Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Série A's impromptu 39th game leaves a bitter taste

For many fans, the biggest evil in Brazilian football isn’t the heavy workload or the violence or the short-termism or the vested interests. Sure, that stuff is bad. But the real issue, they will tell you – especially at this time of year – is the format of the national championship.

Brazil has a passion for sudden-death (the Portuguese term is mata-mata – literally “kill-kill”) football that a thousand FA Cup marketing departments could only dream of engendering. The nobility of the knockout form is deeply engrained in the national psyche.

So when, in 2003, the CBF jettisoned the end-of-season play-offs that had long been a feature of the Campeonato Brasileiro (and were arguably the only real bloodline of a league whose rules and structure seemed to change every year), there were cries of discontent.

This year, however, some felt aggrieved when Cruzeiro tied up the title four weeks before the final round, supposedly robbing fans of an exciting finale. They would forgo the meritocracy of the round-robin format for a couple of big games before Christmas.

Against all odds, those supporters got what they wanted this week. The stars aligned and the Brazilian season went to a 39th game. Except this wasn’t exactly what anyone had in mind.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Punch-drunk thugs: Violence explodes in Joinville as Brasileirão season ends in ignominy

The players just stood there, mouths open, utterly aghast. For a few slow-motion seconds, then a few more, until minutes were passing. Nobody could quite believe what they were seeing. Tears streamed down the cheeks of defender Luiz Alberto.

Emotions were always likely to be high at the Arena Joinville, where Vasco da Gama – one of Brazil’s traditional heavyweights – were making one last stop on their way to the second flight. They needed a miracle to survive. They didn’t get it.

Yet Luiz Alberto is not a Vasco player and the relegation, when it came, was destined only to be a footnote to the events of the afternoon. The real story took place in the stands, where scenes of mindless, surreal violence cast the blackest of clouds over the final weekend of the Campeonato Brasileiro season.

Read the rest of this article at Yahoo! Eurosport.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Brasileirão season review

As any player or fan will tell you, the Campeonato Brasileiro is both a marathon and a sprint. After 38 rounds of action, crammed into five-and-a-half months, we reached the end of the road at the weekend.

Things didn’t exactly go smoothly. The match between Atlético Paranaense and relegation-threatened Vasco was delayed due to horrific fighting in Joinville, attracting the world’s media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Vasco were eventually condemned to Série B but could appeal, claiming the game never should have been resumed.

Fellow giants Fluminense were also relegated, leaving Brazil striker Fred in tears in the stands. But they too could earn a reprieve, with Portuguesa having fielded an ineligible player in the final round of games. Confusion, as ever, reigned supreme.

When the dust settles, however, this will go down as a fairly momentous year, one in which the Rio-São Paulo axis was thwarted for the first time in a decade. Have a read of my season review on the WhoScored website.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A tale of two cities: Rio and São Paulo sides endure annus horribilis despite growing wealth gap

At first glance, Brazilian football appears to sidestep one of the pitfalls of the game in many European countries. While only a small cluster of sides can hold realistic aspirations of winning La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the Campeonato Brasileiro is far less predictable.

Before the gun sounds every May, this chaotic sports-day sprint of a league rarely has an obvious favourite, with eight, 10 or even 12 teams eyeing up a title challenge. Fortunes can change fast: Flamengo went from glory in 2009 to the brink of relegation the following year. Fluminense have repeated the trick this term.

The healthy glow is somewhat misleading, however. Slowly but surely, power is coalescing in the country’s biggest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Before this year, it had been a record nine seasons since the Série A crown had left the determined grip of Brazil’s south-east corridor, with clubs there exercising ever-growing financial clout.

My latest piece for Yahoo! Eurosport is on the power balance in Brazilian football. You can read it here.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Video: World Cup throws light on shortcomings of club football in Brazil

I appeared on BT Sport this week to talk about the issues affecting Brazilian club football – from poor attendances and violence to rising prices and fixture congestion.

The short segment, which also features the excellent Portuguese journalist Pedro Pinto, can be viewed below.

Friday, 29 November 2013

São Paulo stadium tragedy not just a football problem, but adds to unease in Brazil over World Cup

Tragedy struck on Wednesday at the construction site of the stadium scheduled to host the opening game of World Cup 2014. The Arena de São Paulo was finally nearing completion when the soil beneath South America’s tallest crane gave way, causing a sizeable metallic truss to tumble into the corner of the east stand.

The structural damage was not as serious as it appeared, experts later claimed. But a human cost had been levied: Fábio Luiz Pereira, 42, and Ronaldo Oliveira dos Santos, 44, were confirmed dead at the scene.

The incident adds to a growing sense of unease ahead of next summer’s tournament. While this football-obsessed country will embrace on-field events wholeheartedly come June, many Brazilians fear the real opportunity of the World Cup has already been squandered. Read the rest of this article over at Yahoo! Eurosport.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Liverpool target Éverton Ribeiro has the skill and guile to become a star

The standout player for new Brazilian champions Cruzeiro, zippy attacking midfielder Éverton Ribeiro is beginning to attract covetous glances from a number of European clubs. Liverpool have been linked with a January move, while the player himself has declared his admiration for Manchester United.

I've written a scouting report on Éverton for The Mirror, detailing his strengths and weaknesses. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Five players who have caught the eye in the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro

After just six months of fraught Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday action, the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro is nearly over. Cruzeiro have already wrapped up the title, but their players are not the only ones deserving of credit this term.

In my latest Yahoo! Eurosport column, I pick out five players who have caught the eye during the season. They include a fleet-footed dribbler, a heavyweight striker and a midfielder who will be very familiar with most football fans. Click here to have a read.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

A bad case of the Flu: Deposed champions Fluminense fighting for their lives

A year ago last week, Fluminense beat Palmeiras to lift their fourth Brazilian title. If the occasion felt a little flat, it was only because the success had long had an air of inevitability about it: spurred on by the relentless goalscoring of Fred and guided by Abel Braga’s steady hand, the Tricolor simply ground down their closest rivals, Atlético Mineiro and Grêmio.

