Letters from South America

Santos claim hat-trick of State titles as Neymar shines brightly

Santos players celebrate their SaoPaulo League success

Under the inspired leadership of Neymar, Scotland’s favourite Brazilian footballer, Santos have just completed a hat-trick of Sao Paulo State Championships. Pele was the shining star the last time Santos achieved this feat in the 1960s and it seems young Neymar is fast approaching that level. Neymar scored twice in the 4-2 second leg of the Final against Guarani, adding to the double he scored in the away first leg 4-0 rout. After the match coach Muricy Ramalho, normally a man parsimonious with his praise, said  “Neymar has no limits. No-one knows what he can achieve. He is a sensational player and will continue to improve, so goodness knows what heights he will reach in the years ahead.”

Neymar four goals in the Final confirm his superstar status

So do Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have a legitimate challenger to their status as the two best players in the world? It is only 6 months since Santos, the Copa Libertadores holders and best team in South America, were humiliated by being totally outclassed in the World Club Cup Final. Neymar was anonymous that day as were all his team-mates as the gap between the Old and New World champions proved wider than the insulting odds of 14-1 against the Brazilian club might have  suggested. Neymar had hoped to use the World Club Cup Final to send a message to Barcelona that he was as god as Messi and should be signed to play alongside him in a dream partnership. On the day his team were so outclassed and starved of possession that he never featured, other than one sublime glimmer of skill. It looks like the deal to keep him at Santos until after the World Cup Final in 2014 will hold, but then he will be off to Spain, and both Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to think they have an agreement he will sign for them. Watch this space.

Neymar is not Santos’s only star player. Regular readers of LSA will know all about Paulo Henrique Ganso, the hugely talented midfielder who fortunately seems finally to have recovered from the injuries that have restricted his brilliance in the past 18 months. The Santos midfield also includes international stars Elano, late of Manchester City, and Ibson back from Russia, while another midfield international player Henrique seems to have solved the right back problem. Captain Edu Dracena is also well-known to European football fans after his time in Turkey. His centre back partner Durval is less well known but with this most recent State title he has completed the incredible achievement of winning his 10th State title, won across several states.

While Santos were clinching the Sao Paulo crown, the most prestigious by far of the 27 State Leagues that form the first 4 months of the Brazilian football year,  over in Rio De Janeiro Fluminense  were establishing themselves as the 2012 Rio champions with a 1-0 second leg victory away to Botafogo on top of their 4-1 first leg triumph. The Fluminense success was led by ex Porto, Barcelona and Chelsea super star Deco, well aided in the creative department by Thiago Neves returned home to the club of his heart after a bizarre interlude at deadly rivals Flamengo. Star striker Fred missed the second leg but his replacement Rafael Moura, know in Brazil as He-Man ,lived up to his billing by scoring the only goal.

Internacional Porto Alegre won the Rio Grande de Sol Championship scraping an unsatisfactory 2-1 victory over a stuffy Caxias side that threatened to spoil the IPA party by leading 1-0 at half-time, but led by Leandro Damiao who gained his first cap against Scotland last year, Inter ground out a narrowly deserved win with Leandro scoring the second goal.

Bahia under Falcao clinch State title

In Bahia State, new manager  ex IPA legend and world superstar Falcao led Bahia to their first state title in some while in a tightly fought 2 leg final against bitter local rivals Vitoria. The other state title of any significance, that of Minas Gerais was won by Atletico Mineiro.

With all the State competitions now finished, the serious football can finally begin in Brazil with the start next week of the 2012 Brazilian Championship. The best of the State Champions, Santos, Fluminense and Inter will hope to carry their winning form into the new League, while existing Champions Corinthians and the Rio trio of Flamengo, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama are likely to provide the most likely opposition along with Cruzeiro. With Santos, Fluminense, Corinthians and Vasco still involved in the 2012 Copa Libertadores, then maybe Inter and Flamengo can seek to build an early lead.

LSA will provide regular reports on both the Copa Libertadores and the Brazilian Championship over the next few months.

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Adriano The Emperor strikes back, in time to secure invite for title winning party, to sit on the bench.

Adriano a new Fat Boy for Corinthians?

“He’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pound” was the chant of praise sung by Clyde supporters open-mouthed in awe at stout Steve Clarke’s prime. Nowadays it is more likely to be applied insultingly to faded Brazilian superstars. The great Ronaldo, probably the world’s finest forward of the thirty years preceeding Messi and Ronaldo, set the standard, returning to Corinthians looking a physical parody of his once lithe self. Even with the extra weight, he still managed to do some good business for Corinthians (see LSA Post “The Fat Boy does Good”), helping them to a Sao Paulo League title and a Copa Brazil. However when it came to the tournament that Corinthians really wanted to win, the Copa Libertadores, Ronaldo and his rotund fellow legend Roberto Carlos were just not fit enough to help, and both left Corinthians within weeks of the club’s exit from the premier South American trophy, with the boos and jeers of the fans ringing in their ears. Ronaldo sensibly, hung up his boots for good. Roberto Carlos, with a different kind of good sense, set sail for one last overseas adventure with the mega rich Russians of Anzhi Makhachkalia.

