Sunday 30 December 2012

Brazilian football new year's resolutions

Alternative title: funny things that have happened in Brazilian football in the last 12 months that I have callously grouped together in one of those not-entirely-coherent end-of-year lists.

Still, everybody else is doing it, so why can't I?* Happy new year!

I will... train more often
Adriano upon signing for Corinthians last year: "My aim is to return to the national team. I'm sure it's possible. I've come here to win."

March 2012: Corinthians terminate Adriano's contract after revealing that the striker skipped 67 (67!) training sessions in a year. 

I will... pay for items at the club shop

"You're not paying my brother," exclaimed Assis, sibling and agent of a certain Ronaldinho, as he pushed a trolley full of merchandise towards the exit of the Flamengo club shop. "So I'm not paying either."

An hour and a half later, after frantic discussions with Fla's director of finance Michel Levy, Assis left the store with 25 free shirts - the number to which Levy was entitled through his role at the club. Brilliantly, this didn't quite satisfy the 41-year-old Assis, who grabbed - and proceeded to pay for - two towels emblazoned with his brother's image before storming out. 

I will... trust my players
Convinced that Ronaldinho is violating club policy by sneaking women into the club's pre-season training camp, Flamengo coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo takes matters into his own hands, trawling through CCTV footage at the Londrina hotel his the players are staying. "Sherlock Luxa", as he is later dubbed by GloboEsporte, finds what he was looking for and demands that Ronaldinho is sacked.

Two weeks later: Flamengo dismiss Luxemburgo. (#playerpower)

I will... consider the long-term effects of my actions

17 October: Palmeiras fan Adailton Alves quits his job as a janitor to lend his support as his club fights relegation. "My wife isn't happy but it's better to be addicted to Palmeiras than to drugs or alcohol. It was so sad when Palmeiras were relegated in 2002. I hope it turns out differently this time."

18 November: Palmeiras relegated. Adailton unemployed.

I will... be more modest
Vanderlei Luxemburgo to an unnamed Flamengo player: "You're a shit. You're poor. I own three aeroplanes."

I will... not cast the first stone
Palmeiras midfielder Daniel Carvalho, criticised for being out of shape since his return to Brazil: "When I arrived at CSKA Moscow they gave me steroids to bulk me up."

Roman Babaev, CSKA Moscow director of football: "It's nonsense. He likes eating."

I will... abide by the laws of the game

A modest state championship game between Guarany-SE and Sergipe hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in April. With Sergipe leading 1-0 in the dying stages, Guarany goalkeeper Acássio went forward for a corner, ending up marooned as Sergipe broke away seconds later. Midfielder Diego Lima charged into the Guarany half, guided a shot past the last defender, and waited for the net to ripple.

But it didn't ripple. Rather, a rogue ballboy nipped onto the pitch and volleyed the ball clear. An unseemly brawl and internet stardom ensued, but the ballboy was unrepentant when interviewed: "I don't regret it because we [Guarany] were robbed by the referee. He disallowed a clear goal earlier in the match."

I will... dress up more often

. And again.

I will... keep my thoughts to myself

In a Rio nightclub in the early hours of the morning, Adriano stumbles onto the stage and grabs a microphone. "I want to tell everyone here that I love Flamengo. I know this will be all over the internet tomorrow. I'm from the slums and you can't take that away from me!"

Flamengo president Patrícia Amorim: "He makes it hard for us."

I will... be more respectful to women

Corinthians striker Elton on his sexual prowess: "You have to be deadly - both on and off the pitch. I really go for it. By my count, I've slept with over 500 women."

I will... take more care with my work

Palmeiras hired an artist to sculpt a bust of legendary goalkeeper Marcos, who retired this year. Let's just say the result wasn't quite satisfactory...

I will... put my fingers in my ears and hold my breath
Caldense player Leandrão missed his side's state championship opener with a bad case of... hiccups.

I will... not covet another man's (child's) possessions

CBF official José Maria Marin was caught pocketing a medal at a youth football tournament. The real joke? He's now the CBF president.

I will... suppress my vampire instincts

Irritated by the attentions of Boca Juniors player Matías Caruzzo in the Copa Libertadores final, Corinthians forward Emerson Sheik went all Mike Tyson, taking a big old bite of the defender's hand.

"He started spitting at me, then he ran his hand over my ass two or three times," Emerson later told Placar magazine. "What was I supposed to do, punch him? In any other game I would have. When we fell on the floor and he pushed my face, the sweat made his fingers slip into my mouth. That was bad luck for him."

(Emerson, by the way, has a pet monkey. Make of that what you will.)

*NB – this is an entirely unacceptable moral code.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian here.

Saturday 22 December 2012

January sales: five young Brazilians to look out for during the European transfer window

For one month every year, a sizeable chunk of the world rejoices as presents rain down courtesy of benevolent bearded benefactors. Yes, the European transfer window is just around the corner, promising another flurry of joy, pain and barely believable men with two mobile phones clogging up Sky Sports News with rumours about Peter Crouch being spotted in a chip shop in Norfolk. It is both a fever dream and a waking nightmare for football fans.

If you're lucky, your chairman might avoid the pitfalls of the market (Marlon King, Nigel Quashie, etc) and bring in some South American talent to spice things up in 2013. In my latest Unibet column I've picked out five young Brazilians who could be appearing on Premier League wish lists this year.

Read the article here.

Monday 10 December 2012

Brazilian Football Digest: November

No time to keep up with the day-to-day happenings of Brazilian football? Help is at hand. I've picked out the key stories from October for my latest monthly digest on the Betting Expert blog. This edition features some title-winning cariocas, nefarious CBF dealings and a cracking goal from one of the many Brazilians named after presidents of the USA.

