By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The 2011 Brasileirão national football (soccer) tournament proved to be the most exciting and nerve-wracking since the competition’s format switched to a twenty team round robin in 2003. All four Carioca sides at one time had genuine aspirations of glory; Paulista outfits São Paulo and eventual champions Corinthians; southern giants Internacional, all laid claim to title aspirations throughout the campaign.
Without doubt this year belonged to Vasco, the league’s runner-up. Not only did they win the Copa do Brasil, they sustained a title challenge until the final round, despite the trauma of losing coach Ricardo Gomes to a stroke.
Two things aided Vasco through the difficulty; the astuteness of assistant coach Cristovão Borges, who stepped up admirably, and the unity of the players. Before every match, they entered the field with a supportive message for Gomes and not once did they let him down.
A lack of a genuine goal threat hampered Vasco though, and Alecsandro and Elton, the two strikers in Vasco’s squad, cannot be relied upon consistently. The club’s priority in the future must be a striker who can score fifteen or twenty goals a season.
The 2010 champions Fluminense suffered a succession of setbacks as they prepared to defend their title and could only muster third place this time round. First, coach Muricy Ramalho jumped ship for Santos in March at a time when Fluminense’s Copa Libertadores quest was wilting.
They could not hire first-choice replacement Abel Braga until June due to his contract with Abu Dhabi side Al Jazira. And to complete a tricolon of disasters, playmaker and heartbeat Darío Conca accepted an offer from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergreens and left Laranjeiras seven games into the campaign.
After a disastrous first half to the season, which saw Flu languishing in mid-table, their resurgence in the second was nothing short of incredible. They stormed back into title contention with a handful of games remaining but their terrible classico form proved their downfall.
The Tricolor failed to defeat any of their neighbors and the loss to Vasco in the penultimate round signaled the end of their title dreams. But after a period of adaptation to Abel Braga’s more offensive methods Flu can hit the ground running next May.
Before the tournament began all of Brazil had their eyes fixed on 2011 Carioca champions Flamengo and their multi-million dollar acquisition, Ronaldinho Gaúcho. The Rubro-Negro, who lifted the national crown in 2009, started less than impressively, and after a mid-season wobble recovered to secure fourth place.
Despite going on a huge seventeen game unbeaten run, a lack of a competent defense and clinical striker meant the Gaveá failed to grab three points all too frequently. They never managed to shake off Corinthians, São Paulo and Vasco, and when they finally succumbed to their first defeat, a 4-1 home reverse against Atlético-GO at the end of August, the collapse could not be arrested.
The most anti-climactic campaign award would go to Botafogo, who after looking odds on for a Libertadores place dropped to ninth after taking just one point from the last 24 available. The Alvinegro turned the Engenhão into a fortress; the arena was the basis for their sustained run until a sticky finish saw Caio Junior sent packing.
The side’s away form was dreadful and despite defeating Corinthians and São Paulo failure to beat less gifted opposition was their undoing. Six straight defeats in Rounds 31-36 was their cue as strain took its toll on Fogão’s small squad. New coach Oswaldo de Oliveira will take the reins and his priority must be to bolster a depleted squad.
After cup success and running Corinthians so close in 2011, it is the Vascaínos who are chomping at the bit for competition to kick-off again. The Campeonato Carioca begins the third week of January, but for three Rio clubs – Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco – South America’s most glorious prize, the Copa Libertadores, is in their sights. Soccer in the city has seldom been so strong.