“They're a good team, an organised team,” said former Brazil striker Tostão, now a respected newspaper columnist, at the time. “Flu know how to win. They don't lose focus and they don't try to be better than they are.”

But things have gone pear-shaped this year. As the end of the season approaches Fluminense sit just one point above the relegation zone, a winless October having plunged them from midtable mediocrity into a frantic battle for survival. They have three games to avoid becoming the first club to be demoted a year after winning Série A.

Read the rest of my latest Yahoo! Eurosport column here.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Fantastic Mr Fox: Party starts early as peerless Cruzeiro cruise to Brazilian title

It was just another win, but somehow also not. They celebrated as if they had won the title, jumping, singing, high-fiving. Crowding round the mildly sinister (it’s the blue moustache) cartoon fox for photos. Tipping buckets of iced water over one another.

The crowd, too, went ice-cream-in-winter crazy. It would be their last glimpse of their champions in their natural habitat until the new year. The party, it seemed safe to assume, would last well into the night.

Let when a trophy was lifted, it was only the home-made-souvenir type. For fate had conspired against them, if only gently. Read the rest of this article on Cruzeiro's slightly premature but entirely deserved title celebrations here.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Making sense of the senseless: On the bizarre new-look Campeonato Paulista

A month ago I wrote about Common Sense FC, the informal players’ union set up to agitate for change to the Brazilian football calendar. The movement has gained even more traction in the weeks since, with membership swelling and the head honchos of the game – never ones to neglect the chance to hitch their horses to a popular cause – voicing support.

So far, so positive. But just when lucidity and reason appeared to be storming the gates of the madhouse, someone had to go and do something stupid.

The guilty party on this occasion was the head of the São Paulo state football association (FPF), Marco Polo Del Nero – a man whose appetite for discovery is rather more modest than that of his more famous Venetian namesake, fixated, as it is, only upon the limits of his own idiocy.

Read my latest Yahoo! Eurosport article, on the new São Paulo state championship format, here.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Wildcard city: Five players who could play themselves into Brazil's World Cup squad

By now, Luiz Felipe Scolari has already identified most of the players who – barring injury or a drastic loss of form – will represent Brazil at next summer’s World Cup. The base of the squad that performed so well at the Confederations Cup will be maintained, with Felipão thought to have 17 or 18 names in mind even at this early stage.

Yet there remain places to be won. In my latest piece for WhoScored, I look at five players who could be dark horses for Scolari’s squad based on their performances in Brazil. Have a read of it here.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Variations on a theme: With his World Cup blueprint sorted, Scolari can afford to explore his options

As countries from every corner of the globe fought for their places at the 2014 World Cup this weekend, the hosts of next summer’s tournament had a rather more relaxed assignment. The Never-Ending Friendlies Tour (sounds like a Wedding Present album, that) took Brazil to the Far East, where they beat South Korea and Zambia.

Neither game was particularly thrilling. The first, in Seoul’s imaginatively named World Cup Stadium, was a scruffy, niggly affair, lit up only by a Neymar free-kick and a typically assured finish from Oscar. From there, Luiz Felipe Scolari and his charges hopped over to Beijing to see off the Copper Bullets with a businesslike display.

My latest Yahoo! Eurosport column, on Brazil's growing confidence ahead of the World Cup, can be read here.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A rope for Dopey: Dunga the latest to learn that Brazilian football waits for no man

The best manager in the world to share a name with one of the Seven Dwarfs is out of work again.

Dunga (‘Dopey’ in Portuguese) was dismissed by Internacional last week, just 10 months after taking over at the Porto Alegre club. His stewardship yielded 26 wins in 53 games, but a winless streak in September proved too difficult for the club’s hierarchy to ignore.

Read the rest of this article, on the former Brazil boss, on the Yahoo! Eurosport website.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Brazilian football digest: September

Thwack! Bang! Whoosh! Those sounds, just in case your onomatopoeia radar is playing up today (hey, it happens), are just some of the goals scored this month by a player whose name will be unknown to many outside Brazil. 

In my latest Betting Expert column, I heap praise upon Gilberto, Portuguesa's goal plunderer extraordinaire, and add to the growing pile of plaudits gathered by Série A leaders Cruzeiro. Read it here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Common Sense FC: Players call for long-overdue change to Brazil's football calendar

First it was the students. Incensed not simply by a rise in the cost of public transport, but by the broadening impasse between public and private interests that it signified, they took to meeting rooms and then to the streets. A hundred people became a thousand and the zeroes kept being added.

Soon, it seemed to the outside world, Brazil was aflame. That may have been partly true, but a far more prevalent feeling – at least within the country itself – was that Brazil was alive. What started as a dispute about bus fares became a rainbow tapestry of causes, claims and (for the most part) contained chaos.

Encouraged by the movement’s adopted slogan, “Vem pra rua!” (Come to the street!), the country found its voice for the first time in over 20 years. It was angry and indignant. It was beautiful.

The protests eventually came to an end, as everything does. But something of the spirit of those few weeks (or is it just the tear gas?) has remained in the air. That, at least, is the only real way of parsing what has been a landmark couple of weeks in Brazilian football.

Read the rest of this article on the Common Sense FC movement, at Yahoo! Eurosport.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Silver surfers: Why finishing second in Série A would be a great achievement for Botafogo

The Brazilian championship used to be decided by a final. Every season ended with the kind of play-off system that would be immediately familiar to fans of American sports, meaning a team that finished as low as eighth in the actual league stage could walk away with the title.

That system lasted until 2003, when the system of pontos corridos (literally 'running points') was finally adopted. It didn't please everyone. Many still yearn for the end-of-season excitement the play-offs provided, while there have also been concerns over the possibility of clubs screwing over their rivals in the final rounds of a league season if they have nothing to play for themselves.

In my latest WhoScored column, I reflect on last week's (sorry for the tardiness) de facto Série A final between Cruzeiro and Botafogo and argue that even second place would be a super achievement for the later.