To read it, click here.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Grinders keepers: how Fluminense won the Brasileirão

As title-clinching wins go, Fluminense's victory over Palmeiras on November 11 felt slightly anticlamactic. Sure, Brazilian broadcaster Globo wheeled out treasured commentator Galvão Bueno for the occasion (the Brazilian analogue of the proverbial fat lady clearing her throat) and the match itself produced the goods (Flu won 3-2, simultaneously pushing their opponents further down a path that ended in relegation a couple of weeks later), but the occasion felt flat.

The explanation was simple: the Tricolor's second Brasileirão in three seasons had long had an air of inevitability about it. This is not to belittle the achievement. The Rio giants, while perhaps not the neutrals' choice, were ruthless in pursuit of their tetracampeonato. With one game to play, they have conceded just 31 goals - the fewest in the league - and scored the second most. They have lost just four of 37 games. The resilience that earnt them the nickname Time de Guerreiros (Team of Warriors) has hardly even been needed; relentless efficiency has been the key.

You can read the rest of this article at Unibet by clicking here.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Greetings from square one: Felipão returns after Menezes dismissal

Timing, in football and in life, is everything. Just ask poor old Mano Menezes. The 50-year-old, who had (somewhat fortuitously) kept his job as Brazil coach in the wake of a shoddy 2011 Copa América campaign and again after a bitterly disappointing loss in the final of the Olympic football tournament, was relieved of his duties on November 23 – just weeks after the seleção produced the two most impressive performances of his reign.

In time, it will become clear just how thankless the task undertaken by Menezes really was. The inheritor of a side troubled by the twin terrors of age and underachievement, Menezes managed to inject some spark back into the seleção. He successfully integrated a new generation of players, ended the perceived selection bias towards players plying their trade in Europe, and got Brazil playing proactive football after years of stuttering under Dunga.

True, his stewardship was not without fault. Brazil's Copa América performances were as stodgy as the pitches they were played on, while it took an inordinate amount of time to find a central midfield combination that suited the progressive game he wished his side to play. But he has reason to be thoroughly disappointed at his dismissal, which comes just 18 months before the World Cup. Menezes's whole project was based on a four-year cycle, which seemed more than fair given the enormity of the job at hand. As it is, he has been deprived of the opportunity to sit his final exam, that by which his work could have been fairly judged.

His sacking, which was orchestrated by CBF president José Maria Marin (of whom more later) speaks again of the short-termism at the heart of Brazilian football (and of football per se, for that matter), and leaves his replacement, Luiz Felipe Scolari with two options, neither of which is particularly appealing: to build upon Menezes's work (in which case why fire Menezes himself?) or to rip it up and start again just when things are taking shape.

Of the three names initially linked to the job in the wake of Menezes's departure, Scolari seemed the least attractive option. The sultry Muricy Ramalho may have turned down the seleção in 2010, but his CV (three consecutive Brasileirão titles with São Paulo, another with Fluminense, a Copa Libertadores win with Santos) is hard to ignore. Tite, who guided Corinthians to their first ever Libertadores title this year, looked an even more likely candidate, particularly when the CBF announced that Menezes's successor would only be appointed in the new year  i.e. after the Timão's long-awaited Club World Cup campaign.

Another name was thrown into the mix by sports paper Lance!, who claimed that Pep Guardiola was interested in the job. The mouthwatering prospect of a tiki-taka takeover was rejected out of hand, however, highlighting the commonly-held (if increasingly outmoded) view that Brazil should never be coached by a foreigner. "I believe in Brazilian managers," scoffed Marin: "We've won five World Cups with our own coaches."

That reverence for the successes of the past reached its logical conclusion with Scolari's appointment on Wednesday. Felipão, of course, is one of the famous five; he was parachuted in to the Brazil job in 2001 and led the seleção to their fifth World Cup. That success, and the fact that Brazil have failed to replicate it in the decade since, ensures that Scolari has a significant and vocal constituency. Indeed, the pro-Felipão groundswell in the days following Menezes's dismissal was almost palpable, with assorted Brazil alumni (including national-treasure-turned-political-nodding-dog Romário) piping up in in support of their man.

But public opinion isn't always right. If the last ten years have been hard on the seleçao, they've been even harder on Scolari, whose trophy cabinet has been expanded to the fairly measly tune of one Uzbek title and one Brazilian Cup. A lengthy spell in charge of Portugal promised much but delivered little, while his last high-profile job, at Chelsea, lasted for all of seven months.

A return to his homeland hardly helped matters; while Scolari deserves credit for guiding Palmeiras to the Copa do Brasil earlier this year (a title that reaffirmed his reputation as cup specialist), his fingerprints are all over the ignominious relegation of the Verdão to Série B. One of Scolari's most notable managerial attributes – his ability to galvanise team spirit even in the face of criticism – was in scant supply in São Paulo, with his prickly personality creating rifts in the boardroom and in the dressing room. Tactically, too, his best days appeared to be behind him: his decision to use a three-man defence in 2002 was indicative of a coach willing to take brave, unexpected decisions; his Palmeiras side, by contrast, traded in clunky, percentage football.

All of this, apparently, was lost on the CBF, whose decision smacks of petty politicking. At appears that Marin, whose greatest hits include the not-so-subtle pocketing of a youth tournament winner's medal earlier this year, wanted to break up the de facto Corinthians old boys alliance that had control of seleção. Sanches (a close friend of former CBF president Ricardo Teixeira, the man Marin replaced) also found himself seeking new opportunities a couple of days after Menezes was sent packing, as Marin marked his territory. In this context, the appointment of Scolari – and of Carlos Alberto Parreira, another World Cup winner, as technical director – must be seen as populism, plain and simple.

Of course, good outcomes sometimes come from what appear to be bad decisions; history can make a fool of anyone. For now at least, though, Scolari's appointment looks misguided. In Menezes, Brazil had a thoughtful coach who was improving as his side did; a man who, despite some hiccups, successfully oversaw a much-needed generation change. Scolari may be the popular choice, but you can only go back to the future so many times.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian HERE.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Tears and fears as relegation looms for Palmeiras

Tears rolled down the faces of the Palmeiras fans gathered inside the Fonte Luminosa ("Luminous Fountain" - yes, really) stadium on November 4. With Botafogo leading 2-1, their side was taking another small but irreversible step toward the indignity of relegation from Brazilian football's top tier.

