thick and fast and struggling to build up any momentum, the cup winners were relegated to Série B.

I was at the first leg of Palmeiras’ last 16 tie against Atlético-PR on Wednesday night and the mood on the stands was altogether positive. This year, Palmeiras are in the unique position of being able to prioritise the Copa do Brasil while standing a good chance of winning the Série B even with a reserve side.

With less pressure on their league form, Palmeiras could conceivably go far in this year’s tournament. Their defensive situation is troubling though and they are conceding far too many goals, especially from their left side. Left-back Juninho has had a good start to the season and his efficiency in attack has improved considerably, but he has never been a particularly good defender. He doesn’t track back well and often leaves vast spaces behind him for the opposition to exploit, and Palmeiras do not have any centre-backs sufficiently adept at covering these gaps.

Had Atlético been more clinical in front of goal, they would have won on Wednesday evening. As it was, Palmeiras scored early and held on to their 1-0 lead until the final whistle.

Later that night, Luverdense’s surprise 1-0 win against world champions Corinthians highlighted another problem with the Copa. Unlike the majority of domestic cup competitions around the world, each round of the Copa do Brasil is contested over two legs. The concept of a giantkilling, of the unpredictability of the cup, is unheard of in the Copa do Brasil, because upsets have been made virtually impossible.

Luverdense, a club less than ten years old from the city of Lucas do Rio Verde in the central-west state of Mato Grosso, sat deep in their own half, frustrated Corinthians and managed to win 1-0. But what should have been a heroic scalp will have been for nothing, as Luverdense are likely to be soundly beaten in Wednesday’s second leg in São Paulo.

The idea of a knockout competition is that the best team doesn’t always win. The cup should award daring and guts, not consistency. Brazil already has the Brasileirão, which determines the best team in the country over 38 rounds.

An honourable mention must go to Botafogo’s 19 year-old midfielder Vitinho, who led his team to a 4-2 victory against Atlético-MG in the Maracanã on Thursday evening.

With no Clarence Seedorf to organise the play (the Dutchman was ruled out through injury), Botafogo struggled in the first half and were picked off on the counterattack by their opponents. Vitinho then took it upon himself to drop deeper and play the “Seedorf role”, constantly looking for the ball and serving as a reference for Botafogo’s fluid attacking system. The teenager had a hand in all four goals, scoring the final one himself.

Vitinho has already made a huge impact this season and looks to be a magnificent talent. He is comfortable beating players on either side and he has a great creative instinct, able to cut in from the left and make things happen. He has been working hard on improving his technique and has developed a wicked shot from the edge of the area with either foot. Under the guidance of Seedorf, Vitinho could be about to fill the gap left by Neymar, Lucas, Wellington Nem and Bernard as the league’s next big thing.

For footage of Vitinho’s assists and goal from Thursday evening, check out I like football me’s Facebook page

Breaking records

Atlético-MG overcame all variety of records, statistics and tabus to clinch their first ever Copa Libertadores trophy last night in Belo Horizonte. Not since 1996 has the team with the best record in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. Not since 2002 has a team lost in the first leg and went on to win the tournament. Not since 1989 has a team overcame a deficit of two goals in the final. Not since 1975 has one nation provided four consecutive Copa Libertadores champions.

In the end, they deserved their win. Though Galo had a poor first half, constantly launching aimless high balls against Olimpia’s solid defensive unit, everything changed when they opened the scoring early in the second half. The goal gave them the confidence to shift into Galo doido mode – pressing their opponents high up the field, throwing players forward – as opposed to the apathetic, nervous showing in the opening 45.

The goal came from a cross from the right side by Rosinei, who had just been brought on by Cuca. Football commentators and analysts often give far too much importance to coaching decisions made throughout the game, as if the coach is the sole person responsible for winning or losing a match, but in Atlético’s two recent home legs Cuca has made substitutions that have almost instantly resulted in goals. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most crucial impact of the first goal was how it improved the performance of the goalscorer, Jô. With his confidence increased, Jô was back to the player we saw in the group stage and early knockout phase, competing for every ball, winning every knock down and posing a constant threat to the Olimpia defence.

