Who’s up for the Cup?

The quarter finals of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, get underway this midweek. Recently adapted to include all top-flight teams (those participating in the Copa Libertadores were previously exempt) and align its final stages to the last few months of the league season, the Copa has become one of the biggest attractions of Brazilian football’s long and packed calendar. It provides full stadiums, quality football and quenches the Brazilian fan’s thirst for knockout tournaments.

The Copa do Brasil is quite different from most of the traditional European domestic cups, owing more of a debt to Spain’s Copa del Rey in its two-legged format. Major upsets are rare, while the idea of a “cup run” is alien. Due to Brazilian teams’ overcrowded fixture lists, competing seriously in the Copa is a calculated choice as opposed to naturally building momentum.

Challenging in both the league and cup is difficult. It is no coincidence that at this late stage in the tournament, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro, 1st and 2nd in the league, are already eliminated from the cup. Continue reading Who’s up for the Cup?

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Grêmio wave goodbye to title hopes

Roger Machado’s exciting Grêmio side have surely been the story of this Brazilian season, though they have seen their title chances slip away this week after disappointing results against Corinthians and São Paulo.

At the start of the championship, Grêmio were touted as relegation candidates, with then manager Luiz Felipe Scolari playing a most uninspiring and cynical brand of football, with no individual talent to back it up.

The tricolor drew their opening match at home to Ponte Preta before losing away to Coritiba. Felipão, sensing his position was under threat, resigned and headed off to China, leaving Grêmio without a coach less than two weeks into the league season.

With no money in the bank to bring in a big-name replacement, Grêmio looked down the leagues and brought in the relatively untested Roger Machado, a former player of the Porto Alegre side in the 1990s.

Roger hit the ground running, winning seven of his first ten matches in charge. Meanwhile, he managed to find a playing style to suit his squad, focusing on speed, transitions and rapid passing – exactly what Brazilian defences have the most trouble with. Continue reading Grêmio wave goodbye to title hopes

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.

Back to reality

I regret to inform you that the World Cup has ended.

I know, I know, it’s not fair. Yes, we should have it every year (preferably in Brazil), and no, things will not be the same now that it has gone. Unfortunately, we have to wipe away the tears and get on with our lives.

The 2014 World Cup was a spectacular month of football, friendship and education. A celebration of the best things this wonderful sport has to offer, as well as pages and pages of narratives and subplots. As usual, it was great to see teams from all around the world, principally those outside of my region. Costa Rica were a surprise and a joy, with their superb spine of Keylor Navas, Giancarlo González, Celso Borges and Joel Campbell. Algeria’s first half performance against South Korea was one of the best moments of the tournament, only Germany in their first half against Brazil were more deadly.

Speaking of the German side, everyone was left in no doubt that the best team came out on top. This current Germany setup has given an example of planning and organisation which every footballing country around the world can learn from – their fourth World Cup trophy was more than deserved.

Anyway, it is time to return to reality. The wallchart has been folded away and kept in a safe place, the flags have been taken down from the windows and the television is showing soap operas and awful films in the slots the football has vacated.

Many football fans have expressed their desire to take a rest from the game, a couple of weeks of recovery and relaxation, allowing for a smooth comedown and a fresh appetite for the start of the European season. Fans in Brazil, however, have no such luxury.

Due to the Brazilian FA’s complete ignorance of how to create a spectacle, the Brazilian championship gets back underway this evening, only two days after the World Cup final was played at the Maracanã.

Six of the 12 World Cup stadiums will be in use in this midweek round of games, although only three of those are for top-flight matches. In the second division, Recife’s Arena Pernambuco will host Náutico v Sampaio Corrêa, Arena das Dunas in Natal will see América-RN v Bragantino, while the Arena Pantanal in the centre-west city of Cuiabá is strangely hosting Vasco da Gama (from Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east) against Santa Cruz (from Recife, in the north-east).

Why would Vasco choose to play a home match around 1,000 miles away from Rio de Janeiro? They are serving the final match of a punishment handed to them by the CBF for fan violence, forbidding them from playing at their home stadium. Instead of staging the game just outside of Rio, they are trying to ride Cuiabá’s World Cup wave and squeeze as much money as they can out of the situation.