But these weren't tears of despair; rather, military police at the ground had resorted to the use of pepper spray after objects began to rain down onto the pitch, just the latest indignity suffered by supporters for whom sadness has given way to anger in recent weeks.

You can read the rest of this article at ESPN FC (né ESPN Soccernet) here.

Friday 9 November 2012

Brazilian Football Digest: October

Enjoy Brazilian football but don't have time to watch/read about it as much as you'd like? Help is at hand, friend. I'll be writing a monthly digest for Betting Expert, in which I'll pick out the key stories and performers from Série A and the seleção.

My October round-up features an ageing playmaker, some handball nonsense, a tactical leap forward and some bloke called Neymar. Read it here.

Monday 5 November 2012

Book Club

Long-time readers of SKP will know that I have had a number of articles published over at the lovingly-compiled blog In Bed With Maradona. Now, one of those pieces has found its way into a lovingly-compiled book, entitled IBWM: The First Two Years.

The book, as its title so opaquely implies, compiles a number of articles which appeared on the site during the last couple of years. Its editor, David Hartrick, was kind enough to include my tribute to Ronaldo Fenômeno, which now sits alongside articles by some of my favourite bloggers and writers.

The book is available in various places, but I'm told that buying it directly from the publishers is preferable to those who put a good deal of time and effort into the project. All proceeds will go to maintaining and improving IBWM, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a worthy cause.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Friendly fire: strikerless Brazil stumble upon winning blueprint

Two games, ten goals scored and none conceded. Brazil’s record during the October international break was an impressive one, but the figures both overblow and undersell the significance of the past week. Firstly, caution must be taken in light of the relatively modest opposition put before the seleção by whatever nefariously obscure marketing company has the ear of the Brazilian federation this month. A 6-0 win over Iraq in Malmö (me neither*) was probably about par for the course in the eyes of most, while Tuesday’s romp came against a Japan side for whom a midweek match in Poland (again, no idea**) was probably more of an inconvenience than a fillip.

On the other hand, though, the results alone fail to tell the whole story of what could prove to be a crucial week for Brazil in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. A side that had been roundly booed by fans in São Paulo last month – partly due to petty club allegiances, partly because the seleção were dire in a 1-0 win over South Africa – found the kind of identity that had been lacking since the early days of Mano Menezes’ stewardship.

For “found”, read “stumbled upon”; necessity was the mother of invention against Iraq. With Luís Fabiano and Fred victims of a one-player-per-Brazilian-club selection policy designed to minimise domestic disruption, an injury to Leandro Damião left Menezes without a natural number nine at his disposal. While many expected Hulk to assume the role – as he has a handful of times, to negligible effect – Menezes instead pushed Neymar forward, ahead of a supporting cast that included Kaká, recalled after a two-year absence.

The new system worked masterfully. With Neymar repeatedly and intelligently drifting to the left and Hulk stretching play on the right, midfield runners were beckoned forward, giving Brazil a renewed fluidity. Chelsea youngster Oscar was the chief beneficiary, dictating play from midfield and picking up two goals before the half-time whistle. His development into an international-quality playmaker, while hardly surprising, has been staggering in its swiftness.

Things got even better against Japan, with Kaká and Corinthians powerhouse Paulinho making notable contributions. The former revelled in a slightly more peripheral role; no longer burdened with the responsibility of being the number ten (a job to which his skillset was never truly suited), his sashaying forays in the left channel proved a permanent thorn in Japan’s side.

He also linked well with Neymar, a player with whom he traded a series of saccharine “no, I love you more” press statements prior to the Iraq game. An unbroken exchange of six or seven passes between the pair against Japan demonstrated a nascent relationship that Menezes is understandably keen to harness. If the reserved, thoughtful Kaká can serve as a role model off the pitch as well as on, his recall will go down as a masterstroke

Question marks remain, of course. The central midfield pairing of Paulinho and Ramires is undoubtedly dynamic, but may not offer sufficient protection against top-level opponents. The inclusion of Sandro would solve that problem, but at the cost of some of the attacking fluidity that marked this week’s displays. Hulk, meanwhile, continues to impress only in bursts (only when he’s really angry, or something) while Leandro Damião would feel understandably aggrieved at the prospect of becoming a bit-part player, having led the line with some aplomb during the 2012 Olympic tournament.

These concerns seem slightly trivial, though, and for good reason. For the first time in months (and arguably for the first time since the post-World Cup youth blowout against the USA), the seleção has an identity. That it is a flexible, modern identity suggests Menezes’ occasional tactical intransigence could be dissipating, and bodes well as thoughts turn to the 2014 World Cup. Two games, ten goals scored and one new dawn: not bad for a week’s work.
*  NB – I know where Malmö is, thank you for asking.
**  See above.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian HERE.

(Photo credit: Odd Andersen.)

Saturday 13 October 2012

Oscar night: Kaká returns for Brazil and catches a glimpse of the future

Kaká made his long-awaited return to the seleção this week, starting against Iraq after two years in the international wilderness. But despite playing well, the evening was tinged with melancholy for the Real Madrid man, who was given a close-up demonstration of why he has become a peripheral figure in recent times. Quite simply, Brazil don't need Kaká as they once did. Because now they have Oscar.

The Chelsea man was in superb form on Thursday, underlining how vital he has become for the seleção in recent months. I've written about the youngster - and how he offers Brazil something different to Kaká - over at Unibet. Click here to read the article.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Lionised but cast aside: Alex eyes up Brazil return after eight years in Turkey

“I’ve never cried as much as I did this week,” he sighed as the camera bulbs flashed. He won’t have been the only one. After a fruitful eight-year romance, Brazilian playmaker Alex finalised his departure from Fenerbahçe this week, leaving fans in Turkey to lament the loss of one of its biggest sporting stars.