The Paraguayans went down to ten men after Manzur was sent off, and Atlético began to feed more and more high balls into the penalty box. It isn’t the most efficient of tactics, but with great aerial presence they always threatened to score. With minutes left on the clock, an excellent looping header from Leonardo Silva eventually dropped in at the far post.

Again, Atlético’s fate was decided from the penalty spot and some excellent penalties won them the match.

It could have been so different though. Had Rosinei not delivered the cross that (only after being fluffed by Wilson Pittoni) fell for Jô to score, had Juan Ferreyra not slipped and fell when facing an open goal, had Leonardo Silva’s header came back off the post instead of creeping into the net, had the referee allowed Miranda to retake his missed opening penalty after Victor encroached a good three yards off his line, perhaps there would be a different name on the trophy. Or maybe Atlético would have won regardless, but in different circumstances. Football is full of fine lines, which makes proper, coherent analysis a tricky job.

Meanwhile, at the Morumbi, São Paulo are breaking records of their own after a 1-0 loss to Internacional. They have now gone eleven matches without winning, losing their last eight in a row for the first time in their history. New coach Paulo Autuori has lost all of his first four matches in charge, another record for the São Paulo history books.

Earlier this month, I discussed São Paulo’s problems in more detail.

Juvenal Juvêncio is running a dictatorship at São Paulo FC. They are one of the few clubs in Brazil not to hold direct elections for the role of president (something Juvêncio himself got rid of to hold on to power). The club’s largest supporters group, the Torcida Independente, is essentially hired muscle for Juvêncio, and in the past few weeks there members have been going around the stadium removing banners criticising the president, and starting chants against Juvêncio’s political “opponent” Marco Aurélio Cunha.

Do the common supporters of São Paulo need to rise up and stage a “coup du club”?

Learn from your mistakes

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Cuca failed in his approach to Atlético-MG’s semi-final first leg away to Newell’s Old Boys. He instructed his team to play deeper than usual, abandoning their usual attacking style and shape in an attempt to stymie their opponent’s effectiveness. Their attempt failed and Atlético lost 2-0.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes. Cuca is not yet an excellent coach.

In last night’s first leg in Asunción, once again Atlético forsook their usual game-plan to try and hinder their opponents, and once again they lost 2-0.

Their downfall last night against Olimpia was in their insistence on man marking. Cuca’s Atlético always mark their opponents individually, which is often frowned upon at the top level but can be effective when one team has a clear technical advantage.

So far in this year’s Copa Libertadores, Atlético have faced teams that play variants of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which suit Atlético’s marking style. The full-backs deal with the wide midfielders or attackers and vice-versa, while the central players each have an opponent to watch over. However, against Olimpia’s staggered 3-4-1-2 shape, Atlético ran into some problems.

olimpia galo

Without a full-back to play against, Cuca moved speedy winger Luan into a central role to cover Olimpia’s Wilson Pittoni, which changed Atlético´s overall shape into a rough 4-4-2 diamond. Left-back Richarlyson was assigned to mark Alejandro Silva, who despite originating in a wide position, constantly cut inside and took Richarlyson with him.

On the other flank, Atlético’s Marcos Rocha was given a huge job, marking Olimpia wing-back Nelson Benítez whilst also being on hand to cover the runs of Matías Giménez and Fredy Bareiro whenever they broke past their markers. As a result, Marcos Rocha rarely crossed the half-way line.

As if being forced to play an entirely different wasn’t enough, Atlético’s man-marking also resulted in Olimpia’s first goal. In the build-up, Alejandro Silva comes deep away from his marker and receives the ball close to Luan, who tries to retrieve possession from him. Instead of covering Luan, Richarlyson moves infield to mark Pittoni, who Luan has abandoned, opening space for Silva to run into. Diego Tardelli tries to close him down, but realising he is leaving his own man in space he hesitates to make a tackle. Réver, the only “spare man” in Atlético’s system, is then slow to get to Silva, allowing the Olimpia midfielder to score.

