Friday, 23 April 2010

Big Teams Play Out Pre-Season Pantomime

Note - this article is one I wrote a month or so ago. The matches took place in March.

When Flamengo midfielder Willians crawled over to the prone body of Vasco da Gama’s Philippe Coutinho on March 14th, you’d have been forgiven for expecting handbags. After all, Willians, a burly ballwinner, had just clattered Coutinho, leaving him in a heap. What ensued was a rarity in today’s game – a simple but touching display of humanity. Willians whispered something to Coutinho, and planted a kiss on the youngster.

This episode, though unique, was symptomatic of the 2010 Brazilian state championships, which have been enlivened by a pantomime spirit in recent weeks.

The male lead, played by the mercurial Robinho, entered stage not from the left or right, but from above, via helicopter. A packed Vila Belmiro (probably) screamed “he’s behind you!” and as if by magic, Pele appeared to greet the returning hero. Robinho’s impact at Santos has been immediate, not just on the pitch, but also at the barbershop, with striker André and whizzkid Neymar quickly adopting their mentor’s haircut. Neymar, it must be said, shares rather more in common with Robinho than looks alone; the two are beginning to form quite a partnership, leaving defenders in their wake complaining of double vision.

André, Robinho and Neymar in typically jovial mood.

Their presence, though, was not enough to prevent a 4-3 home loss to city rivals Palmeiras recently. He game was marked not only by some wonderful goals, but by an amusing series of celebrations. Santos raced into a 2-0 lead, each goal followed by their customary dance, led by the aforementioned Robinho and Neymar. This seemed to rile Palmeiras, who drew level with a brace from Robert. The equaliser was celebrated by an incendiary send-up of the Santos dance, with left-back Armero and midfield talisman Diego Souza pulling faces and shaking it like an uncle at a wedding. Great stuff.

Elsewhere, we had the ever-intriguing continuation of the Corinthians 2010 project. Roberto Carlos has rifled in a couple of 25-yard screamers, providing a reminder of his heyday in Europe. But whether this Corinthians side can manage any more than the occasional trip down memory lane remains to be seen. Their star performer at the moment is not one of the big name veterans, but 21 year-old Dentinho, whose name translates roughly as “little toothy.” The side will need a sustained contribution from the considerably larger but equally dentally challenged Ronaldo if it’s to really challenge for the Libertadores this term.

Dentinho and Ronaldo; a dentist's worst nightmare.

Such stories have provided the state championships with some much needed glamour since the turn of the year. Added to the return of several top players from Europe (as well as the above-mentioned, see Fred, Adriano, Cicinho), the signs appear to be positive for the game in Brazil. But they still cannot disguise the low quality of the early-season competitions. The state championships are in effect little more than a five month pre-season, with many teams preserving players for the Copa Libertadores and even the Copa do Brasil, or merely looking to get their houses in order before the national championship starts.

Still, just as the worker forgets his worries during Carnaval season, it’s hard to complain about deeper structural problems when presented with the seductive charms of Robinho, Neymar, et al. In a period during which a Hollywood kiss and “the dance derby” have hit the headlines, most Brazilian fans are just happy to see the pantomime continue.

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Update. Since these events, the Santos dance celebrations have become even more elaborate, involving a set of baseball hats being handed to them from behind the advertising boards. The Palmeiras dance, incidentally, can be seen here.

(Photo credits; (1) Paulo Pinto/AE, (2) Unknown.)

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