I've written about Alex's legacy at Fener, as well as his possible destinations in Série A, for the folks over at A Football Report. Click here to read the article.

Friday 5 October 2012

A message from the (new) king

Oh, hello there. It seems you've caught me in my full rhinestone glory. How careless of me to leave my dressing room door ajar. I cannot stop to explain myself just now, but I will leave you with an oblique instruction. If you like this kind of nonsense, click on the image when the clock strikes eleven on the night of a full moon. I dare you.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The First Gringo

Before Clarence Seedorf, before Diego Forlán, before Pablo Forlán even, there was Julien Fauvel. A coffee merchant by trade, the Frenchman blazed a trail for foreign players in the Brazilian game, appearing in the very first Santos side in 1913.

I've written a short article on Fauvel for In Bed With Maradona, which you can read by clicking here.

Friday 7 September 2012

Brazilian Youngsters Play Name Game... And Lose

What’s in a name? It depends which country you’re in. In Brazil, the answer is commonly 'hilarity'. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at the Copa São Paulo (known colloquially as the Copinha), the country’s premier youth football tournament. This year’s competition boasted some of the most improbable monikers ever to grace the football world. 

First came the nicknames. Culinary triumvirate Bananinha (little banana), Salsicha (sausage) and Marcelo Pastel (Marcelo pastry) were early pace-setters, but were soon usurped in the improbability stakes. Pangaré (mule) established himself as a contender, but he too was quickly blown out of the water by an 18-year-old from João Pessoa. Whoever decided that Thiago Alves de Sousa should be known as Bactéria is both heartless and an absolute genius.

Elsewhere, given names reflected the Brazilian obsession with Anglophone (and particularly American) culture. Among the savage transliterations of of English names were Jeyson, Jhon Cley, Valkenedy and Walis. Head and shoulders above all comers in this subgroup, however, was the immaculately named Olliver Gulliver of Atlético Acreano.

Other names were notable simply for their disrespect for linguistic norms. The likes of Anykson, Deusdante, Edjostenes, Gilmarx, Hukerlysson, Jaiellyson, Kerlyson, Nickthiell, Swillames, Wberlan and Weriklleyes look bad enough in English, but (trust me on this) are utter monstrosities in Portuguese. It took me a good few minutes to work out how to even pronounce Wberlan.

The Copinha did, however, highlight the esteem in which football legends (both Brazilian and European) are held. Charles Miller, the man who introduced the game to Brazil in 1894, now has a 17-year-old namesake playing for Fortaleza, whilst Americano-MA boasted a Roberto Baggio in their squad. The tournament also stood out for its 15 Romários (or Romarinhos), one of whom is the son of old baixinho himself.

Finally, we come to the best category of all: misspelt names. This year’s Copa São Paulo included touching tributes to Dutch legends Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. The resulting names – Raikard and Rudigullithi – are nothing if not loveably erroneous. The icing on the cake, however, came in the shape of Cruzeiro youngster Lynneeker. I’ll let you work that one out.

Versions of this article appeared in FourFourTwo magazine and on The Guardian's Sport Network blog.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Forward Thinking: Why Leandro Damião Would Shine at Spurs

Continually linked with a move to the Premier League over the last year, Leandro Damião is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after youngsters currently playing in the Campeonato Brasileiro. The striker, who caught the eye with a series of commanding displays for Brazil in the Olympic Games, has already attracted two multi-million pound offers from Tottenham Hotspur, who remain hopeful of reaching a deal with Internacional.

With so much speculation surrounding Damião's future, I've written a profile of him for Unibet. Therein, I discuss his impact in Brazil, and argue that his robust style makes him perfectly suited to the English game. You can find the piece here.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

History Repeating: Brazil's Olympic Hoodoo Continues

A handful of thrilling prospects. The world's best centre-back. A favourable run to the final. Fifteen goals in five games. Wembley a sea of yellow, green and blue. A fifty year hoodoo begging to be brought to an end. And then... nothing.

Brazil's Olympic campaign ended in thoroughly disappointing style on Saturday, when a ruthless Mexico side upset the odds to take the gold medal.

I've written a short piece about the game and Brazil's shortcomings for When Saturday Comes. You can read the article by clicking here.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Captive Audience: On the Kidnapping of Jorge Valdivia

When Palmeiras midfielder Jorge Valdivia and his wife were kidnapped in June, the reaction in Brazil was bizarrely mixed. Whilst the vast majority expressed their sympathy with the player and his family, a vocal few bought into the notion that the Chilean had invented the incident in order to facilitate a move a way from Brazil. He wouldn't be the first to attempt such a deception: then-Botafogo defender Somália was proven to have lied to police over a similar claim in 2011. 

I've written an article about the Valdivia case - and the issue of kidnapping in Brazilian football more generally - for the latest issue of When Saturday Comes. The magazine is available at all good (and probably some mediocre) newsagents. Alternatively, you can purchase a digital edition or subscribe to the WSC iPhone/iPad app.

Monday 30 July 2012

Ramires Recalled to Brazil Squad for Sweden Friendly

Brazil's Olympic campaign may only be two games old, but that hasn't prevented Mano Menezes from naming his squad for the friendly against Sweden on 15 August. The main headline is the return of Ramires, who has been missing from the seleção since his involvement in the 2011 Copa América.

The full squad is as follows:

Neto (Fiorentina)
Renan Ribeiro (Atlético Mineiro)
Gabriel (Milan)

Rafael (Manchester United)
Danilo (Porto)
Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
Alex Sandro (Porto)
Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain)
David Luiz (Chelsea)
Juan (Internazionale)
Dedé (Vasco da Gama)
Bruno Uvini (São Paulo)

Rômulo (Spartak Moscow)
Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur)
Ramires (Chelsea)
Oscar (Chelsea)
Paulinho (Corinthians)
Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos)
Lucas (São Paulo)

Neymar (Santos)
Jonas (Valencia)
Alexandre Pato (Milan)
Leandro Damião (Internacional)
Hulk (Porto)

The squad remains largely unchanged from that competing at London 2012, then, with the notable additions of Jonas, Paulinho, Dedé, Ramires and Daniel Alves. Young goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro, who is currently on stand-by for the Olympic squad after Rafael's injury, has been drafted into the squad proper, whilst Marcelo is granted a rest.

