Prior to the kick off in the national Brazilian league – the Brasileirão – I penned a piece for these pages full of praise for paulista giants Corinthians and Palmeiras. The former had just sauntered to the 2017 crown, were playing under one of the new, exciting young faces in the country’s sadly predictable world of club management, and were arguably the only club to follow a structured philosophy in terms of playing style.
Their closest challengers for the title were shaping up to be their great city rivals. Also under the stewardship of a relative rookie in terms of management experience, the Verdão had taken a different approach to the defending champions, spending big for the second season in a row as they looked to power their way to a second title in three years.
Alas, this being the hectic world of Brazilian domestic football, four short months has been more than enough to change the panorama of the current season. Corinthians boss Fábio Carille has since departed for the financially rewarding challenge of managing Al Wehda in Saudi Arabia.
And Palmeiras have since issued Roger Machado with his P45, his third dismissal from one of Brazil’s big clubs – first Grêmio, second Atlético Mineiro – for the familiar hand of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Admittedly, his arrival has coincided with an upturn in fortunes, the club taking seven points from a possible nine to sit sixth, eight points off the league summit.
Corinthians, meanwhile, have tried to follow their tried and tested of promoting from within. Replacing the departing Carille was the unfortunately named Osmar Loss from the youth teams.
In a horrible twist of fate for the club’s faithful he has more than lived up to that name. There have been some encouraging performances – a 2-0 home win against Libertadores contenders Cruzeiro springs to mind – but ultimately it has been a title defence of disappointing frustration, hardly helped by the sales of defensive rock Pablo Balbuena to West Ham United, and the loss of talismanic forward Jô to Japanese football.
The last three league outings have rendered a single point and the club are a barely surmountable 15 points off São Paulo at the top of the table. This year’s league title may well be staying in the city, but a second successive crown for Corinthians is looking unlikely in the extreme.
All of which brings us to current events. This past weekend (18-19 August) marked the halfway stage in this year’s race. Two teams currently stand out as candidates for end of season celebration – São Paulo and Rio giants Flamengo.
The Rio club have built a strong in unspectacular side which has snuck in almost unnoticed. The spine of the side is its key strength – from Diego Alves between the sticks and Réver marshalling the back line, to the creative influences of Lucas Paquetá and Diego in the middle and penalty box target man Henrique Dourado leading the line. In the slow, monotonous and often third-rate surroundings of the Brasileirão, steady and dependable often wins the race.
So what looks to be the biggest challenge for a Flamengo side which has successfully managed to strike the right balance between wily experience and creative flair? The Brazilian football calendar and, possibly, a young and overly optimistic coach who believes he can take on the system and win.
Maurício Barbieri must be commended for his bold approach in the Rubro-Negro dugout. However, his attitude may also point to a naivety which could be his team’s undoing come the business end of the season in a couple of month’s time as his side continue to fight on three fronts.
Besides the league hunt, Flamengo are still alive in the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores – the South American answer to the UEFA Champions League. The staging of the FIFA World Cup played havoc with the country’s domestic football calendar, as is the custom every four years.
The sheer volume of games and competitions – state championship, national league, domestic cup competition, then the Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana (Europa League) leave precious little time for tactical preparation. More importantly, they make prioritisation an imperative, a habit which Barbieri has steadfastly refused to ignore in recent weeks.
In August alone, the club is set to play nine games across three competitions at a rate of one match every three and a half days. Given the financial plight of several clubs in this corner of the world, playing squads are thin on the ground at the best of times, and attempting to power through two games a week is akin to trying to sprint a marathon.
In this window, Flamengo have lost Vinicius Júnior to Real Madrid, with rumours continuing to swirl over the head of Lucas Paquetá, with those stories only intensifying following his call up to the Brazil squad for the friendlies against the USA and El Salvador next month.
It was therefore a delicate situation which needed careful management, something a more experienced head may well have opted to do. “We are not giving priority to any competition”, Barbieri defiantly announced as he plundered onwards into a marathon month which could well go a long way to define his club’s fortunes over the remaining four months of the season.
It is a policy which has not served Flamengo well since the post-World Cup restart. The club have played 10 games in that time, losing four of them and only managing a draw with relegation-threatened Santos. They have ceded top to São Paulo, and their continental ambitions for the season lie around them in tatters.
On 8 August, Flamengo played the first leg of their round of 16 Libertadores tie against a strong Cruzeiro outfit. Just four days beforehand, the Rubro Negro had lost 2-0 away to potential title rivals Grêmio – the club they have now eliminated from the cup following a closely fought tie, edging the 180 minutes 2-1 on aggregate.
Matters were not helped on the continental front by the club rising the ticket prices. The cheapest entrance fee was R$180 reais, a hike which, in a country where the minimum wage is RS964 (around 200 pounds) is nothing short of criminal.
Each time a club falters , fingers inevitably point to the absurdity, the insanity of a Brazilian football calendar which can encompass between 70 and 80 games in a 10-month period. And while it is certainly possible to have more than a little sympathy with fans, often expected to fork out large sums for games at inconvenient times – who thought 10.00pm kick offs on a Wednesday night would be a good idea? – club directors, those in a position to challenge the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) are more often than not infuriatingly quiet on the subject, unless it coincides with their own blinkered, short-term strategy.
But Flamengo’s, and Barbieri’s, current dilemma encapsulates succinctly all that is mad about Brazil’s domestic football year. From fighting on three fronts the club could slip to none in a matter of weeks.
Two defeats in three for the Rio club have seen São Paulo open a three-point gap at the top of the table. Fatigued and jaded, Flamengo were three goals down inside 20 minutes against Atlético Paranaense this past Sunday, a side who currently sit third from the bottom of the table.
Flamengo’s potentially history-making season will be decided over the course of the coming weeks. Barbieri now must play the hand he has been dealt – and sprinting through a marathon rarely ends well.