For all the shortcomings of Brazilian domestic football, fans can still take pride from the fact that the Brasileirão continues to provide unpredictable winners and title races that go down to the wire. With just one round of fixtures left to play – all 20 teams in the Brazilian top flight are in action on Thursday night – there are two clubs competing for the title.
It is no surprise that reigning champions Flamengo are in the running. They are hoping to win back-to-back titles for the first time since the days of Zico in 1982 and 1983. That Internacional are their challengers is more of a surprise. Even though they won the Copa Libertadores in 2006 and 2010, Inter have not been Brazilian champions for 42 years.
The top two met on Sunday in a high-octane game that threw up a quirk that only South America football could produce. Before the game, attention turned to the right-back Rodinei, who is on loan at Internacional from Flamengo. The terms of the deal stipulate that he is not allowed to play against his parent club unless Flamengo receive a 1 million real (£133,000) payment.
With the league title on the line, a desperate Inter fan stumped up the money to give his team a helping hand at the Maracanã. Predictably, it all ended in tears. Rodinei was sent off in the 49th minute and Gabriel Barbosa scored Flamengo’s winning goal soon after to give them the advantage going into the final round of games this week.
“Of course, I was in great pain,” said Inter coach Abel Braga after the match. “This is a giant club, which has been chasing this title for many years. These players are dignified. We will not stop because it is not over.”
Flamengo’s victory on Sunday puts them two points clear of Inter. So, if they beat São Paulo in their final game, they will be crowned champions for a seventh time. However, if they lose or draw, and Inter beat Corinthians in Porto Alegre, the trophy will head south to gaúcho territory. Whoever comes out on top, it is refreshing to see two clubs from outside São Paulo contesting the title. Before Flamengo won the league last season, the title had been passed between Palmeiras and Corinthians for four years.
Even so, two clubs from São Paulo will have their say in the outcome. Corinthians are on a poor run, having failed to win any of their last four games, and can no longer finish in the top eight and qualify for the Copa Libertadores. However, just because they have nothing obvious to play for does not mean they have no motivation against Inter. Old heads in the Corinthians fanbase will remember the pain of 1976, when their team was pipped to the title by Inter. They will want their team to win the game in Porto Alegre out of spite.
The narrative is stronger in the other fixture. At one point earlier in the season, São Paulo were seven points clear at the top of the table. Dani Alves looked likely to win yet another trophy at the age of 37 and fans were beaming about their manager, Fernando Diniz, who was being discussed as a potential Brazil boss due to his revolutionary “Dinizismo” brand of football. However, his side fluffed their lines and everything fell apart. They went six games without a win, were knocked out of the Copa do Brasil and Diniz was dismissed.
Having looked destined to win the league, São Paulo now need to beat Flamengo on the final day of the season to guarantee qualification to the group stage of the Copa Libertadores. The former Parma, Chelsea and Argentina striker Hernán Crespo has been appointed to replace Diniz, so the players will also be keen to impress their new manager.
Flamengo also boast a great goalscorer in charge of their team. Rogério Ceni is now in his fifth job as a manager. After making 1,256 appearances – and scoring 131 goals – for São Paulo, the former goalkeeper started his managerial career at the club. But the job came too soon for him and he was sacked after six months.
Things improved when he took over at Fortaleza. He won Série B in 2018, plus the state championship and Copa do Nordeste in 2019, and was given another chance in the top flight with Cruzeiro. He was only in the job for six weeks before he had to return to Fortaleza with his tail between his legs. After winning another state championship with the club, Flamengo came calling last year.
Doubts remain as to whether Ceni is cut out for this level. He replaced Domènec Torrent – Pep Guardiola’s former No 2, who was sacked by Flamengo after just four months. Anything less than winning the title will probably lead to Ceni suffering a similar fate.
Masses of fans turned up at the Maracanã to support Flamengo in their game against Inter on Sunday, even though they were not allowed into the ground. The fact the team is playing their final game of the season in São Paulo should prevent a repeat of those scenes. Or maybe not.
Due to São Paulo’s standing as Brazil’s economic pulse, plenty of Flamengo fans have moved to the city to find work due to a lack of opportunities back home in Rio. Go to the Paraisópolis neighbourhood and you will even find Flamengo-themed bars. Flamengo claim to be the country’s most supported club, so the streets around the Morumbi may not be as empty as expected.
The two games should provide an exciting climax to the season. And anyone in the País do Futebol who needs a hit of football will not have to wait for long. “Fica em paz,” as they say locally. Be at peace. After all, the state championships rev up later in the week and Grêmio play Palmeiras in the first leg of the Copa do Brasil final on Sunday.
— to www.theguardian.com