Monday 23 July 2012

Oscar Winners: Why Chelsea Are Chasing Brazil's Latest Sensation

One of the best players in Brazil over the last year, Oscar has shot to international prominence over the last few weeks due to his proposed transfer to Chelsea. With that deal looking increasingly likely (Internacional president Giovanni Luigi admitted that a verbal agreement is in place between the two clubs), it appears that English football fans will get a first hand look the man who looks set to make Brazil's No.10 his own over the next decade.

I've written a profile of Oscar for the lovely folks at Life's a Pitch, in which I discuss his strengths and how he may be used by Roberto Di Matteo.

To read the piece, click here.

(Photo credit: Alexandro Auler/Latin Content/Getty Images.)

Saturday 14 July 2012

São Paulo's Ferrari: On Manchester United Target Lucas

São Paulo flyer Lucas has long since attracted covetous glances from Europe's big boys, but things got real this week; Manchester United made a €33million bid for the 19-year-old.

With a maelstrom of questions and YouTube-based opinions looming ominously on the horizon, I've written a profile of the young forward for Unibet. I've attempted to elucidate some of his strengths and weaknesses, based on what I've seen over the last couple of years.

To read the article, click here.

(Please excuse the crushingly generic picture that accompanies the article and join me in bemoaning the extortionate cost of buying photographs for editorial use.)

Saturday 7 July 2012

Against History: Corinthians Win First Libertadores

After a gruelling half-century wait, Corinthians finally shook a monkey off their back this week by sealing their maiden Copa Libertadores title. A thoroughly impressive campaign was wrapped up in style in Wednesday's 2-0 win over Boca Juniors, prompting feverish celebrations in São Paulo.

I've written an article about the Timão's success - and its significance - in my weekly Unibet column. To read it, click here.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Menezes Names Olympic Squad

Mano Menezes today unveiled the 18-man squad that he hopes will guide Brazil to a maiden Olympic title in London this summer. The core of the U20 World Cup-winning side remains in place, while the three players over the age of 23 are Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk.

The full squad is as follows:

Rafael (Santos)
Neto (Fiorentina)

Rafael (Manchester United)
Danilo (Porto)
Alex Sandro (Porto)
Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Thiago Silva (Milan)
Bruno Uvini (São Paulo)
Juan (Internazionale)

Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rômulo (Vasco da Gama)
Oscar (Internacional)
Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos)
Lucas (São Paulo)

Neymar (Santos)
Leandro Damião (Internacional)
Hulk (Porto)
Alexandre Pato (Milan)

With major question marks over the ability of young centre-backs Bruno Uvini and Juan, Menezes had hoped to call on David Luiz to partner Thiago Silva. The Chelsea man has been carrying an injury since the end of the European season, however, so Hulk claimed the third overage spot.

Menezes will be confident that this group of players - who impressed in the recent friendlies against Denmark, USA, Mexico and Argentina - will be strong enough to compete in London. The squad certainly boasts plenty of talent and, in Thiago, Marcelo, Hulk and Pato, a wealth of experience as well.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Bleed for Victory: Leão Start Pioneering Donation Drive

In the über-branded football world of today, it has become all too rare for a club exploit its image for good. How heartwarming, then, to see the trend being bucked in the Brazilian second division this week.

Esporte Clube Vitória - a club whose size and popularity are belied by their Série B status - have come up with an ingenious way to encourage their fans to give blood. The club are temporarily removing the colour red from their famous rubro-negro jerseys - quite a big deal, given that teams are often referred to colloquially by the colours of their strip in Brazil.  The Leão da Barra will then 'refill' the shirts one hoop at a time as blood donations are made over the course of the season. (See 0:50 in the video below.)

The campaign, launched in partnership with Hemoba, the Bahia state blood foundation, is entitled Meu Sange é Rubro-Negro (My Blood is Red and Black). "Vitória has always bled for you," urges the video. "Now it's time to give back."

Here's to other clubs following in Vitória's pioneering footsteps.

A version of this article appeared in FourFourTwo magazine. Hat-tip to André Savastano for alerting me to the campaign.

Saturday 30 June 2012

Unibet Column

My apologies for the slow month, readers; I've been rather busy. This is just a note to say that I have a new weekly column over at Bet.Unibet

Every Saturday, I'll be picking some team/player/tactic/event out for praise. The likelihood is that some of these pieces will be based on Brazilian football. When they are, I'll post them here.

You can read the first column, on the expansion of the European Championship from 16 to 24 teams, here.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

On Ronaldinho's Dramatic Exit from Flamengo

It's been a torrid few days at Flamengo. Ronaldinho - ostensibly the team's biggest star following his transfer from Europe last year - left the club in a tornado of accusations over his wages and on-pitch displays. His brother and agent, meanwhile, was busy making a fool of himself at the club shop.

In my début article for ESPN Soccernet, I take a look at the dramatic denouement of the 32-year-old's stay in Rio. I argue that R10's treatment by the club and third-party investors Traffic should be viewed as a(nother) warning sign for players in Brazil.

You can read the article here.

(Photo credit: VIPCOMM.)

Wednesday 23 May 2012

A$$is Rides Again

At around 5pm on Tuesday, a familiar figure walked into the Flamengo club shop. Assis, the agent and brother of Ronaldinho Gaúcho, appeared to be doing some gift shopping.

But things were not as they initially seemed. After piling around 40 items - including club jerseys, hats and baby clothing - into his trolley, Assis proceeded to make an announcement to shocked onlookers. "Flamengo haven't paid my brother," he uttered clearly, "so I'm not going to pay either." Intending to leave without paying for the merchandise, he demanded plastic bags to help him lift the loot.

