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Oct 5, 2009

Domestic bliss: Brazil's bright future

Last Friday, Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Olympics, beating Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago in the process. Coupled with the 2014 football World Cup, Brazil will be responsible for the organisation of the globe's two biggest sporting events in the middle of the next decade - a major challenge and unparalleled opportunity for the seemingly eternal country of the future.

The Olympics announcement was the cherry on the cake of an extremely positive year for Brazilian sport so far. Successes in volleyball, basketball and even the resurrection of Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello were already good enough reasons to celebrate. However, Brazil is the country of football, and that has been probably the biggest cause for sporting pride in Brazilians this year.

Despite his still on-going confrontations with most of the Brazilian media, national team gaffer Dunga (Portuguese for 'dopey') has assembled a side that has, this year, won the Confederations Cup and qualified for the 2010 World Cup with two games to spare. Dunga's side even sealed their spot by comprehensively defeating arch rivals Argentina on their home soil. Brazilians can't ask for much more than that.

But it is probably the Brazilian League, the Brasileirão, which provides the biggest source of pride for the locals this season. After decades of witnessing young, talented players leaving prematurely searching for success in Europe, things appear to be changing. The global financial crisis has cut the poaching from Europe and an ever-improving Brazilian economy, along with the increased degree of professionalism among local clubs has helped the national championship to recover some of the glamour of years past.

The almost unanimous lack of cash among the top teams in Europe (let's leave Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City aside for the sake of argument) reduced dramatically the usual exodus of top Brazilian players to European clubs during the August/September transfer window. Only Corinthians (several players to Eastern Europe) and Internacional (the quick footed Nilmar to Spanish side Villarreal) let real talent cross the Atlantic westwards.

Most young, gifted Brazilian footballers had better offers to stay in their native country than leave for Europe. Despite being one of the few selling clubs, Corinthians even managed to "steal" one of the most promising young Argentineans, Matías Defederico.

On top of that, a sizeable bunch of stars came back: Imperatore Adriano (from Inter Milan to Flamengo), Ronaldo Fenômeno (from retirement to Corinthians), Vagner Love (from CSKA Moscow to Palmeiras), and Fred (from Olympique Lyon to Fluminense). Obviously not all are playing to the best of their powers, but they have retained enough of their game to make the crowds hold their breath when they get the ball.

The increased professionalism of several top clubs has also helped to retain players and recover the level of competition. A few years ago, São Paulo F.C. pioneered a more modern administrative model, which has proven effective both on and off the pitch. They have won the past three league titles and posted great financial results, all while keeping the core of the team almost intact from year to year. The saopaulinos are now the example followed by most Brazilian clubs.

The result of all this is the most entertaining competition of the last decade. Most teams have improved the quality of their game simply by keeping a similar group of players together, and the tactical naivety and lack of on-pitch coordination of previous seasons is hardly noticeable now.

The battle between two teams from São Paulo, Palmeiras and São Paulo F.C. is probably the main story of the league. Leaders Palmeiras have put together their most accomplished side since the mid-nineties. Besides iconic goalkeeper Marcos, who started for the World Cup-winning side in 2002, they have assembled a balanced group of players on the defensive end, with two fantastic playmakers, Cleyton Xavier and Diego Souza, creating high quality football in the attacking third.

Diego, who spent a single season in Portugal three years ago, is the player of the season so far. The surprising return of Vagner Love, the former seleção striker, who came back from Russia on top form, has also helped the palmeirenses to maintain their top spot in the tournament.

Second place São Paulo, the current title holders, are their biggest threat. They started the season slowly (as usual), but have now recovered their best level. Despite having fired Muricy Ramalho, who after leading them to three successive titles is now with rivals Palmeiras, they still play with the same formula: three centre backs, a creative midfielder - Hernanes, and a target man - Washington, who is the centre of most attacking play. Rogério Ceni, their captain, goalkeeper and sometime scorer - he has netted more than 40 goals in his career - leads the group firmly.

Off-the-pitch gossip has also benefited from the comeback of some fantastic characters. Take Ronaldo Fenômeno, for instance. The striker has made the news frequently due to his involvement in the most bizarre situations: blackmailed by transvestites after a night in a dodgy motel in Rio, subject of a paternity lawsuit by a former partner, and celebrating his birthday in grand style after his team was comprehensively beaten just a few hours earlier.

None of that matters to the average Brazilian supporter, though. Ronaldo, whose rotund appearance no longer resembles that of a professional footballer, is beyond moral reproach in Brazil. His terrible shape makes his unparalleled football instincts shine stronger: he knows which balls he needs to chase, which shots he needs to take-on and which defenders offer the easiest path for him to score. Despite his recurring injuries, he has managed to score seven in 14 matches so far, and certainly justifies the price of admission.

Imperatore Adriano falls into this same category. After his controversial return from Italy, Flamengo supporters publicly stated that they no longer support democracy, but Adriano's Empire. It does not matter whether he trains or not, what type of sketchy characters he befriends. As long as he scores - and he is currently the league's top scorer with 15 goals - he's entitled to do as he wishes.

Among all this positive news, there are still some reasons for concern, the main one being violence. Only yesterday, I witnessed an embarrassing interaction between several Santos supporters and one courageous Palmeiras fan who dared to watch the derby between both teams at the Santos stadium, Vila Belmiro, wearing a green shirt (Palmeiras' colour). After almost one hour of abuse, the fan had to be escorted out by security guards to avoid further trouble. Things like this happen every week, and are unfortunately not always concluded with a peaceful resolution.

The upcoming investments to prepare the stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics should help to improve the current security conditions, but there is also an element of supporter culture that needs to be addressed in a country in which football still means a bit too much. Learning to reach the right level of passion will be key for Brazil to take their re-invigorated league one step further and prepare to make the most out of the 2014-16 period.

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