Click here to have a read.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Birthdays, boos and... bridges rebuilt? On Ronaldinho's (latest) return to Grêmio

Every day is the anniversary of something. And every month, it seems, brings its own milestone for a Brazilian club.

Some of these are clearly newsworthy, others less so. No one begrudged Santos or Corinthians going to town to celebrate their centenaries in recent years, for instance, but it can feel like birthdays are trotted out just for the sake of it. Flamengo win in the week they turn 116 years old! Ponte Preta wear a special shirt to mark the 109th anniversary of the first time they wore white socks!

This weekend it was Gremio’s turn. The Porto Alegre club turned 110 – a landmark apparently worthy not just of a series of retrospective articles in the Brazilian press but also its own book. (Publishers presumably love this fascination with dates. They can do this every 10 years with every one of Brazil’s 12 big clubs.)

Read the rest of this column, on Ronaldinho's latest return to Grêmio, over at Yahoo! Eurosport.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Home comforts: Brazil have learnt to play in front of their own fans again

The Seleção have become something of a footballing Harlem Globetrotters in recent years, zigzagging round the world to fulfil friendly dates. Tuesday night’s Neymar-inspired win over Portugal took place in the city of Foxborough, the latest in a long line of unlikely destinations.

Upon taking charge of Brazil following the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup, Mano Menezes’ first five games took place in New Jersey, Abu Dhabi, Derby (!), Doha and Paris. Since then the Seleção have pitched up in such hotspots as Libreville, St Gallen, Dallas, Malmo and Wroclaw.

In my latest article for Eurosport, I examine how the Brazil side drifted away from the hearts of Brazilian fans – and how that trend was reversed. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Profit, loss and amused curiosity: Brazil's complex relationship with the European transfer window

All good things must come to an end, and so too must the transfer window. As we spend the next few days peeling our bruised collective sanity off the Jim-White-fronted, will-he-won’t-he, passport-to-mass-hysteria steamroller (I would never have used such hyperbolic compound adjectives a few weeks ago; this is what deadline day does to a fragile mind) we may get round to asking ourselves whether it was all really worth it.

It probably wasn’t. While the self-propelled bluster of the thing may have made James McCarthy’s protracted transfer to Everton seem like The Most Important Thing in the World at 11:05 on Monday night, it is worth noting just how localised this kind of obsessing remains.

Take Brazil, for instance. This isn’t a country afraid of overstating football’s importance, yet coverage of Europe’s deadline day was decidedly muted.

My latest Yahoo! Eurosport column is on Brazil's complex relationship with the (European) transfer window. Read it here.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Brazilian football digest: August

It was quite a month for Atlético Paranaense. Having returned to the top flight after a year in the doldrums, the Hurricanes were probably not expecting to be in the title race at the midway point of the season. But there they are after a stupidly, implausibly good August.

My monthly round-up for Betting Expert also includes Andrés D'Alessandro, a stunning goal by Éverton Ribeiro and plenty more besides. Read it here.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Nomads unite: Brazilian clubs play musical stadiums

Quiz question: how many stadiums would usually be used over the course of a season in a league that contains 20 teams?

Don’t overthink it. The answer is 20. There will be occasional variance, of course, to account for stadium sharing (AC Milan and Inter Milan, for instance) and for unforeseen circumstances (see Cagliari’s recent ground-hopping exploits), but as a general rule every team has one home and one home alone.

But not in Brazil. Nearing the halfway stage of the Campeonato Brasileiro season, no fewer than 32 stadiums have been used.

Read the rest of this piece, on the nomadic existence of some Série A sides this year, on the Yahoo! Eurosport website.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ex-Porto striker Walter weighs 93kg – but that's not stopping him impressing for Goiás

There is a poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty that sounds out a stirring welcome to immigrants to the USA. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads its most quoted line (and who am I to avoid the beaten path?).

If the Campeonato Brasileiro had its own symbolic gatekeeper, it may utter something similar. “Bring us your teenagers, your aching veterans and your faded stars,” perhaps.

A glance at one of the strikers currently lighting up the league may even prompt them to add another demographic: “Oh, and your overweight too.”

In my latest article for WhoScored, I profile Goiás  striker Walter, who is enjoying a fine season despite being a touch on the rotund side. Read it here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

It started with a kiss: extreme reaction to Emerson photo exposes homophobia in Brazilian game

Emerson Sheik never thought it would come to this. A photo posted on Instagram of an innocent kiss with a friend provoked extreme reactions from a group of Corinthians fans, who made banners vilifying him. The problem? The kiss was with a man.

In my debut for Yahoo! Eurosport, I take a look at the reaction to the picture within the context of the widespread homophobia in Brazilian football. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Five players bouncing back in Brazil

While storied veterans like Alex and Juninho Pernambucano continue to boost their legacies in Série A, the 2013 season has also provided ample opportunity for those who have taken wrong turns to get their careers back on track.

 In my latest article for WhoScored I look at five players – Rafael Marques, Luan, Wellington Paulista, André and Elias – who are bouncing back in Brazil this season. Click here to read it.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Cruzeiro continue to impress as Belo Horizonte bandwagon rolls on

They may not like it on the bronze beaches of Rio, in São Paulo’s office blocks and in the proud alehouses of Porto Alegre, but Brazilian football has a new epicentre. Since the turn of the year, Belo Horizonte has become the place to be on planet futebol.

First there was the reopening of the historic Mineirão stadium, the spiritual home of the game in the city, after World Cup renovation work that lasted the best part of three years. Without their usual home, Belo Horizonte’s big two – Atlético Mineiro and Cruzeiro – were forced to host matches in neighbouring towns Sete Lagoas and Uberlândia, with predictable consequences for attendance figures.

Atlético have latterly settled in América-MG’s cosy Independência ground, but Cruzeiro immediately reaped the rewards of returning to the Mineirão, embarking on a staggering run of form that saw them win 17 of their first 19 games of 2013.