A member of staff, understandably baffled by events, challenged the agent, who then called Fla director of finance Michel Levy. Around ninety (!) minutes later, with Levy having come to the scene of the almost-crime, it was decided that Assis could take 25 Flamengo shirts - the number to which Levy was entitled through his role at the club - without paying for them.

You'd think this would have satisfied Assis, but apparently not. The 41-year-old grabbed two more items: towels emblazoned with the image of his brother. He then - brilliantly - paid for the towels (!!) and left.

All in a day's work for the man nicknamed A$$is by some typographically-minded soul.

Friday 18 May 2012

The SKP Brasileirão 2012 Preview

It's that time of year again, folks. There's blossom on the trees, birds are beginning to sing, and  managers are already filling in their P45s ahead of the new Brasileirão season. This weekend marks the advent of the latest edition of a championship that provides thrills, spills and drama to rival any telenovela.

The league is a uniquely competitive one: six or seven clubs will begin the season with aspirations of adding a star to their badge in 2012. They will be tested not just by the relentless schedule (the Campeonato Brasileiro packs its 38 rounds into a breathless seven-month period) but by the upheaval caused by the opening of the European transfer window midway through the campaign. Settled squads find themselves stripped of their star performers just when they need the most.

Things will be further complicated this year by the Olympic football tournament. In a league in which many clubs are reliant on talented youngsters, London 2012 represents a major obstacle. Squad selections are also disrupted by the Copa Libertadores, Copa do Brasil and Copa Sul-Americana: sides enjoying cup runs tend to rest players in the Brasileirão, meaning that the league table can be skewed in the opening and closing weeks.

The challenge presented by the Brasileirão is also geographical. Whilst many top flight clubs are clustered in Brazil's two major cities (four are based in Rio de Janeiro; six in São Paulo state), there are outliers. Recife clubs Náutico and Sport, for instance, face round trips of around 6000 kilometres to face Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre. This understandably undermines the possibility of away support, meaning that crowds for many matches are noticeably partisan.

And now, for your enjoyment, a look at the teams that will be competing in the 2012 Campeonato Brasileiro.

Atlético Goianiense (Dragão - the Dragons)
Not traditionally among Brazil's footballing elite, the side from Goiânia have done incredibly well to consolidate their Série A status over the last two seasons. They could struggle this term, however. The sale of Thiago Feltri and Anderson has left the defence looking shaky, whilst coach Adílson Batista enjoyed a torrid 2011. On the plus side, silky left-footed playmaker Elias has returned from Figueirense and the additions of William and Fernando Bob are wise, if not particularly exciting. If it all goes wrong, at least goalscoring exploits of keeper Márcio should raise the occasional smile.
Players to watch: Elias, Márcio, Felipe
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Game - probably coming to the end of their life-span after the boom years.

Atlético Mineiro (Galo - the Roosters)
The first thing you learn when you start following Série A is not to make predictions about the Galo. The club is an amalgam of the sublime and the ridiculous: from a charismatic, Twitter-friendly president and an ambitious fanbase, to a revolving-door transfer policy and inexplicable underachievement. A defence built around Réver should be solid, whilst youngster Bernard looks a real prospect. If the likes of Damián Escudero, André and Guilherme can play to their potential, the top half beckons. (Cue a relegation scrap.)
Players to watch: Réver, Bernard, André
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Sports Direct - impressive stock rotation, questionable quality.

Bahia (Esquadrão de Aço - the Big Steel Squad)
The team from Salvador did well last time out, securing safety with plenty to spare following promotion from Série B. Things will be trickier this year. Centreback Paulo Miranda has moved to São Paulo, meaning that Marcelo Lomba will likely be even busier than usual in goal. In attack, much responsibility will fall on the veteran shoulders of Souza and Júnior, although Zé Roberto could be an astute signing. The real weakness, however, is in middle of the park - ironic, given that their manager Falcão was one of Brazil's great midfielders.
Players to watch: Souza, Titi, Ávine
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: WHSmith - scant success of late, but everyone has a soft spot for them.

Botafogo (Estrela Solitária - the Lone Star)
The Rio side were impressive for much of the 2011 campaign, before a downturn in form cost Caio Júnior his job during the run-in. The spine of their side (Jefferson, Antônio Carlos, Renato, Loco Abreu) is up there with the best in the league, whilst Elkeson and Maicosuel provide plenty of inspiration on the flanks. Questions remain over the side's mental fortitude, but coach Oswaldo de Oliveira will attempt to ensure that the long and winding road leads to Libertadores qualification. The signing of right back John Lennon, at the very least, should help them Get Back where they belong.
Players to watch: Loco Abreu, Elkeson, Renato
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: River Island - likeable but intrinsically unfashionable. The kind of team your dad supports.

Corinthians (Timão - the Big Team)
Last year's champions, Corinthians look well placed to mount another title bid. Coach Tite may not be universally loved (find me a coach in Brazil who is), but he has done a sterling job turning the Timão into a sturdy, ruthless outfit. The squad boasts talent in attack and defence, but the real star quality is found in midfield: Paulinho and Ralf have played themselves into seleção contention, whilst Alex and Danilo provide the ammunition for the strikers. The departure of Adriano, meanwhile, means that a big name signing is probably on the agenda. Fans will hope that incoming players don't disrupt an established formula
Players to watch: Paulinho, Ralf, Alex
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: IKEA - functional, successful, but ever so slightly joyless.

Coritiba (Coxa-Branca - the White Thighs)
One of the success stories of last year, Coritiba achieved a top-half finish following a year out of the top flight. Marcelo Oliveira has crafted a side capable of posing problems for the best Série A defences, with a range of lively attackers (Rafinha, Anderson Aquino, Renan Oliveira) and goalscoring defender Emerson among the stars. The return of serial flop Keirrison is an interesting one: if the striker can reproduce the form of his first spell in Curitiba, he could prove to be the signing of the season. Unfortunately for the Coxa, that might be the biggest 'if' in futebol history.
Players to watch: Emerson, Rafinha, Renan Oliveira
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Uniqlo - likeable, slightly exotic, shot to prominence in 2011.

