How has so much gone wrong, so quickly at Palmeiras?
It wasn´t supposed to be like this. Back in July, Palmeiras, one of Brazil’s most storied clubs, beat Coritiba over two legs to lift the Copa do Brasil. It was the team´s first major triumph in over a decade, and cock-a-hoop club president Arnaldo Tirone immediately announced plans to extend manager Felipão´s contract. “We have one of the best coaches, if not the best, in Brazil, in the world!” he hollered on September 8th, despite the fact that the club, perhaps distracted by the cup run, had been wallowing in the relegation muck for most of the season.
Exactly five days after that proclamation, following a defeat against Vasco that left Palmeiras in penultimate position in Serie A, Felipão was fired. Gilson Kleina was brought in from Ponte Preta to staunch the bleeding, but after a bright start, things quickly unravelled. Consecutive defeats to relegation rivals Coritiba and punching-above-their-weight Náutico have dumped Palmeiras deep in the slough of despond, and with just eight games left, the club are nine points from safety. Relegation seems inevitable. Kevin Fawl, the Celtic supporter harassed at a recent Corinthians game for sporting the green and white hoops, has it easy – he could really be a Palmeiras fan.
How has so much gone wrong, so quickly? The hard truth is that this Palmeiras side was never much good, and a rather uninspiring cup triumph merely papered over the cracks. “Unbeaten champions of the Copa do Brasil!” was the cry – a rather hubristic way to describe winning a knock-out competition shorn of Brazil`s Libertadores contestants, and that involved only eleven games, a grand total of four of which were against top flight opposition. There have been a few success stories – iconic Argentinian striker Hernan “El Pirata” Barcos has had his moments, left back Juninho has impressed, Marcos Assunção, even at 36, remains one of the best strikers of a free kick in the southern hemisphere, and, when on his game, Chilean playmaker Valdivia can prise open most defences. But overall the team has been inefficient in front of goal, often distracted at the back, and too easily outmuscled in the middle. Palmeiras finished an insipid 11th in last year’s Brasileirão, and were eliminated by Guarani in the quarter-finals of this year´s Paulistão state championship. The warning signs have been there for quite some time.
Perhaps most debilitating of all have been psychological factors. Complacency has played a part – Brazilian football’s premature ejaculation syndrome, the result of a the-lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum footballing calendar where Libertadores qualification for the following year can be achieved almost before the league season has gotten underway, hit hard. After July’s champagne, Palmeiras had little to aim for other than mid-table security – hardly the strongest of motivating factors. “We thought things would be easier after the Copa do Brasil,” said Assunção, “but in fact they were even harder…maybe we celebrated too much.”
Even by the chaotic standards of Brazilian football, Palmeiras is a club riven by internal schisms. Felipão, who led the club to Libertadores glory in 1999, seemed to spend most of his second spell in charge arguing publicly with vice-president Roberto Frizzo, and from time to time, his own players. After departing under a cloud for Grêmio, famed rabble-rouser Kleber stated that the majority of the team “didn’t like” Scolari (though Felipão soon might not care very much – he is currently being touted for a return to the Brazil job, if the axe should fall on Mano Menezes surprisingly rubbery neck before 2014).
The stubbornly unreconstructed Frizzo, you suspect, would handily trump Big Phil in any unpopularity contest. After the recent clássico defeat against Corinthians, a group of the club’s notorious torcida organizada, Mancha Verde, descended on his swish São Paulo restaurant. “We´re not going to hurt anybody,” they informed startled diners, “we’re just going to smash things up a bit.” The promise was kept, though had it been discovered that Frizzo and Tirone were tucking into tripe and truffles in a back room, things might not have ended so peaceably.
But perhaps relegation would not be the worst thing in the world for Palmeiras. Both Vasco da Gama and Corinthians have spent a season in Serie B in recent years, and came back the stronger for it. Life in the second tier might breed the sense of togetherness that Palmeiras sorely lack, and more importantly, bring about the kind of internal renewal that a great many Brazilian clubs desperately need. There were perhaps signs of that process being set in motion a few weeks ago, when a fan campaign lead to the announcement that ordinary club members (of which there are around 8,000) would be able to vote in future presidential elections, taking that power out of the hands of a small clique of conselheiros.
Palmeiras’ new stadium, the Arena Palestra Itália, will open next year, and the club’s army of fans (12 million, according to the highly dubious Brazilian practice of using market research surveys to quantify supporter levels) will dream that it might still host top flight football. More probable, however, is that Serie B is already a harsh reality.Tagged in: football, Palmeiras, Sport
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