The vacated Fat Boy title was quickly claimed by Adriano who arrived in Sao Paulo in March 2011 to take over Ronaldo’s mantle as the Great Hope who would lead Corinthians to title glory.

Adriano came with a great deal of history. On the positive side, his good days, in Italy with Inter Milan and with Brazil, had shown him to be as good as any centre forward in the world, a world class finisher with surprising silky skills for such a big man. Known in Brazil as the Emperor for his imperious play. But, and it is quite a but, he has a long history of off-field problems that have always prevented him sustaining his best form over any consistent period. In the last LSA mention was made of Ronaldinho’s fondness for the nightlife, in some ways quite understandable for a young male, but Adriano’s problems are of a darker hue. He has a sad history of depression linked to drinking to alleviate it, drinking at a level sufficient to count as serious alcoholism. Inter Milan were surprisingly tolerant of the increased absences from training that became linked to such a threatening pattern of drinking and depression, but eventually their tolerance ran out and in November  2007 he was sent back on loan to Sao Paulo. There in the sun and less intense pressure he played quite well and was recalled to Inter for season 2008-2009. The then Inter manager, a certain Jose Mourinho, initially coaxed some good performances out of Adriano but it did not last, and the tears, the depression and the drinking returned. In April 2009 Adriano announced he was quitting football for good. Initially he blamed it on a breakdown of his relationship with his fiancée, but slowly deeper truths emerged including an inability to come to terms with the death of his father, shot in dubious circumstances in a crime spot in Rio.

Adriano confessed that he felt very unhappy in Italy and that he had lost all pleasure in playing football. He returned to Brazil where he described himself as happy, “with my friends and my family”. His exile from first class football lasted only 26 days, before he signed a contract with his previous Brazilian club, Flamengo. With three weeks training under his belt he made a scoring debut for Flamengo and went onto to become the league’s top scorer as he helped lead Flamengo to a surprise title triumph in December 2009.

Not a great Roman Emperor

Adriano had a different approach to night life than Ronaldinho whose happy relaxed personality led him in constant search of good company and good times. Adriano linked up socially with what any sensible manager would call the wrong crowd, many of whom remembered him from his younger Rio days. By summer 2010 after increasing amounts of bad publicity around his lifestyle and especially his association with men known to be drug barons, Adriano ignored the lessons of his European past and signed up again with an Italian club, this time Roma, in a setting not known for its tranquillity. He never really managed to settle in either the team or the city. The contract he signed with Roma had a number of get-out clauses related to his performance and his behaviour, and by early March 2011 a frustrated management decided to exercise these clauses and cut their losses. Once again the supposed retirement was brief. This time it took 20 days before Adriano was revealed as a Corinthians player, with the man himself explaining in passing how Sao Paulo will be a safer place for him socially than a return to Rio would have been. Corinthians fans were delighted, most fervently believing that at just 29, Adriano had more to offer their club than the very fat Ronaldo.

However the initial enthusiasm and excitement soon turned to frustration as the obviously overweight and unfit Adriano struggled against a series of niggling injuries to get himself fit enough to finally make his trumpeted debut. Without access to their new superstar the goalscoring burden at title favourite Corinthians fell on Leidson the other top class repatriated forward. Leidson rose to the challenge and without Adriano Corinthians still looked the team most likely to win the league. Incredibly it was to be October, in the 28th round of a 38 game league, before Adriano was finally to make his competitive debut for Corinthians. He came on for the last 11 minutes. However a series of minor injuries prevented him from building on this late start and coming up to the middle of November there had been only two more substitute appearances, with no goals. On 16th November Adriano declared himself fully fit again at last and he was named as a substitute for the away trip to Ceara. Despite the game being scoreless, Adriano was not given a chance by the cautious manager Tite and when Leidson was pulled off, it was a midfielder Morais that was brought on rather than Adriano. Eventually Corinthians snatched a 1-0 win.