Read the rest of this article on the WhoScored wesbite here.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Brazilian football digest: July

Copa Libertadores winners! Returning veterans! A stupidly intricate goal from Alex! Yep, July provided the usual portion of thrills and spills in Brazil.

As ever, I've written up a handy digest of the month for the folks over at Betting Expert. Read it here.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Redemption song: Atlético Mineiro confound the doubters with historic Copa Libertadores triumph

They doubted Ronaldinho. They doubted him when he returned to Brazil to join Flamengo, and even more when he left them under a cloud. His decision to sign for Atlético Mineiro was, in the eyes of the cynics at least, based more on his penchant for partying than any enduring love of football; with its taste for cachaça, Belo Horizonte would provide ample opportunity for inebriation away from the media scrums of Rio and São Paulo.

They doubted Cuca, too. 13 years as a coach and only a couple of state championship medals to show for it. His teams had the unfortunate habit of imploding just when it mattered the most. Azarado, they called him. Cursed. Dedo podre. Everything he touched turned to powder. To make matters worse, he came straight from Cruzeiro, Atlético's biggest rivals. No pressure then.

Understandably, they doubted Jô. CSKA-Moscow Jô. £19million-transfer-to-Man-City Jô. Diminishing-returns-at-Everton-and-Galatasaray-and-Internacional Jô. Known-to-be-fond-of-a-night-out Jô. That Jô. Of course they doubted him.

Monday, 22 July 2013

The week(end) that was - #7

Juninho rolls back the years, Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto show their true colours and São Paulo continue to struggle: it's the weekend in Brazilian football!

The Little King returns

Few players in the Brazilian game feel a stronger connection with a single team than Juninho Pernambucano does with Vasco da Gama. The love affair started in 1995 when the midfielder, then a fresh-faced (well, fresher-faced) youth, joined the Rio outfit from Sport. He went on to play a key role as Vasco won two domestic titles and a maiden Copa Libertadores crown, before making the inevitable switch to Europe. A decade later he returned to huge fanfare, signing a contract worth just £55 a week with the notoriously debt-happy club.

Juninho left Vasco for a second time in December 2012 after growing frustrated with boardroom bickering and penned a deal with New York Red Bulls. But when that arrangement soured, the man nicknamed Reizinho da Colina (Little King of the Hill – in reference to the location of the club's stadium rather than the cartoon) made an unexpected return to his spiritual home, signing a contract that will keep him at São Januário until December.

Fittingly, the first appearance of his third spell coincided with the return of domestic football to the Maracanã, the site of many of his past glories. Sunday's clássico between Fluminense and Vasco was the first club match to be played in the historic stadium since September 2010 and drew a crowd of nearly 35,000 paying spectators – a good 30,000 more than Fluminense had averaged in their four 'home' matches up to that point.

Vasco were hopeful that Juninho's presence would help them leapfrog their city rivals in the Série A table, and father fate did not disappoint. Juninho retook to Brazilian football in style, scoring the opener with a powerful effort before laying on another as Vasco ran out 3-1 winners.

Midtable mediocrity may beckon for the Gigante da Colina but at least fans can look forward to their favourite son providing some fireworks (and scoring some free-kicks) before the end of the season.

(Juninho wasn't the only veteran to shine this weekend, incidentally: Alex (35) took his tally for the year to 21 with a brace for Coritiba against Santos; Zé Roberto (39) scored a fine goal for Grêmio; and Paulo Baier (38) provided a dreamy assist for Marcelo in Atlético Paranaense's 1-1 draw with Corinthians.

Masked avengers

That final match was notable mainly for the monsoon-like conditions in which it took place, but also because it underlined a recent upturn in fortunes for Corinthians' two big off-season signings. Repatriated from Europe at no little expense, Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto both made underwhelming starts to life at the Parque São Jorge, the former developing a worrying habit of missing open goals and the latter struggling to shake off a series of injuries.

A couple of months ago fans would have been forgiven for wondering whether the €15million spent on the pair might have been better invested elsewhere, but both have provided glimpses of their talent in recent weeks: Renato scored an imperious lob in the first leg of the Recopa Sul-Americana final against São Paulo (never a bad way to ingratiate yourself to the Fiel) while Pato netted twice to give the Timão a valuable away win against Bahia a fortnight ago.

The two linked up to good effect on Sunday, combining for their side's equalising goal. Renato, wearing a Phantom-of-the-Opera mask to protect a facial injury sustained earlier in the month, dug out a tempting cross for Pato, who planted a firm header past Weverton in the Atlético goal. The former Milan striker proceeded to show off his mysterious new hand-mask celebration, which has proven a big hit among Corinthians fans online. Both he and Renato will be keen to show more of their true colours in the coming months.

From bad to worse

São Paulo continue to outdo themselves in their one-horse race to the bottom. Coming into the weekend the Tricolor had lost six games on the trot – an indignity they had not suffered since the first six matches of the club's history, back in 1936. This weekend things started off reasonably enough, Paulo Autouri's side making it to half-time on level terms with in-form Cruzeiro. But then things fell apart once more. Luan profitted from some shoddy defending to slam home a volley and then trundled through to add a second. He completed his hat-trick minutes later with jarring inevitability.

"They have become the league's punch bag," Estado de S.Paulo columnist Artero Greco mused. "At the first sign of strength from their opponents, they lose control in every way – physically, emotionally and tactically."

The problem for São Paulo is that the experienced players who could reasonably be expected to set an example are among the biggest culprits in their decline: Rogério Ceni has more power in the dressing room than is healthy; Lúcio is a shadow of the player who captained Brazil; Luís Fabiano seems more interested in locking horns with referees than he is in scoring goals. Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Sovereignty on the rocks: São Paulo struggling on and off the pitch

Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. The night is darkest before the dawn and all that. The problem for fans of São Paulo FC is that it's only ten past midnight and things are already unbearably bad.