Cruzeiro (Raposa - the Foxes)
Clunk. Klang. Bzzzz. That sound you hear is Cruzeiro falling apart. Title challengers in 2010, the Belo Horizonte outfit have had a torrid 18 months and start this campaign in relative disarray. Following failed approaches to managerial candidates Jorge Sampaoli (good) and Adílson Batista (not good), the Raposa have appointed Celso Roth, a man whose CV is longer than he is tall. His first task is to shore up a porous defence, although the frictions between players and club directors might be a more fundamental problem. If players like Walter Montillo (one of the league's best players over the last two seasons), Wallyson and Souza can find form and fitness, they should be OK. Not that their fans are too optimistic at the moment.
Players to watch: Walter Montillo, Fábio, Alex Silva
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Woolworths - if you had predicted their demise just a few years ago, you'd have been laughed out of town. You prescient genius, you.

Figueirense (Furacão do Estreito - the Estreito Tornado)
Last season's surprise package, Figueirense will be hoping to build on a campaign in which they went toe-to-toe with many of Brazil's more established sides. The transfer market hasn't been kind to them, however. The mercurial Wellington Nem has returned to Fluminense, dashing fullbacks Bruno and Juninho have both departed, as has Elias. Coach Argel Fucks (yes, really) will rely on the side's defensive stability and the goals of the evergreen Júlio César up front if progress is to be made.
Players to watch: Júlio César, Wilson, Ygor
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: TK Maxx - trade at rock bottom prices, but still manage to compete with the big boys.

Flamengo (Rubro-Negro - the Ruby-and-Blacks)
Where to start? Ronaldinho Gaúcho's occasional urge to evoke his glory days and his far more frequent urge to party? The messy end to Vanderlei Luxemburgo's reign (sample quote: "You're shit. You're poor. I own an aeroplane")? Or how about the departures of Thiago Neves and Alex Silva, key players last year? Only one man could possibly stay calm in the midst of all this drama: the lovably soporific Joel Santana. His insistence on indulging Ronaldinho's extravagances is a risky policy, but at least he can call on the ruthless Vágner Love in attack, the experienced rightback Léo Moura and a rejuvenated Kléberson in midfield. Just don't be surprised if it all ends in tears.
Players to watch: Vágner Love, Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Darío Bottinelli
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Harrods - glorious history, huge sense of self-importance, but increasingly becoming a parody of themselves.

Fluminense (Time de Guerreiros -Team of Warriors)
Having taken the Campeonato Carioca title with a comprehensive aggregate victory over Botafogo, Flu will be confident of mounting a challenge at national level. They can call on the experience of Deco and Fred, the youthful verve of Wellington Nem and Marcos Júnior, and in Abel Braga they have a coach of colossal experience. The return of Thiago Neves has boosted an already-impressive roster of attacking talent, giving Flu the kind of strength in depth many of their rivals can only dream about. Their ongoing Libertadores campaign, however, could prove a distraction.
Players to watch: Fred, Deco, Wellington Nem
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Selfridges - founding fathers, still going strong after springing up in the 1900s.

Grêmio (Imortal Tricolor - the Immortal Tricolor)
One of Brazil's most fervently-supported clubs, the Porto Alegre giants have fallen on hard times recently. With a single state championship to their name in the last five years and no national title since 1996, the Tricolor have grown accustomed to living in the shadow of neighbours Internacional. The current squad is unlikely to be in the running for Libertadores qualification, but an improvement on last year's 13th-placed finish is realistic. The signings of Léo Gago, Marcelo Moreno and Facundo Bertoglio will provide firepower, although the long-term injury suffered by Kléber is a huge blow. Defensively, Vanderlei Luxemburgo will be confident of forging a resilient unit despite the sale of Mário Fernandes to CSKA Moscow.
Players to watch: Victor, Marcelo Moreno, Léo Gago
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Oddbins - can provide you with dizzying highs and devilish lows, often in the same week.

Internacional (Colorado - the Reds)
Cup specialists in recent years, Inter will hope to turn their Libertadores exit to their advantage by mounting a series title tilt. Their squad is littered with quality performers: Leandro Damião is perhaps the best forward in the league, Andrés D'Alessandro is a wily creator and Oscar should reprise his role as dynamic midfield maestro should the legal wrangles over his ownership be put to bed. Defensively, though, cracks are showing: Bolívar and Índio are both reaching the twilight of their careers, whilst Nei and Kléber are not the most convincing fullbacks at the best of times.
Players to watch: Leandro Damião, Oscar, Andrés D'Alessandro
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Zara - a flagship operation on the continent, not quite as successful on these shores.

Náutico (Timbu - the Possums)
Returning to the top flight after two seasons in the wilderness, Náutico face an uphill struggle to stave off relegation this term. Hardly prolific even in Série B, their cause will not be helped by the departure of Kieza, the top scorer in the second division last time out. Recent additions Araújo and Rodrigo Tiuí will hope to pick up some of the slack, but one senses that coach Alexandre Gallo's best bet is to prioritise the defence. Fullbacks Alessandro and Lúcio have plenty of experience and could be very shrewd signings.
Players to watch: Araújo, Marlon, Alessandro
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Henri Lloyd - aspirations beyond their nautical beginnings.

