Robinho and Neymar celebrate

The second leg of the Sao Paulo State League Semi-final between Santos and Sao Paulo represented an eagerly awaited clash of cultures between the European features of organisation and discipline, and the Brazilian traditional virtues of attacking football.  In one corner was Sao Paulo, the most ‘European’ and by no coincidence the most successful of Brazilian clubs with 6 Brazilian titles, 3 Copa Libertadores crowns and 3 World Club championships to their name. Under coach Ricardo Gomes, well experienced as both player and Manager in Europe, Sao Paulo play a pragmatic modern European style game. All their Brazilian internationalists, Rogerio Ceni, Cicinho, Alex Silva, Miranda and Hernanes are defenders or defensive midfielders.

In the other corner, was Santos, forever known throughout the world as the club of Pele. World Champions and widely acknowledged as the best club side in the world throughout Pele’s time with them, they had a long domestic decline after Pele’s retirement but the 21st century has seen them restored to one of the elite clubs in Brazil with two Brazilian championships and 2 State Leagues. This year Santos have revived memories of the Pele era with a total commitment to attacking football often playing with three forwards , two attacking midfielders and a winger at full back. In their 25 game so far in 2010 they have scored no less than 88 goals, a ratio of more than 3.5 goals a game only ever exceeded in Pele’s prime.

Santos played their most attacking formation in the first leg away in Sao Paulo’s Morumbi Stadium (see Letter from South America ‘Robinho smiles again’) and achieved a 3-2 victory.

Since then there has been considerable speculation as to whether Santos manager Dorival Junior should persist with his total commitment to attack or play more cautiously, especially as the away goals rule applies and even a 1-0 or 2-1 defeat would see his team qualify for the final.

Several of the players, including revived Santos icon Robinho, publicly urged their manager to stick with their attacking style. Come the big day, Sunday, Dorival showed a touch of pragmatism and pushed winger-full back Wesley into a midfield defensive role alongside Arouca, with Para a more orthodox full back coming in to tighten up the back four. To make room for him he dropped exciting young centre forward Andre to leave Robinho and young sensation Neymar as the two men up front. Ricardo Gomes kept faith with his normal 4:4:2 formation but restored recent recruits from Europe Cicinho and Cleber Santana, with young Fernandinho replacing old warrior Washington upfront alongside Dagoberto.

Fortunately for the Romantic Dreamers amongst us, this minor outburst of caution on Dorival’s part did not lessen Santos’s commitment to attacking football. Santos dominated the game from beginning to end and never looked under any danger of not qualifying. The game did not reach the high standards of the first leg but there was never any doubt that Santos would prevail. Attacking superstars Robinho and Neymar were the two best players on the park and it was no surprise that eventually in the 50th minute Neymar put Santos ahead. In the 82nd minute Santos were awarded a penalty, the conversion of which would definitively guarantee their qualification.

Paulo Henrique Ganso one to watch

Despite the presence of experienced players like Edu Dracena, Leo, Arouca and of course the great Robinho it was the youngest man on the park, 18 year old Neymar who grabbed the ball and demanded the right to take it. His outrageously cool effort left experienced Rogerio Ceni no chance.Immediately Dorival took off Neymar and Robinho off, replacing them with midfielders but Santos still managed to score again, through highly talented young attacking playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso. So the match ended 3-0 to Santos giving them a 6-2 aggregate victory that reflected their overall superiority and produced a victory for the romantics and attackers.

The other Semi-final finished in a narrow  victory for Santo Andre over Gremio SP. Although they lost 2-1 at home they scrapped through under the  ‘highest place’  rule. Santo Andre will now face Santos over two legs for the State title. The quality level of this second semi-final was poor. GGW would fancy Partick Thistle against either of these teams, and in the Final Santos should surely prove that ultra-attacking formations can still produce titles.

One by-product of the game will surely be a renewed attempt by the soulless joyless bureaucrats who run (and ruin) the game to legislate further against imagination, flair and laughter in football. A couple of months ago in the league stage game against Sao Paulo, Neymar had scored an outrageously entertaining penalty goal against Rogerio Ceni, one of the most experienced and best goalkeepers in the world. He had run up fast towards the ball, as if to belt it furiously into the net. At the very last moment he had paused briefly, allowed Ceni to dive and coolly rolled the ball gently into the far corner of the unprotected net. Not bad for a young boy and the crowd had loved it. But it produced an adverse reaction all the way from Switzerland. A FIFA spokesman solemnly declared that the International Board then due to meet in early March to consider rule changes, would seriously consider declaring such penalty attempts, known in Brazil as “paradinhas”, as illegal. Such a move was supported by Kaka on the grounds that paradinhas were unfair on goalkeepers. Shame on him! Perhaps he was influenced by being an ex-player and known supporter of Sao Paulo. Fortunately in a rare victory for common sense, the March 2010 meeting did not pronounce on the legality of paradinhas but did say it would keep the matter under review. After all they had more important matters on their mind, like ruling out yet again any attempt to allow technology to help decide if the ball crossed the goal line or not.

Neymar does a paradinha

On Sunday when the referee gave a penalty and Neymar grabbed the ball, the whole of Brazil watching on TV wondered if he would have the nerve to do it again, and would Rogerio Ceni be wise to him this time. The answers were “Yes” and “No” respectively. Neymar did his feint again. Even knowing it was probably coming Rogerio Ceni went with it involuntarily. You could almost see his legs wobbling, their instincts resisting the message from his brain. He didn’t go down the wrong way this time but was immobilised from going the right way until too late.  Maybe the third time he’ll get it right.

Neymar was the GGW man of the match, for an entertaining display of flicks, passes, shots and inspired runs, as well as his two goals. The pressure on Dunga to take him to South Africa grows every time he plays. With 7 goals in the past 7 days he is obviously in top form. The richest European clubs must be considering their 60m+ offers. GGW will keep an eye on both those stories as they develop over the next few months.