From Emperor to supersub. Adriano at last makes his debut

Four days later, at home to Atletico Mineiro Adriano again started the match on the bench. This time however he was eventually brought on  in the 67th minute with Corinthians 1-0 down and facing a defeat that would hand the title initiative to Vasco da Gama with only two games to go. The substitution energerised the crowd, the noise generated was stupendous and somehow all the energy and excitement flowed into the Corinthians team. Adriano’s first major contribution was a brilliant assist to allow Leidson to equalise. Yet it appeared that all the energy and all the effort would not be enough as Atletico hung on desperately. Then in the very last minute Adriano struck to score a goal, taking a half chance with class and cool control to win the game for his team. As any normal football supporter would expect Adriano celebrated this first goal after so long in the most joyous fashion. That he was booked for this celebration says something about the soulless direction of the modern game. LSA would urge readers to google “Adriano goal for Corinthians” and see his impressive contribution, making one, scoring one and winning a game for his new club that surely clinched the league, leaving Corinthians two points ahead with two games to go.

Tite, in his usual pragmatic way, avoided getting caught up in the hype and come the next game, away to high-flying Figueirense, Adriano found himself back on the bench. A goal in the 66th minute by Leidson gave Corinthians the decisive advantage and when centre forward Emerson was substituted with 11 minutes to go it was not Adriano but a midfielder who was brought on. To his credit Adriano avoided any temper tantrums about his lack of action and seemed delighted just to be part of it all. A late winner by second placed Vasco da Gama over third placed Fluminense guaranteed that the title race would go down to the last day. Corinthians at home to old rivals Palmeiras only need a draw to guarantee them their 5th Brazilian Championship. It will be interesting to see what role if any Tite allows Adriano to play in the final game, but even if he spends the whole game on the bench, that dramatic last minute winner against Atletico will mean that Adriano will always be part of the story of that title win, even if he doesn’t add a single second to the 73 minutes that is currently his total contribution for the whole season.

But perhaps more importantly, he would appear to have coped with the frustration and inactivity of the past 6 months without triggering off returns to the black places that have haunted him in the past. In the week Gary Speed hung himself, and a book about Robert Enke a goalkeeper who committed suicide, deservedly won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, perhaps we should all just be grateful that Adriano, who displayed a similar depression more openly than these other two, seems to have found some contentment even in a secondary role. Let us all hope that whatever contribution he can make to Corinthians almost certain title triumph will bring him some inner peace.

With one round to go in the Brazilian Championship, there are several other issues still to be decided as well as the destination of the title. Fluminense and Flamengo would appear destined to join Corinthians and Vasco da Gama as Brazil’s representatives in the 2012 Copa Libertadores, but the 5th slot is still up for grabs with Coritiba and Figueirense competing with Inter PA, Sao Paulo and Botofogo. .If Inter beat local rivals Gremio in their last game that would probably be enough to give them, winners in 2006 and 2010, another crack at the Libertadores. And mighty Cruzeiro need a home win against local rivals Atletico Mineiro to be absolutely sure of avoiding the relegation with which they have been flirting dangerously over the last few weeks. LSA regular readers will be pleased that Bahia the carnival club from Salvador have finished their first season back in the top league safe from relegation.

The next LSA will report on the final resolution of the Brazilian season next weekend.

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Flamengo reborn but stumble just before the line. Ronaldinho recrosses his own line and is smiling again, for football rather than nocturnal reasons.

Flamengo - the best supported club in the world

Flamengo are the Brazilian club with the most supporters. An estimated 40 million of them in Rio and spread throughout Brazil make the Mengao truly the club of the people. They traditionally draw their support from the lower reaches of Brazilian society while their Rio rivals Fluminense, Vasco de Gama and Botafogo tend to be better supported by the middle classes and the power elites. Flamengo supporters tend to think of their club as the biggest and the best in the world, a claim not really validated since 1981 when they hammered Liverpool 3-0 to win the World Club Cup.

Since these glories days of Zico, Junior and company, with 3 Brazilian championships in 4 years as well as the Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup wins, Flamengo have never again threatened to lead the world elite, and in the mid years of this first decade of the 21st century, gross mismanagement by incompetent directors lead them perilously close to relegation from the Brazilian top division, a disaster which did actually happen to the other Brazilian club of the people, Corinthians of Sao Paulo, in 2007, as well as to all three of their posher Rio rivals.

Even the winning of the Brazilian League Championship in 2009 came out of the blue, with a mediocre Flamengo team being in the bottom half of the league in mid-season, until one of the 1981 team Andrade emerged as the coach to lead them to an unexpected Championship, their first since 1992. The momentum generated by Andrade’s success could not be maintained into the 2010 Copa Libertadores and Flamengo were eliminated in the quarter finals by a Chilean team, despite having put out Ronaldo’s Corinthians in the last 16 round. Andrade was rewarded for his miracle work by being summarily dismissed and then Flamengo reverted to more typical league form finishing 14th in the 2010 Brazilian League won by their deadly rivals Fluminense.

However new Directors took over the club, with a powerful woman President Patricia Amorim, slowly brought a more professional approach and determined to restore Flamengo to their due position as the pre-eminent Brazilian club.

