By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The national football (soccer) championship, 2011’s Campeonato Brasileiro is set to kick-off this weekend after a five month hiatus. The Rio state tournament Carioca champions Flamengo start with a home game against Florianopolis side Avai and Vasco travel to Fortaleza to face Copa do Brasil semi-finalists Ceará on Saturday. The following day, Botafogo face a daunting opening match against Paulista outfit Palmeiras, and current national champions Fluminense welcome São Paulo to the Sao Januario.
Since 2003, twenty teams have competed in Brazil’s first division, called the Série A. During the tournament sides play each other twice, collecting three points for a win and one for a draw. With play-offs to declare the winner a thing of the past, the side with the most points after 38 rounds is declared the champion.
Competition is becoming more fierce with each passing year and 2011 has seen more star names return home earlier as Brazil’s economy grows, making this year’s league possibly the toughest since the new format was introduced. With points becoming increasingly harder to earn, all teams are desperate to add more names to their squad lists.
Flamengo are attempting yet more audacious signings as they try to recapture the national title. At the end of last week, representatives flew to Rome to negotiate the transfer of AS Roma and Brazil defender Juan.
The center half, 31, started his career with the club and after almost a decade in Europe could be ready to return. The club are also trying to add to their attacking options, with Vagner Love and Uruguayan international striker Diego Forlan believed to be on their radar. After winning the state title, Luxemburgo is expected to contend for top honors on the national stage as well.
Botafogo, who suffered a disappointing Carioca campaign, are currently trying to persuade Wolfsburg playmaker Diego his future lies at the Engenhao Stadium (Rio’s temporary replacement for Maracanã). The player has suffered a terrible season in the Bundesliga and has not featured in Mano Menezes’s plans at national level.
The Copa America in July may come too soon for him, but a return to Brazil may be the remedy he needs to catapult himself back into the national reckoning. Having walked out on Wolfsburg prior to their final game in an attempt to force through a transfer, he could be on these shores sooner rather than later.
Vasco have been going from strength to strength under new coach Ricardo Gomes and stand every chance of reaching the final of the Copa do Brasil after defeating Atletico Paranaense on away goals last week to reach the semis. Gomes excels in defensive organization and tactical discipline but the majority of Vascainas will be happy with a top half finish.
The 2010 national champions Fluminense are in danger of imploding before their title defense has even begun. Still reeling from their disastrous Copa Libertadores exit at the hands of Paraguayan side Club Libertad, Flu still have a berth to fill in attack after the dismissal of striker Emerson Sheik for numerous breaches of club discipline.
Captain Fred, who fell out with his strike partner, has been prohibited from giving interviews to the Brazilian media in the lead up to Flu’s opener on Sunday. The reason given was to supposedly protect the players and keep them focused on the São Paulo match while this saga has all the ingredients of a classic Brazilian novela. Experienced coach Abel Braga will arrive next month with the aim of getting the maximum out of Fred, Conca and Deco. If he succeeds, the trophy could stay exactly where it is.