In the first division, Corinthians will take on Internacional in their first match at the brand-new Arena Corinthians since Fifa handed over the keys last week. Bahia will host São Paulo at the gorgeous Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Cruzeiro return to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte (the site of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany) to play Vitória.

In the weekend rounds of the first and second divisions, only four of the stadiums will be in use.

More frustrating than this are the ticket prices stipulated for these matches. In tonight’s second division matches, the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pernambuco is R$ 50 (around £13), while any Vasco or Santa Cruz fans willing to make the trek to Cuiabá will have to fork out R$ 60 for the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pantanal.

The first division matches are not much better, Corinthians and Cruzeiro have set their cheapest tickets at R$ 50, bearing in mind that this only accounts for a small section of the stadium. Seats with reasonable views are going for anything between R$ 80 and R$ 180.

This might not sound like much compared to British prices, but when put up against the average monthly salary in Brazil, these are the most expensive tickets in world football. In 2012, a study was conducted to this end and showed the Brazilian league to have the highest ticket prices compared to average earnings, using a mean price of only R$ 38. If this post-World Cup trend continues, the average will increase further and more and more will be excluded from the sport.

Turning attentions to on-pitch matters, the expectation for this post-World Cup stage of the Brazilian championship is that we will see a group of title challengers begin to pull away from the rest over the next few weeks. Leaders and reigning champions Cruzeiro will be looking to open up some space between themselves and second-placed Fluminense, while Corinthians, São Paulo, Internacional and Grêmio will battle for one of the four Copa Libertadores places up for grabs.

The transfer window has been positive for most of these top-half teams, especially Corinthians and Grêmio. The former have made some impressive signings, bringing in experienced defender Ânderson Martins, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro and hard-working midfielder Elias. All three will go straight into the starting lineup.

Grêmio have also strengthened their team considerably, repatriating midfielder Giuliano, who was extremely promising when taking Grêmio’s rivals Internacional to the Copa Libertadores title of 2010 and has been playing in Ukraine since. Winger Fernandinho has joined from Atlético Mineiro and flying right-back Matías Fernández signed from Sampdoria. The southern side already had a decent squad before the World Cup break, with some exciting young talent breaking through. They will be worth keeping an eye on between now and December.

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.

Clássicos, part two

Footballers have various ways of dealing with pressure on match day. Some are able to use the increased adrenaline in order to produce higher levels of substances in the brain that enhance performance, like emotional doping. Others succumb to the nerves and often try to hide on the field to avoid making high-profile mistakes.

Pressure can manifest itself in other, more visceral ways. In a derby match, when full of adrenaline, some players commit over-zealous fouls and get themselves into trouble. Violence can spoil a good game of football, and this happens so often with fierce rivalries.

A perfect example of this was yesterday’s clássico between Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre. The first half was exciting, with some interesting tactical battles and good play from either side. Grêmio took the lead from a penalty kick, before Inter equalised through Leandro Damião.

Renato Gaúcho’s Grêmio surprisingly went for a 3-4-1-2 system, bringing in new signing Rhodolfo as a sweeper in the back three. This switch from their usual 4-4-2 was to give more freedom to the wing-backs, who pushed up the field and occupied Internacional’s full-backs, leaving their opponents light and narrow in attack. Deep-lying forward Kléber played an important role, drifting wide and creating 2 on 1 situations on either flank.

 
grenal

With pressure levels turned up to eleven, the second half turned scrappy and play was repeatedly stopped for violent fouls. The referee lost control of the players and red cards soon followed. We were robbed of a suitable ending to what began as an intriguing match.

Some people relish this type of game. However while violence is clearly a source of entertainment for many (you just need to look at the popularity of sports like mixed martial arts and boxing), football doesn’t need it.

Clássicos aren’t all bad, though. Sometimes they get it right.

Vasco x Botafogo was a good example of why derby matches can be so enthralling. Spurred on by the pressure, both teams played with higher intensity while staying within the rules. As a result, we were treated to some excellent Sunday evening entertainment.