Ronaldinho Now a Flamego player

The corner stone of their approach was to gazump Gremio’s almost sealed deal to bring Ronaldinho back from Europe to Porto Alegre, and persuade him to sign instead for Flamengo. At one level this seemed an inspired move, Ronaldinho having been the best player in the world for the mid years of the first decade, winning World Footballer of the Year awards in 2004 and 2005. When Flamengo signed him in January 2011 he was only 30 years old and should have several years of top class football left in him. However serious question marks existed over his character and discipline, which made the transfer less obviously brilliant than it might otherwise have appeared.

In his last season with Barcelona, Ronaldinho had displayed a lack of dedicated professionalism. He rejected the authority of the coach Frank Rijkaard and led a cabal of players including Deco, Thiago Motta and Messi, astray in a series of drunken night time escapades. It took another of the Barcelona South Americans, Edmilson, to courageously denounce this situation, claiming there were black sheep aloose in the Camp Nou. Old President Juan Laporta and new Manager Guardiola agreed to slaughter all the black sheep, except for Messi, to cure the club of the sickness and indiscipline that had crept in. Removed from Ronaldinho’s malign social influence, Messi stabilised himself and reverted to being the model professional his personality is more suited to, the results of which have been enjoyed by Barcelona fans and football supporters everywhere over the past three years as he has clearly inherited Ronalidinho’s old role as “best player in the world”.

Ronaldinho sad lonely figure on the field at Milan

Ronaldinho spent a largely miserable 30 months in Milan. Or more accurately he spent a brilliant 30months in Milan, partying almost nightly and single-handedly introducing Carnival traditions to Milan night life. He totally confirmed the correctness of Guardiola’s determination to get rid of his unprofessional approach from Barcelona. His first season in Milan was a poor one on the field, where his form and attitude lead him to being heavily criticised as an unprofessional freeloader. Things improved slightly in the second season, 2009-10, as Ronaldinho sought to restore enough form and reputation to book his flight to South Africa with the Brazilian squad. But he would spoil every brief run of sustained form with another nocturnal splurge, sometimes missing training, sometimes turning up smelling of alcohol. He did want to go to South Africa and did enough over the second half of the season to make it into Dunga’s provisional squad of 30. But Dunga, a hard player, a hard manager, a hard man, decided at the end that he would not risk the man’s reek of indiscipline contaminating his tightly controlled squad, and omitted a genuinely devastated Ronaldinho from the final 23 along with his Milan teammate and occasional dancing partner Pato.

Most Brazilian football supporters were appalled and accused Dunga of betraying the traditions of the beautiful game, in favour of dull conformity. There was much talk that Garrincha, who helped win Brazil two World Cups, was not exactly a model of sober disciplined behaviour even during tournaments. In the event, a rather flat Brazilian team exited the World Cup without distinction even though they had been well-seeded to meet Spain in the Final. They lost in the Quarter Finals to a more spirited Dutch team but it was a game Dunga’s team might well have won and a game where even a couple of minutes of Ronaldinho magic might have proved crucial.

Ronaldinho enjoying the Milan night life too much

The disappointment of missing out on the World Cup did not prompt a disappointed Ronaldinho into a major rethink and season 2010-11 saw him reverting to the worst patterns of his initial season. AC Milan finally decided that he was a liability to them and with Ibrahimovic and Robinho now available to them up front along with a more professional Pato, Ronaldinho drifted out of the first team picture and started partying even more. Allegri the clever and talented new manager made it clear he could do without Ronaldinho and the decision was made to cut their losses and let him leave in the Winter Transfer Window without expecting an enormous fee. They replaced him in their squad with another “bad boy” Antonio Cassano whose indiscipline was of a less nocturnal nature to Ronaldinho’s. With this change settled, AC Milan romped home in the Italian League finishing 6 points ahead of neighbours Inter.

The word was clearly out in European football circles that he was finished as a top class player and even previous suitors Manchester City didn’t want to waste money subsiding the thriving Manchester night life scene.

Several Brazilian clubs, most notably his original club Gremio and fading Palmeiras decided they would like to take a gamble that his charisma and talent could kick-start them into better days again, but in the end it was the new Board at Flamengo who made the most offer, helped no doubt by the fact that Ronaldinho like most poor Brazilian boys had grown up worshipping the Red and Blacks.

