In the most exciting Brazilian championship since the adoption of the league format in 2003, Flamengo staged a remarkable late rally to claim their first crown for 17 years.
After 21 of the 38 rounds the Rio giants languished in 14th place. But then they caught fire, hit top spot with a round to go and – with 21 minutes remaining – scored the goal that beat Gremio 2-1 to ensure their sixth national title.
Their triumph is the story of the recuperation of centre-forward Adriano (see Headliners, page 18) and of his partnership with the 37-year-old Serbian playmaker, Dejan Petkovic. It is also the tale of how the two of them were housed in a collective structure that worked.
When coach Cuca was sacked after 13 games, Jorge Luis Andrade took temporary charge – or so it seemed at the time. A midfielder in the great Fla side of the 1980s, Andrade has been part of the furniture at the club, working with the youth sides, as assistant coach and occasionally filling in as caretaker boss of the first team. This time he seized his opportunity and in his quiet, low-key way, ripped up the structure of the team.
For two years Flamengo’s rearguard was based around the veteran centre-back Fabio Luciano, but he had become like the king in chess – of limited mobility and in need of protection at all costs. So while he operated as the spare man, others were running around doing man-for-man marking jobs to compensate. It was an odd defensive system, but Flamengo retained it even after the 34-year-old retired on the eve of the season.
However, after his appointment, Andrade reverted to a conventional back four, convincing his full-backs Leonardo Mora and Juan that they had to defend as well. The experienced Alvaro was signed from Internacional and formed an effective centre-back partnership with Ronaldo Angelim, while – until he was injured on international duty – the Chile holding midfielder Claudio Maldonado was a splendid re-enforcement. With keeper Bruno on top form, Flamengo became a difficult team to score against – and therefore the occasional moment of inspiration from Petkovic or Adriano was enough to pick up three points.
With a back four – and support striker Ze Roberto dropping deep and rotating positions with Petkovic – Fla’s formation was reminiscent of the 4-2-3-1 of the 1980s side as Andrade recreated the shape of the team he played in almost three decades ago.
His team were worthy champions, but they would not have had a view of the title without some help from the sides that they trailed for so long. Flamengo’s points total was by far the lowest of any winner since the introduction of the current format (even allowing for the fact that from 2003 to 2005 there were more clubs and consequently more games).
Teams who had threatened to spring a shock, such as Goias and Atletico Mineiro, collapsed under the pressure; more surprising was the decline of neighbours and rivals Palmeiras and Sao Paulo.
Leaders for half the competition, Palmeiras were obvious favourites – especially when they hired Muricy Ramalho, who coached Sao Paulo to the title in each of the three previous years, and brought striker Vagner Love back from CSKA Moscow. However, in the final straight they looked like a caricature of a Muricy side, unable to exchange three passes and dependent on set-pieces. Astonishingly they even failed to qualify for the Libertadores after finishing fifth.
Sao Paulo were not much better. Having replaced Ramalho, coach Ricardo Gomes promised a more expansive game, yet it never came. They suffered from suspensions in the closing weeks and without an effective presence on the right there seemed little point to their traditional three-centre-backs system. They were top with three rounds to go, but in two successive away games their defence fell apart, taking with it the chance of a fourth consecutive championship.
Until Ronaldo Angelim headed Flamengo’s last-day winner against Gremio, the title was on its way to an Internacional side which appeared to have underperformed for much of the season – an analysis confirmed by the replacement of coach Tite by Mario Sergio for the final rounds without noticeable improvement.
Apart from Flamengo, only two other teams managed to sustain form over the second half of the campaign: Cruzeiro, who surged away from the relegation zone to snatch a Libertadores place, and seemingly doomed Fluminense.
Coach Cuca, who joined after being sacked by Flamengo, helped Fluminense to an 11-game unbeaten run after finding an attacking formula to support striker Fred, who returned from injury to give the team a spearhead. A 1-1 draw with Coritiba on the final day ensured safety – and meant their opponents went down, along with Santo Andre and the Recife duo of Nautico and Sport. They will be replaced by Vasco da Gama, Guarani, Ceara and Atletico Goianiense.
A full-scale riot by Coritiba fans following their relegation left a bitter taste and the performance of some of the big clubs was a disappointment, but there was still plenty to applaud in the 2009 Brazilian championship.
Unfancied clubs like Avai and Barueri were welcome surprises, while there were good signs on an individual level too. The current strength of the Brazilian currency makes it easier to bring back high-profile players from Europe, and the tournament can always be relied upon to throw up new talents. This year revealed the Santos pair of Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso, Fernandinho and Thiago Humberto of Barueri, and Maicon of Fluminense, all proved to be promising creative players. Airton of Flamengo is an interesting midfielder, while a good impression was left by centre-backs Dalton of Fluminense and Rafael Toloi of Goais.
But the biggest legacy of the season was the consolidation of the league format. The calendar is still far from perfect, but average attendances were up to almost 18,000 and a push by the all-powerful TV Globo for a return to the previous play-off system would seem to have been rebuffed. Part of Globo’s campaign was the argument that under the league format the title would never leave the city of Sao Paulo.
However, that line of thought was well and truly put to rest with Flamengo’s dramatic last-day win.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Dejan Petkovic (Flamengo)
A club idol who was brought back during the campaign apparently as part of the negotiations about the money owed to him in his previous spell. Although he was not thought likely to make much of a contribution on the field, he ended up as the most influential player in the last two months of the season. Gifted and intelligent, his playmaking was vital. He was just about to be substituted (his number board was up) when he stayed on the pitch to take the corner from which Ronaldo Angelim headed the title-winning goal against Gremio.
COACH OF THE SEASON
Jorge Luis Andrade (Flamengo)
Former Flamengo midfielder who took over as coach previously on a caretaker basis during the national championships of 2004 and 2005. This time, though, he did it so well that his career has changed. There is no way he can go back to being an assistant after his work in 2009. Low key and not apparently over-articulate, he changed the tactical structure of the team and maintained a good atmosphere in the pressure-cooker surroundings of the country’s most popular club. His success is a real boost in the struggle for black coaches to have more opportunities in Brazil.
NEWCOMER OF THE SEASON
Hype has surrounded him since he was 13 and in 2009, aged 17, he was finally handed his debut. And he did not disappoint. Possessing vision, audacity and rare talent, his total of 10 goals was thoroughly satisfactory, especially as he missed a few rounds through his participation in Brazil’s disastrous Under-17 World Cup campaign. It was, perhaps, a good season in which to take his first steps, with Santos in mid-table and the pressure off. The demands will be greater in 2010, with Pele concerned that the youngster is being paid too much, too soon.