Corinthians 2-0 São Paulo

During Sunday’s derby between Corinthians and São Paulo, I was Eduardo Galeano’s beggar for beautiful football. Arms outstretched, pleading for “one good move, for the love of God!” Unfortunately, seeing me writhing in desperation on my living room floor, the two teams ignored me completely and proceeded to play one of the dullest matches this year. Continue reading Corinthians 2-0 São Paulo

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Adiós, Osorio

After over a month of humming and hawing, back and forth and ‘will he, won’t he?’, Juan Carlos Osorio has resigned from his post as São Paulo head coach. The Colombian will take over the Mexican national team, whose World Cup qualification campaign begins next month.

The feeling is one of a missed opportunity for Brazilian football. Having arrived in São Paulo at the end of May, Osorio has not had nearly enough time to make a lasting impression on the league. Continue reading Adiós, Osorio

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?

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 Globoesporte.com 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

Sinful Sundays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muricy and the Ganso question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spfc-bota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clássicos

One of the more frustrating clichés in football is that on derby day, the form book goes out of the window. Derbies are different, but only because of the increased levels of pressure. The way in which the players deal with this pressure often has an impact on the final result, though that applies to any match against any opponent.

When faced with the prospect of playing against their rivals, some professionals are able to build themselves up mentally and use the increased adrenaline to produce higher levels of substances that enhance performance, like a form of emotional doping.

Others can be overwhelmed with nerves and opt instead to hide on the field, afraid of making a mistake. There is a Japanese proverb that says “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”.

This weekend in Brazil we were treated to three clássicos that did a good job of illustrating exactly why playing your rivals is so important.

On a historic run of eight defeats in a row, São Paulo managed to stop the rot with a 0-0 draw against Corinthians. With confidence at an all-time low and coach Paulo Autuori’s job hanging by a thread (after only four matches in charge), São Paulo’s prime objective was not to concede and therefore, to avoid a ninth consecutive defeat.

Autuori dropped World Cup winner Lúcio from the centre of defence after a series of bad performances and repeated indiscipline. Though it is impossible to doubt Lúcio’s quality, São Paulo looked more secure without him. His absence allowed Rafael Tolói to return to the right centre-back role where he is most comfortable, and it gave their defence more shape and discipline.

São Paulo started the match with three defensive midfielders and though they did have space to attack into (Jádson and Fabrício often had two-on-one situations in the middle against Corinthians midfielder Ralf), they did not seem interested in bringing numbers forward.

Corinthians were in control for most of the match and kept the play in São Paulo’s half, but they didn’t create many clear chances and appeared to believe a goal would come along naturally. Alexandre Pato was once again disappointing coming off the bench, and many in Brazil are now coming to terms with the fact that he will never become the excellent forward they once thought he was.

Corinthians appear to be on auto-pilot mode in the Brasileirão and they have dropped far more points than expected at this early stage. They will most likely focus heavily on winning the Copa do Brasil to ensure a place in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.

It wasn’t another defeat, but São Paulo have now gone twelve matches without a win, and they now embark on a trip to Europe and Asia to play the Audi Cup and Suruga Bank Championship respectively, facing teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Milan and Benfica. That winless streak will probably go on a bit longer.

In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro battered Atlético-MG 4-1, only days after watching them lift the Copa Libertadores trophy. Still in the party mind-set, Atlético fielded a largely second-string side, with only Júnior César and Michel remaining from the team that beat Olimpia in midweek.

Often when a squad is as close-knit and successful as Atlético’s, the reserve players are able to step into the first team and perform well, having trained side-by-side with the starters on a daily basis. However, Atlético’s sluggish centre-back partnership of Gilberto Silva and Rafael Marques struggled against a dangerous Cruzeiro team.

Since last season, Cruzeiro have conducted some superb business in the transfer market. Dedé, Nílton, Souza, Éverton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all top-level Série A players, and their attacking unit has plenty of depth with Luan, Ricardo Goulart and Martinuccio keeping the starters on their toes. The signing of Júlio Baptista could also be decisive, and If they can keep him fit he should do well on his return to Brazil.

At this stage, Cruzeiro is one of the three or four teams who has what it takes to win the Brazilian championship.

The third match, Flamengo versus Botafogo, was a fascinating game in the new Maracanã. However the event raised further questions about the “elitization” of the Brazilian game, about which I would like to go into more detail tomorrow.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Ecuadorian forward Cristián Benítez, who died today in Qatar, aged just 27. Benítez was a wonderful, intelligent and powerful striker who could lead the line on his own and was a class-act on and off the pitch. Earlier this year I suggested he would be reaching his peak just in time to lead his nation in the World Cup in Brazil next year, so it is hard to fathom that he is now no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and team-mates.

Adiós Chucho, you will always be remembered.

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