While Ronaldinho was naturally the signing that got all the attention, more quietly the Directors engaged in several other repatriations that added much needed depth of quality to the side.  The most talented of this group was Thiago Neves, well known to regular readers of Letters From South America as the player who almost died of a broken heart after scoring 4 goals in a Copa Libertadores Final and still finishing on the losing side, to the worst team ever to win the Copa, LDU Quito. He sought relief from the pain with exile in Europes but his shattered heart prevented him showing his true potential. Eventually he sought a different kind of solace by campaigning for Arab petro dollars and seemingly turning his back on serious football. When Fluminense, his old team, won the 2010 Brazilian Championship they determined to bring their old idol back to lead them into a further attempt on Copa Libertadores glory. For a while it looked as if they had succeeded, but to general surprise he turned up one day to be announced as a new Flamengo signing. Maybe the fact that Flamengo were not playing in the Copa Libertadores tipped the balance for this still haunted man. Also brought back from self-imposed petro dollar semi-retirement was an old Flamengo favourite midfielder Renato Abreu. He had always been a top quality player without ever getting proper international recognition and when he went East aged 30 it seemed his chances of ever playing for Brazil had gone West. They brought experienced forward Deivid back from Turkey to be their main striker. They signed ex-Corinthians goalie Felipe from Braga where he never really settled and to the delight of their younger fans brought back young defensive midfielder Airton on loan from Benfica, who had snapped him up after his starring role in the 2010 Brazilian Title victory but never managed to harnass his tigerish ability. The final addition was not a direct repatriation but class centre back Alex Silva although signed from Sao Paulo actually belonged to Hamburg. Already in the squad were experienced internationalists like Leoardo Moura and Chilean Claudio Maldonado and seasoned professionals like Junior Cesar and Ronaldo Angelim, plus a host of promising youngsters like Welinton, Willian, Diego Mauricio and Negueba.

Vanderlei Luxemburgo the best Brazilian Manager of the past 20 years takes on restoring Flamengo to the top rank

To manage this promising mix of world class superstars, solid internationalists, good professionals and upcoming young players, the Directors turned to the most successful Brazilian manager of the past 20 years, Vanderlei Luxembourg already familiar to regular LSA readers as a great manager and a flawed man. His record over the past 20 years includes 5 Brazilian Championships, 12 State Leagues, and 1 Copa Brazil, as well as a Copa America with the national team. Al;.though he failed to shine in his one year with Real Madrid

True to his record he did not take long to weld all that talent into an effective and attractive, but not reckless, team. He gave Ronaldinho a free role up front behind sole striker Deivid and pushed Thiago Neves and Renato Abreu as wide supports with the centre policed by Airton and Willian standing in brilliantly for the seriously injured Maldonado. Flamengo swept aside all local opposition in the 2011 Rio State League winning both legs of the competition to obviate the need for a grand Final. Ronaldinho played superbly in the final of the second stage competition assisting as Thiago Neves scored both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Botafogo, and the team as a whole looked very good.

It would not be true to say that Ronaldinho completely gave up partying on his return to Flamengo but somehow he settled on a balance that was tolerated by his employers and allowed him to perform professionally on the field. (continue reading…)

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Corinthians need to stop being casual to clinch Brazilian title

Corinthians - the club of the people

Corinthians are popularly known as Timao, the team of the people. They are the best supported of the four big Sao Paulo clubs. Their estimated 30 million supporters are the second biggest support in Brazil behind only the 40 odd million fans of Flamengo, the Rio ‘club of the people’.

In April GGW confidently tipped Corinthians to emerge from the just beginning 2011 Brazilian League as the most likely Champions. And for all of the campaign to date they have either been leaders or very close in contention. Now, with only 5 games to go they sit top of the league, but they will have to cut back on an alarming tendency to casualness if they are to hold on to that number one spot and earn their 5th national title for their fanatical supporters, known as the Fiel.

The four Rio clubs, Vasco de Gama, Fluminense, Flamengo and Botafogo are the only clubs left in a position to deny the Timao the title they have set their hearts on. Currently Vasco the winners of the 2011 Brazil Cup, are behind Corinthians only on goal difference, with 2010 champions Fluminense 2 points behind, and 2009 Champions Flamengo a further point behind sharing 4th place with Botafogo.

In some ways this has appeared to be the most open and even Brazilian Championship ever, in the 8 years since the league resorted to the European formula of League football rather than the more complicated formulas of mini-leagues and knockout stages used in  the first 32 years from the formation of a true national championship in 1971. But those like your GGW correspondent who watch Brazilian games regularly can report that the sad truth is that the increased competitiveness has resulted from a reduced standard of play which means there are no outstanding teams and almost every team is capable of beating any other team. In what would be  a surprise to most UK football supporters, brought up on the myth of Brazilian brilliance, the current overall standard of even the top teams is actually quite poor, by top European standards. (continue reading…)

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Santos and Velez, the Libertadores favourites, head for a classic Final clash of Brazil versus Argentina

