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.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The week(end) that was - #6

On Botafogo's 20th Campeonato Carioca title, Rogério's pantomime villainy and the best of the rest...

Botafogo on the up

A well-taken goal from Rafael Marques (not that one) was enough to give Botafogo a 1-0 win against Fluminense in the final of the Taça Rio – a result that saw O Glorioso, who had already won the primeiro turno (the first stage of the championship), crowned champions of the Campeonato Carioca for the 20th time in their history.

They have undeniably been the standout side of the competition, impressing as much with their grit in the big matches as with their ability to overpower more modest opposition. The statistics tell the story: Sunday's victory ensured that Oswaldo de Oliveira's charges became the first side since 1997 to maintain a 100 per cent record during a whole phase of a Rio state championship campaign. This, even for one of the traditional big four, is no mean feat.

Boosted by the revelatory form of Nicolás Lodeiro, Clarence Seedorf's continued excellence and the lack of continental distractions (until the Copa Sul-Americana starts at least), Botafogo will certainly be in confident mood heading into the Série A season. An improvement upon their seventh-placed finish in 2012 looks likely.

Rogério vs Pato (part two)

It is fair to say that Rogério Ceni divides opinion like few others in the Brazilian game. Depending on your allegiances, he is either (a) a fiercely loyal competitor, still churning out era-defining performances in the twilight of his career, or (b) a snivelling, entitled elder statesman who should have retired a long time ago. The reality is somewhere between the two extremes, but few could deny the goalkeeper's penchant for box-office entertainment – be it through his saves, goals (yep) or increasingly frequent handling errors.

This weekend the veteran resumed a running feud with Alexandre Pato. The two first clashed (quite literally) back in March, when Rogério conceded a penalty for a foul the striker in the São Paulo vs Corinthians clássico. The goalkeeper protested the decision ("Look at the replay! He could have broken my foot!") but it was to no avail as Pato converted to win the game for the Timão.

The two sides met again on Sunday evening with a place in the final of the Campeonato Paulista at stake. A dire goalless draw was livened up by the ensuing penalty shootout, the climax of which pitted Pato against Rogério once more. With Paulo Henrique Ganso and Luís Fabiano having missed their kicks, Pato just needed to score from 12 yards to put Corinthians through. He stepped up. Rogério saved.

The São Paulo captain launched into lunatic celebration, only to be brought back down to earth with a bump. He had advanced too far off his line; the kick was to be retaken. Replays showed the extent of the advantage Rogério had been trying to gain – when Pato made contact with the ball, he was over 2.5 metres off his line. Pato made no mistake at the second time of asking, sending the Timão fans at the Morumbi into raptures.

Meanwhile, on computers throughout Brazil, a million photoshopped images mocking Ceni were being whipped up. The old man did it again.


That match was not the first derby match to disappoint in this season's Paulistão. Here are a few other clássico results from this year: Santos 0-0 Corinthians, São Paulo 0-0 Palmeiras, Palmeiras 0-0 Santos. Every one of those games was an excellent excuse for a snooze.


(Deep breath, and...) Internacional beat Juventude on penalties to retain the Campeonato Gaúcho and earn Dunga his third trophy as a coach. Bahia and Vitória will play out a couple of Ba-Vi derbies to decide the destination of the Bahia state championship. Santa Cruz beat Sport 1-0 in the first leg of the Pernambucano final thanks to a goal from Dênis Marques, the owner of what is officially the worst haircut in human history. In Paraná, a Coritiba side featuring former Fenerbahçe playmaker Alex drew 2-2 with Atlético-PR in the first leg of their state championship decider.

(Your reward, for making it to the end of that last paragraph, is this moment of amusement from the São Paulo game. Emerson holds the ball in front of Thiago Carleto, who, to show how little he's worried, sorts out his fringe. Detail: Thiago Carleto doesn't have a fringe to sort out.)

A version of this article was published by the Guardian.

(Photo credits: (1) Bruno de Lima, (2) Marcos Ribolli.)

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Brazilian football digest: April

In my latest monthly round-up for Betting Expert, I take a look at Palmeiras' changing fortunes, a goal scored by a legend of the Brazilian game, and the (alleged) torture of Vasco da Gama forward Bernardo by drug traffickers.

Click here to read it.