By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Campeonato Carioca kicks off today (Wednesday) as Rio’s big four clubs compete for the calendar’s first trophy, as well as begin preparations for 2011’s Brasileiro title challenge. Botafogo defeated Flamengo in last year’s final to capture the 2010 title, but it is Flamengo that pulled off the biggest transfer coup in world football so far this year.
The Rubro Negro beat the competition from across Brazil and Europe to lure Brazilian international Ronaldinho Gaucho to Gávea. The attacking midfielder will make his debut with his new team this week against Rio minnows Volta Redonda.
Ronaldinho is not the only high profile arrival at Flamengo; the club has also added former Fluminense hero Thiago Neves to its roster, on loan from Saudi club Al-Hilal.
The structure of the state-wide tournament is complex and prolonged. It could run until the beginning of May, just a week before the first round of games in the national league is due to start. The championship will be customarily divided into two stages, the Guanabara Cup and the Taca Rio. Sixteen teams have entered the tournament, and the sides have been drawn into two groups of eight.
Flamengo and Vasco da Gama have been drawn in Group A, while Fluminense and Botafogo will meet in Group B. Teams will compete against the others in their group in first stage, with the top four entering the semi finals in a knock-out format, with the winner being decided in a final.
In the second stage of the championship, the Taça Rio, the teams in Group A will play against the teams in Group B, in the same knock-out format. The winners of each round then play each other in the ‘Super Final’ to determine the state champion of Rio de Janeiro.
If the same team wins both rounds of the competition, they will automatically be declared champions, as happened with Botafogo last year. Both the winners and the runners-up have the right to participate in the Copa do Brasil, provided they are not participating in the Copa Libertadores.
Botafogo will have their work cut out if they are to successfully defend their 2010 crown. Fogão coach Joel Santana has made precious few additions to his squad that performed so impressively in the 2010 Campeonato Brasileiro, but with Flamengo having made such a stellar signing they are now favorites to lift the regional title.
Botafogo kick off their campaign in the Engenhão against Duque de Caxias, while last year’s Guanabara Cup runners-up, Vasco da Gama, host Resende.
Many eyes will be on the national champions, Fluminense, who suffered a poor Carioca championship last year, crashing out to arch rivals Flamengo. Fluminense had led 3-1 at the break, but a second half hat-trick from Adriano saw them capitulate and lose 5-3.
Coach Muricy Ramalho, who replaced the likable but uninspiring Cuca, tightened up a formerly leaky defense, which eventually led to national success. The Tricolor will play their first game against Bangu.
This year’s championship will also see a first in Brazilian football. For Carioca matches, an additional two officials will be present, one next to each goal line, to help the referee and his assistants. UEFA ran the five official system in their Europa League and Champions League tournaments last year.
In Brazil, Rio is the only state testing the initiative. The football federations of São Paulo, Bahia and Pernambuco declined the offer to pilot the new program.