On Wednesday evening the Tricolor lost 2-0 to Corinthians in the second leg of the Recopa Sul-Americana, a result that sealed a 4-1 aggregate win for the latter. As the São Paulo players trudged off the pitch at the Pacaembu, their bitter rivals celebrated their fourth trophy of the decade.

Yet that was merely a drop in the ocean of dejection that has flooded through the club in recent weeks. A season that begun with hopes of Copa Libertadores glory and a domestic title challenge has come apart at the seams, prompting a rash of finger-pointing among shell-shocked supporters.

Read the rest of this article on the WhoScored website.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Golden oldies: Veterans proving they can still teach the kids a thing or two in Brazil

Brazil is often viewed from without as a kind of adventure playground for teenage footballing savants. You've seen them on YouTube, running amok as lumpen-heeled centre-backs tie themselves in knots and groan with humiliation. From Pelé's riotous early years through to the marketing-friendly ascent of Neymar, youth has often held pride of place in a country that, in many ways, is itself taking its first steps. But in recent years the Campeonato Brasileiro is increasingly a league in which older heads can flourish.

Last season a rejuvenated Ronaldinho waltzed his way to the Brazilian Player of the Year award, dragging Atlético Mineiro from crisis-happy also-rans to title contenders in the process. He was joined in the team of the year by Zé Roberto, whose energetic performances on the left of Grêmio's midfield continue to belie his 39 years. Since 2008 Dejan Petkovic (38), Roberto Carlos (37) and Marcos Assunção (35) have all featured in Placar magazine's Bola de Prata – awarded to the best XI of each Série A season.

Read the rest of this article, on the old heads flourishing in Brazil, on the When Saturday Comes website.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Ageless Alex flourishing with Coritiba

While the kids continue to rack up the YouTube views, the Brasileirão is increasingly a league in which old heads flourish. Repatriated stars such as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Elano and Zé Roberto have found that a little experience goes a long way in a competition in which clubs often prioritise physical prowess over tactical and technical quality.

That former Fenerbahçe star Alex should be tearing things up like Jason Statham in a B-movie should not be too surprising, then. But the sheer quality of the 35-year-old’s recent displays for Coritiba have still managed to raise eyebrows among a population hardly starved of individual footballing brilliance.

Read the rest of this post on the WhoScored blog.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Why Paulinho could be the signing of the season for Spurs

Sometimes the path to the top is long and circuitous. Just ask Paulinho. The 24-year-old midfielder, who today sealed a £17million move to Tottenham Hotspur, has taken his fair share of missteps.

At the age of 17 and with precious little first-team experience, he left his native Brazil to play for FC Vilnius in Lithuania, hoping to use the move as a stepping-stone to a career in one of Europe's bigger leagues. But things didn't work out as expected, with Paulinho the target of abuse both on and off the pitch. "We'd be going to the town centre and people would just come over and make racist comments," he told Globo earlier this year. "Then they'd start making monkey noises. It was so sad."

Read the rest of this profile of Paulinho on the Unibet blog. 

(Image: Getty)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

"You host a World Cup with stadiums, not hospitals"

It reads like a quote from one of the legion of old men who run football, both in Brazil and globally.

Conceivably it could have been uttered by Sepp Blatter minutes before he hopped aboard a flight to Turkey (oh, the irony) midway through the Confederations Cup, apparently disgusted that the Brazilian people had had the temerity to protest social ills during a FIFA event.

It could have been the cadaverous Jose Maria Marin, clown prince of Brazil's football association. Such a statement would hardly have been out of place on his rap sheet of previous crimes, the undoubted centerpiece of which was his support for Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s.

But the words were uttered by someone who, until recently at least, had a rather higher approval rating among football fans in Brazil. They came from the mouth of Ronaldo Fenômeno.

Read the rest of this article, on Ronaldo, Romário, Brazil's World Cup spending and the perils of entering football's political underworld, over at ESPN FC. 

(Image: Getty)

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Brazilian football digest: June

It's fair to say June was a fairly eventful month in Brazil. In my monthly column for Betting Expert, I take a look back at the stories that came to the fore during the Confederations Cup, touching upon Fred's ascent, a stunner from Neymar, Luiz Felipe Scolari's management and the broken promises of Ricardo Teixeira.

Click here to read it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

How Brazil got their groove back

There were tears rolling down cheeks in Rio de Janeiro last night and for once it wasn’t because of the tear gas. (Although in some streets outside the Maracanã it definitely was.) Fireworks were launched into the air in celebration rather than aimed at military police. Brazil has been an intriguing and chaotic place to be in the last two weeks but there was a sense last night that things were returning to something like normal.

It was the final everyone wanted to see. Brazil had not played Spain since 1999 and you had to go all the way back to 1986 for the last competitive meeting. Brazil had been the elephant in the room during La Roja’s ascent to international football’s top table; if there was plenty of admiration for Xavi et al, there was also an unspoken feeling of, well, they’ve yet to do it against us.

Read the rest of this article, on Brazil's Confederations Cup triumph, on the Mirror website.

(Image: Getty.)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Brave new world: mixed reactions as fans in Rio return to new, FIFA-standard Maracanã

To the uninitiated, getting around Rio de Janeiro is about as easy as solving a Rubik’s Cube. Sure there’s a passable metro system, but that only caters for the millionaires, trust-funders and unadventurous tourists who tend to populate the city’s affluent Zona Sul (South Zone). Venture west beyond the confines of Leblon or north past Rio’s financial district and you’ll soon find yourself thrust into a veritable hinterland, full of surprisingly alien rules and practices.

Here’s a case in point. Let’s say that, for whatever reason, you’re waiting at the side of the road. A stranger walks over and stands less than ten metres away. Another turns up. Congratulations, you’ve just created a bus stop. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) There are no signs to tell you which buses pass and where they go; you have to ask someone. If that person doesn’t know, you ask someone else. Part of the reason Brazilians are so staggeringly helpful is that, in situations like this, they need to be. This is a country of enforced informational samaritanism.