If that was difficult to follow, this video may help:

Persisting with a man marking system and abandoning their usual style of play was a mistake by Cuca, but the popular media will probably focus more on another one of his decisions last night: substituting Ronaldinho after 65 minutes.

Cuca was completely right to take off Ronaldinho. Thanks to a wonderful marking job by Eduardo Aranda (like Newell’s Diego Mateo in the semi-final), Gaúcho barely saw the ball. After his departure, Atlético started to create more and although they eventually conceded a second goal, they improved significantly.

Once again, Atlético will have to do it the hard way and come back from 2-0 down if they want to win their first Copa Libertadores trophy. They will be without Marcos Rocha after he picked up a third yellow card, and as the match will be played at the Mineirão, they will not be able to count on the “Independência” factor.

Coming back from this result will be a much tougher test than the semi-final. But that’s not to say it is impossible.

Getting in the way

On Wednesday evening, at the same time as the Copa Libertadores final between Olímpia and Atlético-MG, Corinthians and São Paulo will decide the 2013 Recopa Sul-Americana.

I’ve never understood the Recopa. It’s South America’s answer to the Uefa Super Cup but unlike its European equivalent that serves as a harmless introduction to the league season, the Recopa strikes me as being poorly planned and frankly, it gets in the way.

The problem, like many things in South American football, is the space it takes up in the calendar. It is played just as the Brazilian national championship is trying to gain momentum and after the other major South American leagues have come to a close. It is also contested over two legs, home and away.

My other qualm is with the name. Tomorrow evening will determine the winner of the 2013 Recopa, even though São Paulo won the Copa Sul-Americana in December of 2012, and Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores over a year ago, in July 2012. The fact that the second leg clashes with the 2013 Copa Libertadores final tells you everything you need to know about how well-thought out this trophy really is.

So, why do people pay any attention to it? Before the first leg, I asked a friend of mine – a São Paulo fan – this very question.

“We only have to play these two matches, and we can win a trophy. The Brasileirão takes 38 matches…”

Therein lays the Brazilian mentality toward sport. You could argue that many fans don’t love football; they just love cheering the winner. For the clubs involved, the Recopa is a notch on the proverbial bedpost. It might not be the Libertadores, but they all count, right?

Here in São Paulo, extra importance has been placed upon this year’s edition as not only do we have two Brazilian teams in the final, we have two of São Paulo city’s trio de ferro, and both are desperate for a result.

I have discussed São Paulo FC’s problems on more than one occasion over the past few weeks, and Sunday’s demoralising 3-2 defeat away to Vitória only served to drag them deeper into the thick stuff. In truth, 3-2 was kind on the tricolor, who were outplayed for the entire 90 minutes by Caio Júnior’s gutsy Vitória. While the home side were pressing hard, making overlapping runs and contesting every loose ball, São Paulo were absent, lethargic and looked mentally exhausted (see diagram below).

Vitória's mobile midfield versus São Paulo's static diamond
Vitória’s mobile midfield versus São Paulo’s static diamond

Perhaps they could take a leaf out of Santos’ book and instead of indulging certain overrated and overvalued first team players, they could look to their youth squad and promote from within. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than their current situation, that’s for sure.

Their opponents Corinthians hold a 2-1 aggregate advantage from the first leg, but they are also in a precarious situation. They have had few decent performances since the national championship got underway, and Sunday’s 1-0 home loss to a mainly second-string Atlético-MG side has made Wednesday’s second leg crucial. In Brazilian football, crisis is never more than two bad results away.

Corinthians problem is different to that of their rivals. The effort is there, but the team is making too many mistakes in front of goal and in defence. Alexandre Pato, the most expensive signing in the history of Brazilian football, has underwhelmed, while goalkeeper Cássio is still living off his heroic performance against Chelsea in the World Club Cup final.

The loss of Paulinho has also hit them hard. Tottenham Hotspur’s new midfielder was the lynchpin of this current Corinthians side, and replacements Ibson and Guilherme look to be a considerable step down in quality.