Velez head for Copa Libertadores semi-finals

After the shocks of the previous round all 4 Copa Libertadores Quarter finals went as predicted in the last Letter from South America. The two favourites Santos and Velez Sarsfield are still on course to make it a classic Argentina versus Brazil clash in the Final. Velez Sarsfield had the easier victory in the Quarter Finals seeing off Libertad of Paraguay 3-0 in the home leg before travelling to Paraguay to administer a 4-2 thrashing for a convincing 7-2 aggregate victory. The current team are more offensive than previous Velez sides, who have tended to be dour and defensive. Coach Ricardo Gareca has Velez set up very offensively with striking double act of recent Argentina cap Menendez and the prolific Uruguayan Santiago Silva well supported from midfield by small but tricky Maxi Morales, the skilful and mature Zapata and new signing Ramirez. Interestingly, Gareca has decided to depart from the usual Libertadores pattern of fielding weakened sides in the weekend league games in a determined effort to land  a league and Libertadores double. Just 3 days after the second Libertad game, a full strength Velez side won comfortably in the League to put themselves 3 points clear.

Scotland's favourite Brazilian, Neymar, puts Santos in Libertadores semi-final after helping them retain the Sao Paulo State League

Santos too under the pragmatic but always successful leadership of new coach Muricy Ramalho have also defied conventional wisdom by fielding full strength teams in both legs of the Sao Paulo State Championship final that coincided with their Quarter Final ties with recent holders Once Caldas from Colombia. Regular readers of Letters from South America will remember that last year Santos with a team dedicated to attacking football won both the Sao Paulo State League and the Copa Brazil. They lost two of their attacking stars Robinho to AC Milan and Andre to Dynamo Kiev but retained the brightest star of all Neymar along with the enormously talented young playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso. Bolstered by the return of Elano the current Santos team are not so explosively dynamic offensively as last year’s team but probably have a better balance. In the Sao Paulo State final, by far the most prestigious of the 20 or so Brazilian State league that occupy the first 4 months of the year Santos found themselves pitted against old rivals Corinthians who were able to concentrate on the State League after their disastrous early Copa Libertadores exit in the preliminary round. Minus the two icons Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos that were supposed to carry them to Libertadores glory, but boosted by the compensatory transfers of Leidson and Adriano Corinthians were favourites to offer their millions of supporters some consolation by winning the State League. But over the two legs Santos proved the better team, even with half their mind on the Copa Libertadores, and retained their State title with Scotland’s favourite son Neymar proving himself a true star. Either side of the State Final second leg Santos took on Once Caldas, winning the first leg 1-0 in Colombia to set themselves up nicely for the second leg a week later. The home leg proved more fraught. Neymar put them further in front with a smart goal in the 12th minute but then Renteria who flopped in Europe with Porto equalised after 30 minutes, which meant one more Once goal would put them through on the away goals rule. Santos controlled the game for the most part and when Santos were awarded a penalty with 5 minutes to go it seemed as if qualification would be secured. Neymar confidently approached the ball but then shot tamely at the keeper and it was a nervous final 5 minutes for Santos before the game ended with them 2-1 winners on aggregate. After the game Muricy was careful to praise rather than criticise Neymar, stressing he had played very well, scored one goal and come close several times. Muricy confirmed that Neymar would remain the Santos penalty taker. “He is a player with a great deal of confidence”.

Cerro Porteno make the semi-finals andend Mexican interest in the 2011 Copa Libertadores

In the semi-finals Santos will face Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. Cerro eliminated the Mexican side Jaguares in the Quarter Finals drawing 1-1 away in the first leg then using that away goal advantage to approach the second leg in a very careful and cautious manner, eventually winning 1-0.  So another year has gone by without a Mexican side achieving that elusive first triumph in the Copa Libertadores. Given the growing strength and importance of the World Club Cup championship with its guaranteed placed for the CONCACAF champions who are almost always Mexican(7 winners in the last 9 editions), then maybe it is time for the South American Federation to withdraw the two places awarded annually to Mexican clubs and restrict the Copa Libertadores to clubs from their own Conmebol Federation.

Penarol star Estayanoff puts his club in the semi-finals with late goal

The final semi-place went to one of the traditional great South American club sides, Penarol of Uruguay, World Club Cup winners in 1961, 1966 and 1982. However in the 30 years since that alst triumph, over Aston Villa, Penarol have fallen on hard times and it was all of 24 years ago since they last made even the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. This year they qualified by beating Universidad Catolica of Chile over 2 tightly fought legs. Penarol, having put out holders Internacional PA in the previous round. won the first leg 2-0 in Montevideo. But they struggled in the second leg and with 5 minutes to go, at 2-0 down it looked as if the game was heading to a penalty shoot out. Then the current Penarol star Estayanoff, who never really impressed in his spell in Europe, scored the vital goal to put  a relieved Penarol through 3-2 on aggregate. Despite their history as 5 times Libertadores champions, this Penarol side are likely to start significant underdogs against a Velez Sarsfield club that won the title in 1994.