Once you have a bus in mind, the next task is to squint at the oncoming traffic until it appears and wave it down before it gets away. This is easier said than done; the bus won’t always be in the lane closest to the pavement and is likely to be going pretty fast. Sometimes your best option is a kombi – a dilapidated minibus. These are rather less common since Rio mayor Eduardo Paes banned them from the South Zone, but you’ll still see the odd VW camper trundling around, seemingly fuelled only by the incessant energy of the driver’s assistant, who barks a strangely poetic list of destinations (“Cascadura, Madureira, Mercadão!”) out of the window.

Worn out yet? Then you’ve yet to experience the actual journey. Imagine being inside a washing machine (sweat is your analogue for water here) and you’ll be pretty close. No wonder public transport has been such a key issue in the protests that have swept through Brazil over the last week and a half. Anyway, the point of all this rambling is this: When you’re offered a lift in Rio de Janeiro, you bloody well take it.

(This is especially true when you’re based, as I currently am, in Barra da Tijuca. Part of the city’s ever-unfurling western sprawl, Barra is linked to the rest of Rio only by a ten-lane strip of road that recalls Miami more than it does Brazil. Admittedly, this is in part due to the names of the high-rise condominiums that pepper the area – Ocean Drive (any link to the Lighthouse Family purely accidental), Liberty Place, Summer Dream – all of which are in English.)

So it was with some relief that I hopped in the back of a car and headed to the Maracanã last week for Rio’s first taste of Confederations Cup action – the Group A match between Mexico and Italy.

It was to be the first competitive match at the historic stadium since September 2010, a fact not lost on my company for the day – João, a ludicrously fanatic Fluminense fan, and his Flamengo-supporting friend, Rafael. As we settled down for a pre-match chopp (draft beer) and galeto (spit-roasted chicken) on the wonderfully named Rua Haddock Lobo, they told me how it felt to be returning to a ground they knew so well.

“It’s the Maracanã, man!” Rafael beamed. “There’s no other way to explain it. I woke up at 3am today and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was too excited.” João concurred: “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. The Maracanã is Rio.”

We wondered down to the stadium via a quick stop at a traditional Brazilian boteco – a cheap, cheerful bar that helps to satisfy the country’s unquenchable thirst for beer. On the menu this time was a local delicacy: fried cod balls. “These are some of the best around,” João assured me. I wasn’t arguing.

The exterior of the Maracanã was as alluring as it was the last time I visited, in 2009. Brighter and cleaner too – although you’d expect nothing less after a renovation that ended up costing a colossal R$1billion ($458million). Some incomplete building works aside, all was running like clockwork: signs were clear and plentiful, volunteers well informed.

Things were similarly slick inside. Gone were the seats with no backs, replaced by comparative armchairs. The view, from my spot at in the northeast corner at least, was stunning. In the toilets I overhead a young fan giggling with his friend: “Paper towels! This is an emotional moment!”

As the game began, there were mutterings of approval from those sat around me. (In Brazilian stadiums you don’t often have to persuade someone to share their opinions; they are usually submitted freely and loudly for the approval – or otherwise – of surrounding fans.) “It’s beautiful,” said João, with a twinkle in his eye.

The crowd was – or, to my eyes at least, looked – decidedly more middle class than it did in 2009, snapping away on smartphones and behaving genteelly. (One notable exception: a moment of petulance from Mario Balotelli prompted a terrifyingly unanimous chant of “Balotelli is gay.” This sort of homophobia is all too common in Brazilian society, unfortunately.)

That those present were for the most part merely curious rather than gripped can be partly attributed to a lack of partisanship towards either of the sides involved. But an undercurrent of scepticism began to emerge as supporters surveyed the extensive array of corporate and hospitality seating in the stadium’s middle tier.

The tickets that did go on sale to the public weren’t cheap either: a Category 3 seat for the game was priced at $52 for local fans (and more for us gringos). To put this in context, the cheapest tickets at the stadium cost around $1.50 as recently as 2005 – although admittedly for club matches. “I’m worried it’s going to be like this when [domestic football] returns: nice and clean but too expensive for the man on the street,” Rafael told me later.

This, of course, is where the renovation of the stadium – and Brazil’s World Cup preparation in general – reaches choppy waters. There is a feeling that the FIFA arenas will lead to a (re)gentrification of the game in the country; that, as Roberto Assaf put it in sports daily Lance!, “football will be controlled and watched by the elite... like it was in at the start of the 20th century.”

There are other related worries. Rafael and João bemoaned the fact that traditional displays of fandom – particularly Fluminense’s famed mosaics and the enormous flags waved in big games – would die out due to tighter regulations. The seats, too, leave little room for fans to stand and mill about as they always used to in certain sections of the ground.

A supporter sat behind me during the match also highlighted the fact that the traditional shallow Maracanã goals had been replaced by the deeper nets used in Europe. “It’s FIFA rules,” his friend sighed, which provoked a response that has been fairly common in these parts of late: “Fuck FIFA.”

This is all particularly painful because, perhaps more than any other ground, the Maracanã has always been the stadium of the people. With its plentiful seating and heavy workload (both Flamengo and Fluminense have called it home for long periods of their history; Vasco da Gama and Botafogo have been frequent tenants), it is has provided joy and respite to millions of Brazilian fans during its 53-year history. If the beach is Rio de Janeiro’s most democratic public good, the Maracanã has never been far behind.

Last Sunday the crowd was at its loudest when singing a well-worn Maracanã favourite, Domingo Eu Vou Ao Maracanã. But while the song, made famous by the Beija-Flor samba school, used to be belted out with pure joy, the sentiment this time was rather more bittersweet.

On Sunday I’m going to the Maracanã
to cheer for the team I support!
I’ll take fireworks and flags.
There will be no messing around.
We’re going to be the champions!

I don’t want a seat with a number!
I’ll stay in the standing area
to feel more emotion!

