There are more than a few positives about watching your domestic football in this corner of the globe, in addition to a long list of grievances and drawbacks. Yes, the Brazilian calendar is packed tighter than an airport sandwich, with months of the season needlessly taken up by meaningless state championship games in sweltering heat on treacherous playing surfaces.
But in a country where the production line of talent is seemingly endless, the thrill of seeing the next potential star emerge from the shadows is something not only exhilarating but alarmingly frequent. Just over the last half decade or so we have seen the likes of Malcom, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Barbosa, Douglas Costa and now Vinicius Junior go on and decorate the European game.
The chronic lack of organisation of top level clubs in Brazil also means that there has never truly been a breakaway group who dominate the league. Sure, there are massive teams who can count their fan bases in the tens of millions – Flamengo and Corinthians, of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo respectively, continuously fight out it for the unofficial crown of Brazil’s biggest club.
But the idea that a club could dominate for two decades the way Manchester United did at the birth of the Premier League era is unthinkable. Between 2006 and 2008, São Paulo won three successive Brasileirão crowns under the guise of Muricy Ramalho, an unprecedented achievement in Brazil’s rich footballing history, yet over the last nine years have spent as much time flirting with relegation as they have fighting for trophies.
All of which makes the Brazilian league championship one of the most intriguing to watch, when as many as half the sides who make up the 20-team Serie A can harbour genuine aspirations of at least challenging for the league crown. History tells us that clubs in the South-East have a far greater chance of taking the title – the last time the Brasileirão crown left this part of the country was 2001, when Atlético Paranaense took the title – but there remains a sense that this is a far more openly contested championship than many of its European counterparts, where huge Champions League payments have distorted the domestic picture somewhat.
This past season, there was no such battle for the crown. Corinthians stormed their way towards the league title – their second in three years and third this decade – after a blistering start to the campaign saw the paulista giants establish such a lead that they simply could not be caught.
With rookie boss Fábio Carille at the helm of the Corinthians ship, the Timão spent the first half of the season unbeaten, at one point holding a 12-point lead over their then nearest rivals Grêmio, who would go on to lift the Copa Libertadores, the South American answer to the UEFA Champions League. For Carille and his cohorts, however, this was a success built on a solid foundation rather than one craque, or star player.
Despite producing some of the world’s finest, aesthetically pleasing talent, the technical level of domestic football in Brazil is desperately poor. With huge talents leaving early for the Old Continent, as Europe is often referred to in these quarters, players below that elite rung often find themselves plundering the financial rewards of football in the Middle East and, more recently, China.
That leaves Brazilian clubs with effectively a third rate roster from which to choose, meaning one “elite” player, or a select small group, can have a dramatic effect on a team’s fortunes. The return of Adriano to Flamengo in 2009 was enough to propel that side to the title.
The goal scoring exploits of Argentine playmaker Darío Conca in 2010 were enough to fire Fluminenese towards the crown. And last year, a certain Gabriel Jesus proved the difference between Palmeiras and the rest.
But this Corinthians success was built on a solid if unspectacular setting. The side won more games than anyone else, lost fewer games than anyone else and finished a comfortable nine points ahead of second-placed Palmeiras.
Yet while their goal scoring exploits were hardly stuff to write home about (they scored the same amount of goals as Vitória, who only survived the threat of relegation on the final day of the season), Corinthians did boast the best defensive record, leaking just 30 goals at less than a goal a game. Their record over the seventh months of the national league campaign, not to mention their style of play and tactical set-up, boasts startling similarities to the side that saw so much success under Tite, the man who has gone on to oversee a huge positive transformation with the seleção brasileira – the Brazilian national side. But that spell at between 2010 and 2013 – his second at the club – catapulted Tite to the forefront of the domestic game in Brazil, and the first murmurings of him taking the national job were heard.
While Tite did return to Corinthians for a third spell at the club and lift another Brazilian league title in 2015 before taking on arguably the toughest managerial job in world football, it was his spell at the club at the start of the decade which saw him make his name as one of the best managers in the country.
It was prior to the advancement in his coaching techniques came the building blocks of success. His initial wave of success, which took in a Brazilian league title, the Copa Libertadores crown and culminated in a Club World Cup crown over Chelsea, relied on the same solid defensive set-up, relentless energy in midfield and a proven target man to score a sufficient number of goals.
He was bold in cutting away from older, less mobile players such as Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, stellar names who could draw a crowd but no longer fitted a rapid, counter-attacking style of play which was Tite’s trademark during his first spell at the club. With Ralf operating in front of the back four and Paulinho playing himself into Tite’s trust, Romarinho’s pace and Emersom Sheik’s guile were key countering weapons, especially once Paolo Guerrero was brought in to lead the line.
It is a similarity which has not gone unnoticed in the Brazilian press, and Carille himself has acknowledged that his work is comparable to that of his esteemed predecessor. Following the disappointing spells of Cristóvão Borges and veteran Oswaldo de Oliveira, Corinthians’ decision to promote from within has paid rich dividends. In a league where managerial spells are notoriously short, often lasting just a matter of weeks before the next tired old name is wheeled out as the inflexible short-term pattern of conservatism and a lack of planning can continue largely uninhibited, it is indeed refreshing to see success in the hands of a relative newcomer to the managerial hot seat.
Building from the back, Carille relied on a 4-1-4-1 just as Tite has throughout the most recent years of his increasingly distinguished career, using a solid back four of Fagner, Balbuena, Pablo and Guilherme Arana, who, as the most exciting full-back in the country, has deservedly completed a move to Spanish side Sevilla. Now, after lifting both the state and national championships, it will be fascinating to see how, or even if, Carille is able to build on his early success at the club.
Yet it was Tite’s return to Corinthians following time in Europe studying some of the greatest coaches in the continent which brought about a far more open, aggressive style of play to the club, whilst maintaining that reliable baseline across the defensive third of the pitch. The return was gratifying in the extreme, with the side leaking just 31 goals, as well as being top scorers in the division by six goals.
A more ruthless approach to goal scoring is a trait which Tite has been successful in transferring to the international stage, albeit only in a continental setting thus far. The tactician famously took Brazil from sixth in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group to top, without losing a single game. The highlight of his reign to date surely came in November 2016, when the seleção comprehensively dispatched Argentina 3-0 as Tite 2.0 has once again got people raving and salivating about what this group of players can do. In 12 competitive fixtures the side won 10 and drew two, surpassing all expectations while seeing the identity of the man in the dug-out imprinted on the side. Those 12 games saw just three goals conceded, and included 3-0 and 4-1 wins over their biggest continental rivals, Argentina and Uruguay respectively.
For Carille to take Corinthians to the next level as Tite managed to do, patience will most certainly be necessary, a virtue often in short supply in these fickle parts. The side has already lost their talisman Jô to Japanese football, and a side that has won the title one year can suddenly find themselves fighting relegation the next, as Fluminense found much to their chagrin in 2013.
Both Tite and Carille have often favoured a target man for the fulcrum of their attack – Paolo Guerrero, Vagner Love and Gabriel Jesus who have all led the lines for Tite teams, players capable of holding the ball up and bringing others into the attacking equation, while Jô did the same job excellently for Carille last term, finishing as top scorer in the Brasileirão with 17 goals.
Now comes the next challenge for Carille. After losing key pieces from his tirle-winning jigsaw, can he not only sustain, but adapt, take his team to the next level? It is the big question for any manager the world over and, with one of the most tactically adept young coaches in Brazil at the steering wheel, Corintians appear to be in safe hands. Whether he can finally emerge from Tite’s shadow, however, is another matter entirely.