The other semi final will see Santos, twice winners with Pele in 1962 and 1963 and runners up in 2003, take on a Cerro Porteno club which has never made the Final.

On current form the Final is likely to be contested between Velez and Santos.

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Copa Libertadores 1st Knockout Round – the Slaughter of the complacent Brazilians


Complacent Holders Inter PA lose to Penarol

Wednesday 4th May 2011 will enter Brazilian football history as one of the nation’s blackest nights ever. All 4 of their representatives in the Copa Libertadores in action that night lost, 3 from situations that had seemed eminently winnable after the first leg ties. Never before in the history of premier Club Cup competition, either in South America or Europe, has a country lost 4 representatives in the one night.

The most prominent casualty, the greatest shock, was the defeat of the competition favourites Cruzeiro in their own stadium. Cruzeiro had done the hard part, in the first leg, going to Colombia and beating previous holders Once Caldas 2-1 in their own stadium. For the return leg in Belo Horizonte they were without their 3 star forwards, Wallyson, Thiago Ribeiro and Brandao recently repatriated from Marseille in the wake of a sex scandal. Imagine Manchester United without Rooney, Hernandez and Berbatov. Or Barcelona without Messi, Villa and Pedro. Or Real Madrid without Adebayor, Benzema and Higuian. Oh woops, Mourinho chose to be without those three for his home game against Barcelona, and lost.

(continue reading…)

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Copa Libertadores comes to life, at last

Cruzeiro kickstart the Copa Libertadores

This week the eyes of the eyes not just of Europe but the whole world have been focused on the dramatic confrontation in the European Champions League between the two Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. Meanwhile back in South America, their equivalent tournament, the Copa Libertadores has much more quietly begun to waken up after a deadly quiet first 3 months.

Over the last three days all 8 of the First Knockout Round first leg ties have been played and by this time next week all the Quarter-Finalists will be known. The relative weakness of the South American club champions was exposed last December in the World Club Cup competition, when for the first time ever, the Copa Libertadores champions did not feature in the Final. Inter PA were eliminated at the semi-final stage by the African champions Mazembe, in  a result that sent shock waves of fear, alarm shame and recrimination reverberating throughout the South American continent. There will considerable extra pressure on the 2011 Copa Libertadores Champions to redeem the reputation of their continent with victory in this year’s World Club Cup. Yet not a bookie in the world is likely to have the European representatives, now almost certain to be either Barcelona or Manchester United, as anything other than massive odds on favourites to provide another European triumph. (continue reading…)

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Fluminense finally recover from their broken heart with title win in Brazilian Championship

Fluminense supporters celebrate the Brazilian Championsahip win

On Sunday there was great joy in the posher half of Rio de Janeiro as traditional giant club Fluminense finally sealed the Brazilian Championship after a season long tussle with Corinthians from Sao Paulo. Fluminense beat already relegated Guarani at home in the last game of the championship. A heart broken Corinthians, with Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos on board, could only draw their last game and were even pipped on the line for second place by Cruzeiro. Gremio took 4th place to qualify for the preliminary round of the 2011 Copa Libertadores, in which holders Internacional PA and Brazil Cup winners Santos will complete a very strong Brazilian representation. 

Much of the credit for the Fluminense success must go to Coach Muricy Ramalho. Earlier this summer, when Dunga resigned after Brazil’s disappointing performance in the World Cup, Muricy was the preferred choice, of both the public and the Brazilian FA, to replace him. Muricy had steered Sao Paulo to three successive Brazilian titles in 2006 to 2008 and almost clinched  a fourth successive title with Palmeiras in 2009 until a dramatic collapse in the last few games cost them what had seemed a certain title. He left Palmeiras to join Fluminense and after the first half of the season had transformed a team that had struggled for the past two seasons into one involved in what seemed  a two horse race with Corinthians. Muricy committed what most Brazilians regarded as an act of high treason and turned his back on his country’s call to insist on honouring his contract with Fluminense, who had no intention of releasing him. Mano Meneses showed more patriotic spirit and took the national job, But Muricy must be grateful his gamble came off, with his fourth national title in 5 years. 

