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.)

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Art Deco: Fluminense's Muted Genius Enjoying an Indian Summer in Brazil

"An incredible talent", exclaimed O Dia. "Impossible to mark", added Marca. Lance! highlighted his "perfect distribution", whilst SporTV commentator Lédio Carmona also heaped praise onto a "spectacular and intelligent player".

Yeah, yeah, I hear you protest. We know about Neymar by now. But this was not Neymar. This was a 34-year-old veteran. This was Deco.

On the face of it, a number of players could have hogged the headlines in the wake of the first leg of the Campeonato Carioca final on Sunday. Former Betis striker Rafael Sóbis grabbed a classy brace as Fluminense thrashed Botafogo, whilst the goal of the game was undoubtedly Fred’s nonchalant bicycle kick in the first half.

Yet both were overshadowed by the unparalleled vision and metronomic passing of Flu's number 20, who turned in a performance that – in this month of relative turmoil in Catalunya – evoked the pomp of his Barcelona days. Playing in an advanced central midfield role, Deco repeatedly set the Tricolor in motion with a range of subtle flicks; eschewing showiness in favour of the elegant utilitarianism for which he was revered in Europe.

Deco's assist for Flu's second, a measured pass of no more than ten metres in length, was particularly noteworthy. A barely-perceptible hesitation between his first touch and the final ball tempted Fábio Ferreira into committing to a challenge, allowing Sóbis the space to curl a shot into the far corner.

It was an act of muted genius in keeping with the man himself. Affable and quiet off the pitch, Deco stands in opposition to the modern footballing archetype. His decision to return to Brazil was motivated in part by a desire to step up the charitable work he undertook whilst playing in Europe. Through the Deco20 Institute, he helps provides educational support for around 300 youngsters in São Paulo, and his celebrity football matches also raise money for good causes.

Whilst such activities have bolstered Deco's reputation, they haven't always protected him from the ire of Brazilian football fans. Until this year, his relationship with the Flu faithful was a fractious one. With the former Chelsea midfielder troubled by incessant injury problems during his first year at Laranjeiras, supporters began to question his value to the squad, particularly given his substantial wage packet.

Deco initially reacted to these criticisms with anger: "I came home and my son had read on the internet that I was "robbing" Fluminense," he said back in August. "I don’t care when people talk about [my] football, but this is annoying." Around this time, it later emerged, Deco considered hanging up his boots for good.

However, a change of strategy signalled the beginning of a more cordial entente between the player and supporters. As a gesture of goodwill, Deco suggested that Flu should not pay him until he returned to full fitness. "He didn’t come to Fluminense for the money," gushed Sandro Lima, the club’s vice president. "He just wants to work hard and end his career with happiness."

The intervening months seem to have provided Deco with exactly the sort of Indian summer he had in mind when he decided to return to Brazil. A series of impressive performances in big matches, including a gala display the Copa Libertadores win over Boca Juniors at the Bombonera, have cemented his place in Abel Braga’s plans.

In an interview last month, Deco indicated that he intends to continue playing until the end of the 2013 season: "I really identify with the club. I like being here," he told Globo. If he continues to turn in the kind of performance that he did on Sunday, Fluminense will be lucky to have him around.

A version of this article appeared on the Guardian Sport Network HERE.