By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s 2012 football season gets underway this Saturday, January 21st, with the opening round of the Rio de Janeiro state championship, the Campeonato Carioca. Despite decreasing in importance for teams competing on a national front, the state tournament is the big opportunity for lesser known clubs to upstage the establishment, in addition to serving as a platform for aspiring players to progress.
Last year, Botafogo plucked left back Bruno Cortês from Nova Iguaçu; the 24-year-old went on to be one of the revelations of the year and made his debut for the Brazilian national team. He has since signed for title aspiring São Paulo.
The competition’s first half, the Taça Guanabara, sees the sixteen teams drawn into two groups of eight, with each side playing each other once. The top two qualify for the semi-finals before the winners meet in the final.
The championship’s second act is the Taça Rio, where the teams in Group A face the clubs in Group B, with the top two in each again going through to the knock-out stage. To determine the overall champion, the winner of the Taça Guanabara then plays the winner of the Taça Rio trophy in the grand final. If the same side lifts both cups, that side will be crowned Carioca champion.
Flamengo won the 2011 edition, but after a tumultuous summer in which they have failed to lure their desired targets to Gávea, coupled with their pre-Libertadores qualifier against Bolivian outfit Real Potosí, the Rubro-Negro may have minds elsewhere during the tournament’s opening rounds. They begin against Bonsucesso on Saturday at the Engenhão.
2010 Carioca champions Botafogo are in the same group as Flamengo but with a vastly different outlook on proceedings. With new coach Oswaldo de Oliveira at the helm, and solely the state championship to focus on, the club have an enormous chance of claiming the first trophy of the year.
The club kick-off against Resende on Sunday at the Engenhão, with exciting new signing Andrezinho set to make his Alvinegro debut. Oliveira has no injury worries ahead of the match, with the side once again led by veteran talisman Loco Abreu.
No less than six names have joined Fluminense in the seven week hiatus and a possible seventh name could yet be added; the Tricolor are close to snatching Thiago Neves from under the noses of arch rivals Flamengo.
With such a vast squad at his disposal, coach Abel Braga will look to rotate as much as possible as his side fight on Libertadores and Carioca fronts. The opening rounds of the Carioca should give Braga ample opportunity to decide his perfect XI, with Flu launching their campaign against Friburguense on Saturday.
Like their Group B counterparts, Vasco will have one eye on the Libertadores as the Carioca campaign begins to gain legs. Their runner-up position in the 2011 Brasileirão enabled them to qualify automatically for the Libertadores group stage, enabling coach Cristovão Borges time to experiment with his line-up in Sunday’s curtain raiser against Americano.
Despite losing prestige since the introduction of a national championship in 1971, its tradition and history ensures the Campeonato Carioca still weighs heavily on players, fans and coaches alike. The race for the first title of the year is just days away.
GROUP A: Flamengo, Botafogo, Bonsucesso, Macaé, Madureira, Nova Iguaçu, Olaria, Resende.
GROUP B: Vasco, Fluminense, Americano, Bangu, Boavista, Duque de Caxias, Friburguense, Volta Redonda