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.)