Botafogo is currently the best team in the Brasileirão. Head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira has built a wonderful 4-2-3-1 system that revolves around veteran midfielder Clarence Seedorf. They work extremely well as a unit, pressing high and with superb movement in attack.

Seedorf got on the score sheet once again, his 18th goal in 29 appearances for Botafogo. Before moving to Brazil, Seedorf had scored less than 100 goals in a club career that comprised over 700 appearances. This sudden surge of goal scoring form has nothing to do with a gap in quality between the Brazilian league and any of Europe’s finest, it comes as a result of Botafogo’s playing style, which has the Dutchman at the centre of everything.

With Botafogo leading 2-1 at half-time, Oswaldo de Oliveira had a decision to make. Last weekend, leading at the break in another clássico against Flamengo, Oswaldo changed his team’s approach for the second half, bringing off attacking midfielder Vitinho and replacing him with defensive midfielder Renato in an attempt to “administer the game”. All that did was remove Botafogo’s only deep threat and invite Flamengo to attack. Botafogo conceded a late equaliser, and Oswaldo was a victim of the clássico pressure.

Though Brazilian coaches and commentators love to use the phrase, it is extremely difficult to administer a football match. There are so many factors to administer in a game, and attempting to do so is futile and often counter-productive.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes, and Oswaldo did just that. Yesterday, instead of trying to administer the game, Oswaldo kept Botafogo in their usual system, which is strong enough to beat any team in Brazil at the moment. They went on to win 3-2, and are deservedly at the top of the league.

Back to business

The Brasileirão is back after the month-long pause for the Confederations Cup. Plenty has changed since then: managers have been sacked, players have been signed and others sold. It’s almost as if we are back to week one.

This weekend’s headline games are on Sunday with two clássicos due to take place, but there is still plenty of interest in this evening’s four fixtures.

Renato Gaúcho will coach his first match at Grêmio since returning to the club earlier this week. Their first opponents are recently promoted Atlético-PR, whose quick and direct style will certainly cause Grêmio problems. Renato is unlikely to impose any drastic strategy changes early on and Grêmio should line up similarly to how they did under former coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Renato’s primary objective is to restore confidence in the players, who have been struggling since their Copa Libertadores exit in May.

With the sale of Fernando to Shakhtar Donetsk for €11 million, Grêmio have lost an important presence in midfield. Fernando is an intelligent and strong defensive midfielder, able to defend and attack. His replacement, Adriano, is more of an auxiliary centre-back. He marks well, but does little else.

Flamengo will face Coritiba in the Mané Garrincha in Brasília, some 1,400 km from their home city of Rio de Janeiro. With the ongoing licitation process for the new Maracanã and the closure of the Engenhão for repairs, Flamengo have not played a match in the city of Rio de Janeiro since 6th April.

Although Flamengo do have a big support in Brasília (the match is expected to sell out), this situation cannot go on. With the constant travelling, the playing squad are starting to get upset, with goalkeeper Felipe commenting on social media that perhaps he “should move to Brasília, seeing as that’s where Flamengo play now”.

Since Mano Menezes has taken control at Flamengo, they are a more compact and organised side. Today’s match may not be a classic, but if Flamengo can get back to Rio soon they could have a very respectable year.

In Brazil’s northeast, Náutico – Ponte Preta marks another coach’s debut, that of Ponte’s new man Paulo César Carpegiani. Former manager of the Paraguayan national team and World Champion with Flamengo in 1981, Carpegiani is one of my favourite coaches in Brazil. While many of his peers are set in their ways and repeat the same mistakes over and over, Carpegiani is always looking to innovate and improve his methods.

For example, he was one of the first Brazilian coaches to choose to watch the match from the stands, where he has a better view of the field of play. Such practice is unheard of in Brazil, and usually frowned upon by supporters, who prefer their coach to be waving his arms and screaming on the touchline.

Tonight’s late game is between Portuguesa and Cruzeiro at the Canindé in São Paulo. Out of Brazil’s traditional big clubs, Cruzeiro is the one that has improved most during the current transfer window. Diego Souza, Dedé, Nilton, Everton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all premium Série A quality players. The team is playing well and looking organised under Marcelo Oliveira. They are suffering from injuries today however, and will hope to avoid dropping points away to Lusa.