Palmeiras (Verdão - the Big Green)
The traditional club of São Paulo's Italian community has become synonymous with underachievement and internal conflict of late: the strong Brasileirão showings of 2008 and 2009 are but a distant memory. Against such a background, however, there is reason to be hopeful. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is as experienced as he is prickly and the squad at his disposal is solid enough. The dead-ball wizardry of Marcos Assunção will again be key, as will the scoring exploits of Hernán Barcos, a cult figure in the making. If Chilean playmaker Jorge Valdivia can stay fit (and on task), and youngsters like Juninho and Mazinho (aka 'Messi Black') can kick on, a Libertadores spot could be within reach.
Players to watch: Hernán Barcos, Marcos Assunção, Jorge Valdivia
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Blockbuster - a household name, but have been overtaken by forward-thinking rivals.

Ponte Preta (Macaca - the Monkeys)
A decent run to the semi-finals of the Campeonato Paulista has inspired hope in Campinas, but Série A is likely to be a challenge for the new boys. The midfield looks fairly strong: the addition of Marcinho from Atlético-PR should lend some guile to a group that also includes seasoned campaigners Somália and Willian Magrão, although the departing Renato Cajá will be sorely missed. Goalscoring might be problem for Gilson Kleina's side, however, with Roger the only proven Série A goalscorer in the squad.
Players to watch: Roger, Marcinho, Caio
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Greggs - hearty regional fayre on a budget, but not enough class to really turn heads.

Portuguesa (Lusa - the Portuguese)
How quickly joy can turn to despair. Runaway winners of Série B last season, Portuguesa were being tipped to make a big impact in the top flight with the attacking brand of football that earnt them the tag Barcelusa. Five months later, they begin the season fresh from a humiliating relegation in the São Paulo state championship and will be fearful of further punishment. Edno, their top scorer last term, has moved on, as has midfielder Marco Antônio. The signing of striker Ricardo Jesus from Ponte Preta could be a good bit of business, but more experience is needed if the São Paulo side is to thrive at this level.
Players to watch: Ricardo Jesus, Henrique, Rodriguinho
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Superdry - not nearly as cool as they seemed a year ago.

Santos (Peixe - the Fish)
With a star-studded squad and a manager well versed in Brasileirão success, Santos are among the favourites at first glance. Two factors count against them, though. Their quest for the Libertadores in their centenary year means that they will likely rest players in the league, as they did last time out. In addition, the Olympic football tournament will deprive them of their two best players - Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso. If Muricy Ramalho can keep his charges in contention during this tumult, Santos could dominate in the final months.
Players to watch: Neymar, Ganso, Arouca
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Hollister - a staggering array of talent, half of which should probably still be in school.

São Paulo (Tricolor)
League champions three times in a row between 2006 and 2008, São Paulo have since struggled to replicate that success. A squad that includes the likes of Luís Fabiano and Lucas is guaranteed to cause problems for their opponents, but the club's defensive frailties have been a worry: the void created by the departure of Xandão has yet to be filled. Leftback Bruno Cortez ( Cortês) will be hoping to continue his meteoric ascent, whilst Jádson will be eyeing up a return to the seleção. Emerson Leão's side should be aiming for Libertadores qualification at the very least.
Players to watch: Lucas, Luís Fabiano, Jádson
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: HMV - modern behemoths that got used to success and are now sick without it.

Sport (Leão da Ilha - the Lion of the Island)
Having just scraped into Série A (they were promoted with a fourth-place finish in the second flight), Sport will be setting their sights on safety. The signings of Julinho, Rivaldo and Felipe Azevedo add quality to a thin squad, but much will depend on how coach Vágner Mancini adapts to life in Recife. His past success at Ceará suggests that he is suited to life away from the pressures of the big city, although Sport fans may need to be patient in the short term.
Players to watch: Rivaldo, Julinho Felipe Azevedo
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: Clarks - not the force they once were, but still revered by connoisseurs.

Vasco da Gama (Gigante da Colina - the Giant of the Hill)
Having soldiered on valiantly in 2012 following the stroke suffered by coach Ricardo Gomes, Vasco will be hoping to be among the title contenders again this time out. Whether they can do so will depend on the answers to a number of questions. Will Benfica allow Éder Luís and Felipe Bastos to extend their loans? Have Juninho Pernambucano and Felipe got the legs and desire to endure another tough campaign? Will the supremely talented Dedé and Rômulo resist the clamour of European football when the transfer window opens? If these questions are answered in the affirmative, Vasco should challenge for the title. If not, it could be a tricky campaign.
Players to watch: Dedé, Fernando Prass, Diego Souza
If they were a high street shop, they'd be: H&M - less flashy than some of their rivals, but don't underestimate their ability to compete.

Friday 11 May 2012

Menezes Names Squad for Brazil Friendlies

Mano Menezes has named his squad for Brazil's upcoming series of friendly matches, which will see the seleção face Denmark (26 May), the USA (30 May), Mexico (3 June) and Argentina (9 June). With the Olympic tournament on the horizon, Menezes has picked 17 players under the age of 23, presumably to help prepare his squad for London 2012.

Wellington Nem is the biggest surprise on Mano's list.

The full squad is as follows:

Jefferson (Botafogo)
Neto (Fiorentina)
Rafael (Santos)

Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
Danilo (Porto)
Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Alex Sandro (Porto)
Thiago Silva (Milan)
David Luiz (Chelsea)
Bruno Uvini (Tottenham Hotspur)
Juan (Internazionale)

Casemiro (São Paulo)
Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rômulo (Vasco da Gama)
Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos)
Oscar (Internacional)
Lucas (São Paulo)
Giuliano (Dnipro)

Alexandre Pato (Milan)
Hulk (Porto)
Leandro Damião (Internacional)
Neymar (Santos)
Wellington Nem (Fluminense)

Fluminense flyer Wellington Nem has been rewarded for his fine club form with a first call-up, whilst Giuliano returns to the international fray after a spell in the wilderness. Perhaps more significant is the selection of Hulk, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Daniel Alves, Marcelo and Jefferson, who will now be among the favourites for the three overage player spaces in the Olympic squad. The omission of Ronaldinho, who was tipped by many to go to London 2012, could signal that he no longer features in Menezes' plans for the summer.

(Photo credit: Photocamera.)