No piece of cake for Atlético as Brasileirão finally picks up pace
“The Brasileirão is properly underway!”
When I saw the tweet, sent during last week`s Santos v Corinthians clássico by the excellent South American football writer Euan Marshall, my first reaction was minor irritation. “”Typical Paulista hubris,” I typed furiously, then thought better of it. Tweet in haste, repent at your leisure, as the saying goes.
After all, in large parts of Brazil, most notably Belo Horizonte, home of leaders Atlético Mineiro, the Serie A party had been in full swing for almost four months. But when I thought about it, I realised that, as usual, Mr. Marshall had a point. Year in, year out, Brazilian football`s surrealist nightmare of a calendar almost strangles the Brasileirão at birth.
The four month long state championships, relevant in some parts of the country but, in their present form, an outdated encumbrance in others, run from January to early May, meaning that a 38 game national league season has to be squeezed into the remainder of the year. And just as the Brasileirão kicks off, the knock-out stages of the Libertadores and the Copa do Brasil hit their stride, drawing the attention of fans and media, and forcing those clubs still involved to field reserve sides in the league.
All this means there’s no room either for international breaks, and so top players such as Neymar, Lucas, and Leandro Damião have missed large chunks of the season while away at the Olympics and Seleção friendlies.
If this wasn`t enough, there`s Brazilian footballing tradition, which has historically used knock-out games to decide titles (the first straight league, or “pontos corridos” season was in 2003). “We know points are as important at the start of the season as at the end,” the average fan (or even player) might say, “but it just doesn’t feel as though they are.”
And he would have a point. In contrast to the only partially accurate view that Brazilian football is booming (the local game has flourished along with the national economy, and thanks to a generous TV deal), in reality, without major calendar restructuring, it can often feel as though the Campeonato Brasileiro is dying a slow death. The aforementioned TV deal, which allows pay per view broadcasting of every game, combined with rising ticket prices, poor transport and stadium infrastructure, ludicrous kick-off times and the threat (real or imagined) of violence has turned Brazilians into armchair supporters. An average top flight crowd of 14,000, on a weekend replete with local derbies, in a football obsessed country of almost 200 million people, bears that theory out.
All of which is a shame, as this has been an engrossing Serie A season so far. The “first turn”, as the opening half of the season is known, concluded at the weekend, with teams matching up against their local rivals on Domingo dos Clássicos, or Derby Sunday.
Atlético Mineiro had the chance to stretch their lead at the top, and avenge some painful recent history, against Cruzeiro (a clássico win on the final day of last season could have condemned their city rivals to Serie B, until, some might say true to form, Galo capitulated 6-1), but after a wonderful late goal from Ronaldinho Gaúcho (which recalled a slow motion version of his Barcelona pomp) seemed to have won it, Cruzeiro zagueiro Mateus poked in an even later equaliser for Cruzeiro. That goal came in the 101st minute, and with Atlético down to nine men, after the game had suffered a lengthy delay while angry Cruzeiro fans chucked water bottles, cell phones, and, bizarrely, a slice of cake (flavour and type unknown), in the direction of the referee.
The point kept Atlético`s noses just in front of a menacing looking Fluminense side, who pipped Vasco, 2-1, in the Carioca clássico. The Flu players wore the name of club legend and 1970 World Cup winning goalkeeper Felix, who passed away during the week, on their shirts, but it was midfielder Thiago Neves who scored two terrific goals to secure the win. With Deco still to return from injury, Flu’s attacking heft (including Fred and Wellington Nem, elected young player of the year in 2011 while at Figueirense) will have Atlético looking nervously over their shoulders in the months to come.
Another club with reasons to be cheerful in 2012 is Grêmio, up to third after beating rivals Internacional on Sunday. After a disappointing 2011, veteran braggart Vanderlei Luxemburgo has shaped the Gaúchos into a formidable unit, built around the solid defending of Werley, Elano`s midfield nous, and the goals of Bolivian striker (and former Wigan damp squib) Marcelo Moreno.
Other 2012 highlights have been the stuttering starts of big boys such as Santos, Corinthians and Palmeiras (the first two now on the road to recovery, the last still splashing about in the muck down at the bottom), the arrival in Brazil of such aging greats as Seedorf, Forlán and a personal favourite, Zé Roberto, and the usual coaching merry-go-round (top prize goes to former Atlético Goianiense boss Adilson Batista, sacked two games into the season).
Heartening, too has been the steady flow of emerging young talent. Atlético`s Bernard has probably been the pick of the bunch, but worth keeping an eye on, among others, are São Paulo striker Ademilson, Botafogo`s Cidinho, Flamengo`s Adryan, Vasco`s Auremir and, up in the often overlooked nordeste of the country, Naútico`s attacking midfielder Rhayner.
Finally, no Brasileirão season would be complete without a few conspiracy theories. Feeling distinctly paranoid at the moment are Atlético fans, after Sunday saw a series of dubious decisions go against their club, while a few hundred miles away, Fluminense were being given the benefit of the doubt more than once against Vasco. And then (so the theory goes) there was the peculiar decision of the CBF to postpone the Flamengo v Atlético game in Rio a few weeks back (at a time when Galo were in a rich vein of form, while Flamengo were about as tightly knit as a very drunk man who`s dropped his keys in a pub car park after midnight)…
With all this fun, games and cake, it`s just a pity there aren`t more people around to watch it.Tagged in: Brazil, football
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