It may be too early to draw concrete conclusions about the long-term effects of the World Cup on football at the Maracanã. But if my trip to the stadium was anything to go by, feelings will be mixed as Brazil embraces FIFA’s vision of modernity.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

(Photos: all writer's own.)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Seleção stars voice support for Brazil protests

With the world's gaze fixed on the protests sweeping through Brazil, you'd be forgiven for expecting the country's footballers to have been cajoled into PR-friendly silence by a crack squad of agents, publicists and party whips (OK, that last one may be pushing it). But the stars of the Seleção have bucked expectations this week, throwing their support behind the 'Change Brazil' movement.

I wrote a quick piece for The Mirror detailing the reactions of the Brazil squad around their 2-0 win against Mexico on Wednesday. Read it here.

(Photo credit: Getty.)

Friday, 14 June 2013

Austerity measures: Flamengo look to get back on even keel with frugal new president

If you've cast even the most half-hearted eye over these pages in the last... well, ever, you'll know that drama has followed Flamengo round like a bad smell in recent years. And not just drama either; a recent audit revealed that the Rio club has debts totalling R$750million (£225million) – a colossal figure in anyone's book.

Much of the recent strife coincided with the presidency of Patrícia Amorim, a plucky former Olympic swimmer whose knack for pulling off PR coups was not matched by her political or financial savvy. In my latest article for When Saturday Comes, I look at the demise of her reign and detail the ways in which her successor, Eduardo Bandeira de Mello, is attempting to reshape the club along more economically responsible lines.

The July 2013 issue is available now from places that sell magazines, and from the WSC website.

NB - Since I submitted the article Flamengo have sacked coach Jorginho, whose work I praised generously. Time makes fools of us all.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

365 dias, 365 jogadores

The countdown clock marked "World Cup 2014" ticked down into its final year yesterday, prompting no little excitement around the world and a pang of dread for those among us who adore Brazil but fear the potential for samba-soundtracked organisational chaos.

To mark the occasion I have started a new series over at SKP's sister blog, Games Against Nature. Every day until the big kick-off (or at least until my not-always-lengthy attention span expires) I will post an old photo of a Brazilian footballer. Some will be familiar, some may not be, and some will be accompanied by a poem or something similarly frivolous.

Here's the first instalment. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Unlikely heroes lead Série A goalscoring charts

The Brazilian football calendar is an infuriating beast. At the start of the year the state championships test the patience of even the most saintly fans, ambling on for five months despite dwindling interest levels, vast gulfs in quality between sides and pitches that make your local park look like Wembley. In an ideal world, shortened estaduais would be the perfect aperitif before the main meal of the Brasileirão, but in reality it's hard not to feel a touch jaded by the time things go national.

Things are even worse this year. Due to the Confederations Cup, Série A started with a gruelling Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday sprintathon, prompting some coaches to complain about fatigue after just five rounds of the season. And now the league goes on sabbatical until the start of July. Whirlwind romances are not commonly followed by enforced separation, but then Brazilian football rarely abides by the script.

This tumult has also allowed some lesser-known (to European audiences, at least) players to claw themselves to the top of the goal-scoring charts. In my latest WhoScored column, I say hello to the unlikely heroes of the opening weeks of the Série A season.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Brazilian football digest: May

It was a busy month in Brazil, what with Neymar's future being decided and the Série A season finally getting underway.

In my latest Betting Expert column, I pick out the key stories from May, touching on Vitória, the Maracanã and a fine goal from João Vitor. Click here to read it.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Family values: Lionel Messi's cousin shines for Vitória

It's not easy growing up in someone else's shadow. Just ask Maxi Biancucchi. The pint-sized Argentine striker has spent his whole career playing second fiddle to his cousin (and the best pint-sized Argentine striker of the lot), Lionel Messi.

But after a semi-nomadic trawl round South America, Biancucchi appears to have settled in Salvador, where his early-season performances have helped Vitória establish themselves as the surprise package of the Brasileirão. In my latest piece for WhoScored, I profile Biancucchi and take a look at his contribution to the Leão's form. Read the article here.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The crying game: Neymar bids farewell to Brazil

A tear rolled down Neymar's cheek as the national anthem played at the shiny new Mané Garrincha stadium. It was an emotional moment – the preamble to his final club game in his beloved Brazil (for the foreseeable future at least). In amongst the cocktail of feelings must have been a pang of youthful vulnerability. The 21-year-old isn't just leaving boyhood club Santos; he's leaving his boyhood. These were eldest-son-leaving-the-family-home sobs.

On Saturday, Neymar confirmed what everyone already knew: that he was to join Barcelona. It was the end of a lengthy and not particularly enjoyable soap opera, the climax of which involved levels of coquettishness not seen since LeBron James and Eden Hazard unveiled their future plans. Neymar finally revealed his destination via social networks – an entirely appropriate medium for a player who, perhaps more than any other, embodies the term "internet sensation".

The €35million (ish) fee struck many as rather low, particularly given that his buyout clause stood at almost double that. Neymar's contract, though, only ran until July 2014, meaning that there was the possibility that he leave for nothing after the World Cup.

Until 2012, it seemed likely that the contract would be honoured, with Neymar repeatedly voicing his desire to remain in Brazil, close to friends and family. On the pitch, his development went hand-in-hand with that of Santos, whom he led to a historic Copa Libertadores title in 2011. The birth of his son, Davi Lucca, provided further incentive to stay put, as did his nascent relationship with actress Bruna Marquezine.

But gradually the discourse began to change. With Brazilian football increasingly a cakewalk for someone of his skill, pundits started to question whether he'd be better off getting out of his comfort zone before 2014. Santos' failure to qualify for this year's Libertadores meant that the early part of 2013 was particularly unfulfilling, and the Santos board began to feel that, y'know, €35million might be better than €0million.

