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Brazil's finest fans?

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Ask Brazilian football fans to name the team with the biggest support in the country this year and it's a fair bet that many would choose a team like Sao Paulo, the champions elect, or Internacional, the winner of the Copa Libertadores.

Few would opt for Second Division side Atletico-MG, or Atletico Mineiro. But Atletico's fans hold that distinction after 57,851 fans packed their home stadium the Mineirao to see them play Avai on October 21. The attendance was the biggest in Brazil this year and a testament to the size and potential of the club from Minas Gerais state

After beating Sao Raimundo 4-0 on Tuesday night to almost guarantee them promotion, thousands of fans took to the streets to salute their side.

The fans packed the ground - the second biggest in Brazil after the Maracana - to see a team that is bouncing straight back to the First Division after a harrowing year in the second flight. After beating Sao Raimundo 4-0 on Tuesday night to almost guarantee them promotion, thousands of fans took to the streets of Belo Horizonte to salute their side.

The celebrations were long and loud and surprised players from outside the city.

'Before I came here I knew that it was a big club and that it had great fans that turned out for the games and cheered on their side win or lose,' said striker Roni, a mid-season signing from Goias. 'But I was shocked when I got here and saw just how much the fans here love their team.'

'They are much more passionate about Atletico than the fans of any other team I have ever played with. It's hard to explain but I think that it has to do with the culture here, the fans are mostly humble people and football is the highpoint for many of them, Atletico is their one great passion. Last night was amazing; people were out in the streets celebrating until five in the morning.'

Considered a sleeping giant, the club commonly known as Galo (rooster in Portuguese) is not only one of Brazil's best supported teams but also one of its most consistent. Although the club has won the Brazilian League championship only once, in 1971, they have finished in the top four another 13 times.

It is the club where players like Cicinho, Gilberto Silva, Toninho Cereza and Eder rose to prominence and also where legendary manager Tele Santana made his name. It proudly boasts it is the only club side to beat Brazil's national side, overcoming a seleção that contained Pele, Carlos Alberto Torres,Gerson, Rivellino, and Jairzinho in a pre-World Cup friendly in 1969.

However, like many Brazilian teams the club has faced problems in recent years and poor administration led to a series of crises that culminated in Galo's relegation in 2005.

Atletico clearly expected to bounce right back but they began their Second Division campaign erratically and it wasn't until manager Levir Culpi joined the club in July that they put together a decent run of form.

'The most important factor was the arrival of Levi and other players,' Roni said, modestly downplaying his own contribution of 13 goals in 18 games.

Almost inevitably, the resurgence came at the Mineirao, the stadium they share with city rivals Cruzeiro. Atletico were nearly invincible at home, where they lost just once in 18 games, including a memorable 12 in-a-row series of triumphs that beat their 29-year old record of 11 consecutive home wins. In the process, they scored 33 goals, at an average of 2.75 a game, and conceded just six.

Striker Roni believes Culpi's arrival was the key moment for the club. The experienced coach brought some order to the team and brought in four new players, and crucially, according to Roni, a coherent strategy they were lacking.

'The most important factor was the arrival of Levi and other players,' Roni said, modestly downplaying his own contribution of 13 goals in 18 games.

'Levi brought a game plan and said we are going to play this system and we'll keep playing that way win or lose. That instilled some confidence in the players. And at the same time, he motivated us. He managed to get us playing to our potential.'

Roni said that when he arrived at Atletico just before the halfway point of the season he was unsure whether the team had the necessary fortitude to scratch and scrape their way out of Brazil's fiercely competitive second flight.

'When I came here I didn't know the players and I wasn't sure that we'd get back to the first division,' said the 29-year old ex-Fluminense and Sao Paulo player. 'The team spirit was low, we were down, we had no confidence and we were playing scared.

'But when I started to get to know the players I could see that we had the team. But really, it was Levi that got us going.'

Now, with promotion assured, he is confident the team can make their mark on a First Division that is becoming known for its openness.

'I think if we maintain the team we have and sign three or four more players we can compete in the first division,' said Roni.

With fans like these, anything is possible.

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