Deco. Back home but still a winner

Fluminense are not that impressive a team, without many real stars, but they do play an organised, disciplined form of football. They used the summer break to reinforce their team by repatriating two World Cup stars from Chelsea, right back Belletti and the famous Deco, Brazilian born but a naturalised Portuguese citizen who had starred with Porto and Barcelona as well as Chelsea. Belletti who won a World Cup winners medal in 2002 before joining Villarreal, then Barcelona then Chelsea, struggled to re-establish himself back in Rio and in truth did not contribute much to the league triumph. Deco had more of a positive impact becoming the team’s main playmaker. However their star player is Dario Conca, an Argentinean offensive midfielder who scores most of their goals, and assists with  most of the rest. Up front they had Fred, another internationalist repatriated from Europe, returned old warhorse Washington and ex Flamengo striker Emerson. They are one of the poorer teams to have won the Brazilian League in recent years, probably only marginally better than last year’s champions, their eternal rivals Flamengo, who spent most of this season struggling against relegation.  (continue reading…)

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Neymar “Boy Power” sours Santos success story

In an astonishing display of kowtowing to Boy Power, the Santos Directors have destroyed the cornerstone of the framework that transformed their club earlier this year into the most attack-minded club in world football by sacking manager Dorival Junior rather than discipline superstar ‘Wonderkid’  Neymar.

Last Wednesday 15th September, Santos were 3-1 up against Atletico Goianos with 6 minutes to play when Neymar won a penalty when a typically mazy run into the penalty area was ended by a late tackle. Neymar has been the main penalty taker this season but has recently missed  a few, at least one by trying to be too smart in deceiving the goalkeeper. Young  Neymar assumed he would take this penalty but the manager Dorival sent a message via the captain that Marcel not Neymar was to take the kick. Neymar argued vigorously with his captain then ran off to the touchline and subjected a bemused Dorival to a prolonged outburst of vile verbal abuse. He continued his childish sulk by refusing to pass to his teammates for the remainder of the game, at the end of which he stormed off still in a giant huff. (The whole incident can be seen on You Tube by googling ‘Neymar tantrum’)

After the game, Dorival made it clear that this kind of behaviour was totally unacceptable and that Neymar would require to be severely disciplined. He said  “I have never in all my career seen such a problem with discipline. This is very serious and cannot be allowed to go unpunished”.  At first it seemed that the club directors agreed and it was announced that Neymar, already a multimillionaire at 18 years of age, would be fined an undisclosed sum and suspended for an indeterminate period. There was also talk of referring the young millionaire to a psychologist, given that this outburst was just the latest in a series of indisciplined outbursts  both on and off the pitch.

Neymar duly missed the next Santos game, against Guarani. In the meantime, after being publicly criticised by his appalled father, Neymar issued an apology. He claimed he was embarrassed by his outburst. He stressed that the behaviour in question was not the real Neymar, who is  a happy person who always has a smile on his face. He asked for forgiveness from his manager and his team-mates. (continue reading…)

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Watch out Inter, Inter are coming after you

Inter PA celebrate winning the Copa Libertadores

 Last night Inter PA comfortably won the second leg of the Copa Libertadores Final by 3 goals to 1 and won the giant trophy for the second time in 5 years. As in the first leg, Inter lost the first goal just before half time. But as in the first leg, they did not panic but kept playing calmly and on the hour mark, Rafael Sobis, on from the start in place of the injured Alecsandro, paid of his recent transfer fee with the equaliser that put them back ahead on aggregate. Two further second half goals, by substitutes Leandro and Giuliano, made it very comfortable for Inter and no-one noticed or cared when Chivas got a second in the second minute of added on time.

So Inter won 5-3 on aggregate and captain Bolivar got to lift the massive trophy to the delight of the 50,000 plus Inter fans in the stadium. Giuliano finished up top scorer over the Libertadores campaign, not bad for a reserve midfielder, although he is likely to replace Sandro in the first time line up now that very talented midfielder Sandro is finally released to join Spurs.

The next major goal for Inter is to re-win the World Club Championship they won in 2006 beating Barcelona in the final. This time it is the other Inter, from Milan, they are likely to face in the final in December in Abu Dhabi. Their chances may very well depend on how many of last night’s team are sold to Europe before then. Sandro has already gone and there are rumours that class full back Kleber, whose brilliant pass laid on the first goal last night may follow him. Hopefully the rest of the squad will be retained and maybe even strengthened.

Roth 10 years on he find sthe key to happiness

Manager Celso Roth offers a ray of hope for Arsene Wenger. Like Wenger, Roth’s team always play good football and he has become a highly rated manager. However last night’s triumph was the first time in 10 years he has actually won a trophy to go with the couple of State crowns he won more than a decade ago. No wonder he looked like the cat who finally got the cream.

The Inter win ended a sequence of 3 consecutive defeats by Brazilian teams in the Copa Libertadores final, their bitter rivals Gremio lost to Boca Juniors in 2007, current league leaders Fluminense catastrophically lost to LDU Quito in 2008, and Cruzeiro were beaten in 2009 by Estudiantes. A future LSA will look at Fluminense’s defeat in 2008 and ask if they have finally recovered from their broken heart that almost killed the club.

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