The decision may have been a trickier one if Santos hadn’t lost their way to such an extent in recent months. Sunday's match – a dire 0-0 draw against Flamengo – highlighted the extent to which the side has stagnated around its star player. While once it purred with youthful verve, it now has all the allure of a vacuum cleaner – and precious little of the functionality. The third generation of Meninos da Vila (Paulo Henrique Ganso, André, a repatriated and motivated Robinho) have moved on: Ganso to São Paulo, André to Unfulfilled Promise Island, Robinho to goodness knows where.

Other good players remain, of course, but the cracks have been showing. Arouca is not the dominant presence he once threatened to be, while most of the back four will be collecting their pensions within a few years. Neymar's strike partner against Flamengo was new recruit Henrique, a player who doesn't even have his own Portuguese Wikipedia page. As former Brazil forward Tostão put it this week, "Playing in such a weak Santos side is demeaning for someone of Neymar's talent."

At Barcelona, the 21-year-old will naturally benefit from playing with – and against – better players. And while the interest in him in Europe will be no less feverish than it has been in Brazil, he will not be alone in centre stage; he will be one dot in a constellation rather than a lone star. At any rate, the pressure at Barça can hardly be greater than a weight he already bears: that of carrying the seleção’s World Cup hopes.

The Brazilian game will be poorer for the sale of its biggest star, but he leaves a legacy of hope: that the country’s footballing production line has merely slowed rather than stalled; that a player’s commercial value isn’t predicated on playing for a European giant; that clubs in Brazil can aren’t condemned to selling their prize assets the first time a big outfit comes knocking.

Santos, in particular, have profited enormously from keeping Neymar until the last year of his contract – even if the result was a lower transfer fee. With his commercial pull, the club’s marketing revenue increased by over 400% between 2009 and 2012. Over the same period, the number of Santos sócios (paying members) leapt from 24,000 to 63,000. In 2011, the Peixe earnt R$25million (around £8million) from television rights; one year later, the figure stood at R$75million.

It would be churlish, of course, to reduce Neymar’s influence in Brazil to the merely financial. His real value lies in the memories he leaves behind – of beautiful goals, scarcely believable dribbles and title wins. He is, above all, a deeply Brazilian player, full of daring and cunning. It was appropriate, then, that his last match came in a stadium named after perhaps the most Brazilian player of all.

Not that this was a conclusive goodbye: “It’s just a ‘see you later’,” Neymar told reporters after the game. Enjoy him while you can, Barça. The joy of the people won’t be gone forever.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Why Neymar was right to leave stagnant Santos

This weekend's Brasileirão match between Santos and Flamengo was notable only for the circumstances of the game. Firstly, it was the first Série A game to be staged at the shiny new Estádio Mané Garrincha, one of Brazil's World Cup stadiums. Secondly, and even more historically, it was Neymar's last club game in Brazil (for now at least).

The match itself provided a convincing argument (albeit only in microcosm) for the view that Neymar was right to seek pastures new this summer. In my first article for WhoScored, I argue that Santos' over-reliance on Neymar was harming his development, and take a look at what the future may hold for the Peixe without their boy wonder. You can read the piece here.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Brazilian football stats and previews

Those who follow Brazilian football will be pleased to know that statistics site WhoScored has now introduced in-depth coverage of the Campeonato Brasileiro. The Série A section of their page features form guides, a weekly best XI and more facts and figures than you could shake a stick at.

There will also be short previews of every match this season, as well as weekly articles focusing on specific players, teams and matches, all written by yours truly. Enjoy!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Take a seat at the Restaurante Campeonato Brasileiro (Série A 2013 preview)

And so, after five months queuing in the cold, nibbling upon the most meagre of bar snacks, we are shown to our seats. The Restaurante Campeonato Brasileiro is not the easiest place at which to get a booking these days, attracting a global clientele as never before and yet continuing to confound with its pioneering mix of exoticism and local stodge.

A swift glance at the occupants of the tables around us highlights one of the most unique features of the Brasileiro – its enormous geographical reach. See they guy with the mopey face? He represents Náutico, a club from the Nordeste. He’ll have to make two round trips of 6000 kilometres before the season is out. That’s over a quarter of the way round the world. No wonder he’s ordering another whiskey.

This is the start of a preview (of sorts) of the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro. You can read it in its entirety on The Score's football blog.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Scolari announces Brazil squad for Confederations Cup

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has unveiled his squad for the Confederations Cup, which begins on 15 June. The headline news is that, contrary to expectations, neither Kaká nor Ronaldinho Gaúcho has made the cut. There is, however, a surprise call-up for young Atlético Mineiro forward Bernard.

The full squad is as follows:

Júlio César (QPR)
Diego Cavalieri (Fluminense)
Jefferson (Botafogo)

David Luiz (Chelsea)
Thiago Silva (PSG)
Réver (Atlético Mineiro)
Dante (Bayern Munich)
Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Filipe Luís (Atlético Madrid)
Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
Jean (Fluminense)

Paulinho (Corinthians)
Fernando (Grêmio)
Luiz Gustavo (Bayern Munich)
Oscar (Chelsea)
Hernanes (Lazio)
Jádson (São Paulo)

Bernard (Atlético Mineiro)
Lucas (PSG)
Hulk (Zenit St Petersburg)
Leandro Damião (Internacional)
Fred (Fluminense)
Neymar (Santos)

Former Liverpool player Diego Cavalieri joins Júlio César and Jefferson among the goalkeepers, seeing off competition from Diego Alves and Victor. There are few surprises in defence, although the selection of Jean (who has played most of the season in midfield for Fluminense) may raise the odd eyebrow. Dedé, who has yet to play for Cruzeiro since his protracted transfer from Vasco da Gama, finds himself frozen out for now.

In midfield, Ramires and Lucas Leiva miss out, as does Corinthians guard dog Ralf. The inclusion of Leandro Damião is somewhat surprising given that he featured in neither of Felipão's first two Brazil squads but, coupled with Fred's selection, perhaps underlines the coach's preference for a target man up front. The supporting cast of attackers has a decidedly youthful feel, with Bernard edging out both his club colleague Ronaldinho and Kaká, who flattered to deceive in the seleção's last bout of friendlies.