By Jayme Monsanto, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Botafogo beat Vasco da Gama 2-0 to win the Taça Guanabara on Sunday evening, the first leg of the Campeonato Carioca, Rio de Janeiro State’s hotly contested annual soccer championship. The match took place in front of a packed Maracanã Stadium, with an attendance of almost 82,000 people.
Before kick off both the Vasco and Botafogo fans temporarily forgot their rivalry, uniting to tease the absent Flamengo supporters. The stadium echoed to the sound of 82,000 voices singing ‘cadê o império do amor?’ (‘where is the Empire of Love?’) – a reference to Flamengo’s duo of strikers Adriano and Vagner Love.
The reason behind the teasing is in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004 Flamengo defeated Vasco in Campeonato Carioca finals, and they did the same against Botafogo in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Flamengo is the Carioca team that has the most state championship trophies: 31. Fluminense is close behind with 30, while Vasco has 22 titles and Botafogo 18, so their rare absence from the final was all the more satisfying.
The first half was a well balanced affair, and though both teams had good attempts on goal, neither could quite deliver the finishing touch. In the second period, however, the deadlock was broken when a 70th minute corner was met with a strong header by Botafogo defender Fabio Ferreira. Almost immediately after the goal the Vasco side lost their heads, and midfielder Nilton received a red card following a violent foul against Botafogo’s Caio.
After that, outnumbered and nervous, Vasco didn’t stand a chance. Another player was expelled in the 84th minute when defender Titi pulled “El Loco” Abreu’s uniform inside the box and the referee signaled a penalty kick. The Uruguayan striker made no mistake from the spot and the game finished 2-0 with Vasco down to nine men.
The scenes at the final whistle were a far cry from those less than a month ago, when Vasco da Gama thrashed Botafogo 6-0 during the first weeks of the Taça Guanabara. That devastating defeat started a crisis inside Botafogo’s board of directors that ended with coach Estevam Soares being fired and replaced by the veteran Joel Santana.
The team’s results since then have been far more consistent, and Santana has played an important role in Botafogo’s resurgence to the title. Vasco, on the other hand, lost its invincibility as well as the player’s heads, registering only their first defeat of the year after an impressive run of form.
It is the second year in a row Botafogo has won the Taça Guanabara, and now the team will face the winner of Taça Rio, the second leg of the Campeonato Carioca. Assured of a place in that final for the fifth consecutive year, they will be desperate to get their hands on the trophy for the first time since 2006.
Taça Rio begins next Saturday when Flamengo plays Macaé. On Sunday, Vasco plays Volta Redonda, Botafogo plays Americano and Fluminense plays Friburguense.