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Leaders of The Pack – How Fluminense won the 2012 Brasileirão

James Young
fred getty 300x225 Leaders of The Pack – How Fluminense won the 2012 Brasileirão

(GETTY IMAGES)

This most gripping of Brazilian title races (until a few weeks ago, at least) ended not with a bang but a whimper on Sunday, as Fluminense beat Palmeiras 3-2 to clinch the 2012 Brasileirão. The game itself was dramatic enough – Palmeiras, needing to win to boost their slim survival hopes, had stormed back from two down to tie things up, before the deadliest finisher south of the Rio Grande, Fred, popped up to win it in the dying seconds, so setting the Flu players up for their toughest challenge yet – hoisting big-boned coach Abel Braga aloft in celebration. But despite the journalistic hyperbole from legendary broadcaster Galvão Bueno, the occasion, played out in front of a sparse crowd in a charmless concrete bowl somewhere in the interior of São Paulo state, with the cries from the benches echoing as loudly as those from the terraces, felt a little flat.

Perhaps it was a fitting enough reflection of Flu’s season. While Bernard and Ronaldinho at Atlético Mineiro were charming the romantics, Flu simply kept on winning. Only three defeats all year in a league famed for its parity/inconsistency tells its own story (last year’s champs Corinthians suffered nine reversals), and one more victory will see Flu surpass São Paulo’s 2006 points haul of 78, the record for a 20-team pontos corridos season. While surprise packages Atlético did their best to keep up, Flu’s strength in depth eventually told, and as the Mineiros coughed and spluttered down the home stretch, the cariocas simply stepped on the gas and eased clear. The club’s form was even impressive enough to make a mid-season controversy over a swathe of dubious refereeing decisions (Atlético fans formed a mosaic spelling out the letters CBF (the Brazilian FA) in Fluminense colours at one game) look rather foolish come season’s end.

And yet all this was played out against the backdrop of another fan (un)inspired artistic spectacle – the famed “Blue Mosaic” of empty seats at the Engenhão, home until the Maracanã reopens in a few months’ time. Flu’s average crowd this year is a pitiful 12,109, 11th best in the league, and one of the lowest average gates for a title winner in recent years. The cultural and logistical reasons for this are too numerous to go into here, but it is fair to say that in a country of fickle fans, Fluminense’s might just be the ficklest. A fine example of this came in 2008, when after 80,000 filled the Maracanã for the Libertadores final against LDU Quito, only 11,000 could stir themselves from their sofas for the club’s next league game.

In the light of this, it would be easy to brand Flu as some kind of latter day David, bravely chucking rocks at the better supported Goliaths around them. Hardly – bankrolled by Brazilian health plan monolith Unimed, whose president Celso Barros was given a reception as enthusiastic as any of the players at Sunday’s title shindig, Flu have the biggest wage bill in the league (though such largesse is no guarantee of success – Serie B bound Palmeiras have the 5th heftiest).

Still, it would be wrong to shroud Flu’s achievement in too much scepticism. The aforementioned Braga, winner of the Libertadores and Mundial dos Clubes with Internacional back in 2006, is the kind of gruff strongman that does well in Brazilian football’s biggest-dog-in-the-junkyard culture, as well as being an astute enough tactician, and assembled a side that was an effective blend of defensive steel and attacking gloss. The latter mostly came courtesy of Fred, who many feel deserves a place in the Seleção squad, and exciting wide-drifting forward Wellington Nem, who at only 20 should be entering his prime come 2014, and will already be on the shopping lists of European big spenders. Behind them, Flu had the luxury of squeezing three top level schemers into only two holes, meaning ex-Chelsea man Deco shared time with Wagner and Thiago Neves. And while Liverpool fans will probably not recall Diego Cavalieri`s time at Anfield with any great fondness, the big goalkeeper was in superb form all year, and is another who probably deserves a shot at international level. Finally, every title winner has its unsung heroes, and in Fluminense’s case you can take your pick from strapping zagueiro Gum, excellent volante Jean, and nippy left-back Carlinhos .

Though perhaps the real roots of Flu’s fourth title lie in the club’s recent past. With only a few games left of the 2009 season, the club was in last place in Serie A, and seemed certain to go down. But following a miraculous, Fred-inspired run of six consecutive wins, safety was achieved on the last day with a 1-1 draw against Coritiba, and the tag “time de guerreiros” (or “team of warriors”) was born. Since then, Flu have hardly looked back, winning the league in 2010 and 2012. As Gum said yesterday, “2009 was a turning point. After that, the club started to think big again.” That “warrior” focus seems to be serving Fluminense well.

Note: Five Flu players were today called up to the Brazil squad for the super-clássico against Argentina – Diego Cavalieri, Fred, Carlinhos, Jean and Thiago Neves.

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