Amidst the sound and fury of Brazilian football, Corinthians lift first Copa Libertadores
Things were very different a year ago. In February, dreaming as ever of breaking their 34 year Libertadores hoodoo and in the middle of a galácticos project that would bear only stunted fruit, a Corinthians squad boasting Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos were eliminated in the qualifying round of the competition by the inexpressivo Deportes Tolima of Colombia. A few days later the (empty) team bus was attacked by supporters, Ronaldo retired, and Roberto Carlos was on his way to Anzhi, complaining of intense fan pressure.
A few years before that, in 2007, things were stranger still, as a hopeless Corinthians tumbled into Serie B for the first time in their history. Redemption came the following year as a solid, redoubtable side, featuring Arsenal’s André Santos and coached by Mano Menezes, won the division at a canter.
Only three players from that 2008 side featured in last night’s emotional Libertadores final triumph over Boca – captain Chicão, right back Alessandro and reserve goalkeeper Júlio César. Even so, today’s Corinthians are cast more in the image of Serie B’s foot soldiers than in the glitzier style of last year’s Libertadores flops. Much of the credit must go to coach Tite for maintaining a cool head and a clearly definable tactical system amidst the sound and fury of Brazilian football.
The side is built around organisation and rigor. Zagueiros Chicão and Roma-bound Leandro Castan provide a sturdy, often impenetrable base, ably supported by full backs Alessandro and Fabio Santos. Giant goalkeeper Cássio came into the team in May and immediately transformed himself into both immovable object and impassable barrier. A few yards further forward, the outstanding Ralf and Paulinho perform their defensive midfield duties wolfishly.
Corinthians have reaped the benefits of all this manliness. After a nervy defeat to América Mineiro during last year’s Serie A run-in, the team dug deep and ground out four single goal victories on the way to the title. That the champions did not win a game by more than a goal in the last two months of the season says something about where the Corinthian heart lies. And in this year’s Libertadores, the team conceded an otherworldly two goals in eight knock-out ties to go with the two they let in over the six group games.
Which is not to say that Corinthians are dull. Alex, although no longer as influential as he was when winning the Libertadores with Internacional in 2006, provides creativity alongside Danilo, a player who manages the neat trick of being languorous and powerful at the same time. Paulinho too, loves to break forward from midfield, as he showed when scoring the winner against Vasco in the quarter-finals.
And then there is Emerson, upon whom, together with Jorge Henrique, Corinthians’ fast breaking style is based. It is hard to know what more can be said about “Sheik” – a 33 year old journeyman, brought up in a favela in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio, but a former member of the Qatari national side, and now scorer of two goals in a Libertadores final. Cuta, his pet monkey, will be thrilled.
Teeth grinding tension aside, last night’s game was ultimately a little dull, as Boca’s shortcomings away from their La Bombonera cauldron soon became apparent. This Boca team is a far cry from the sides that defeated Brazilian opposition in Libertadores finals in 2000, 2003 and 2007. Riquelme toiled manfully in what was his last match for the club, but when Emerson hammered home Danilo’s smart backheel there was a clear sense that the game was up, even with more than half an hour left. And so it proved. Emerson’s second, slotting home after a horrendous blunder by Schiavi, merely iced the cake. The lack of the customary post final punch-up (last year’s Santos vs. Peñarol mass brawl a notable example) added to the air of inevitability.
So Corinthians have their first Libertadores, a triumph “without dimensions”, as Tite put it. And with the win might come a salient lesson for another big Brazilian club. Rivals Flamengo have continued to go after jaded big name superstars (despite the Ronaldinho debacle, Adriano will reputedly join once recovered from injury) resulting in precious little success on the field and plenty of chaos off it. Meanwhile Corinthians have dressed themselves more simply since the days of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos (Adriano was merely a bit part player last year), with a number of this team coming from relatively humble footballing stock – Paulinho and Romarinho both joined from Bragantino, while Ralf came from Grêmio Barueri. All three are energetic, talented and motivated footballers. This morning, then, it seems all too obvious which is the wiser policy.Tagged in: Boca Juniors, Copa Libertadores, Corinthians
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