Times were tougher than usual for Atletico Mineiro at the end of 2011. A string of defeats had left them teetering on the brink of relegation, with the fans’ confidence in the players at the lowest of ebbs.
Yet those dark days would also see the emergence of a plan that would turn Atletico around and lead, just two years later, to a Copa Libertadores triumph, the biggest achievement in the club’s history.
“Eu Acredito” (“I Believe”) became the mantra for the club’s unlikely comebacks in this year’s continental competition, and that belief can be traced back to the last few months of 2011, when the directors continued to support the recently appointed coach Cuca, even after he had tendered his resignation. That decision to stick with him even in the midst of a run of bad results proved to be one of the many good ones they have since taken.
O Galo (The Rooster) would soon be rewarded for their faith in Cuca. Buoyed by such support, he took them to the 2012 Minas Gerais state title, brought in players such as Ronaldinho, Jo and Victor and rounded the year off by steering his revitalised side to second place in the national league, securing with it a berth in the 2013 Copa Libertadores.
Hungry for more success, Atletico further bolstered an already impressive and confident squad by signing Diego Tardelli and experienced performers such as Alecsandro, Gilberto Silva and Josue, all of whom have played important roles in the club’s achievements this year.
Praising his coach’s ability to bring his plans to fruition, Ronaldinho told FIFA.com in a recent interview: “Cuca deserves a lot of credit. He planned it all and went after players that would fit the way he wanted the team to play. It was no accident that everything fitted together so well.”
A style of his own
Ronaldinho is a key piece in Cuca’s jigsaw. Having spent several years playing in wider positions, he has excelled since being restored by his coach to a more central playmaking role, from where he links up effectively with Bernard and Tardelli and supplies the bullets for sharpshooter Jo.
“I gave him licence to roam instead of putting him out on the left, to allow him to bring our quicker guys into play,” said Cuca.
“It’s a role I played when I was younger, when I started out as a professional. And when I came to Atletico and Cuca explained to me what he had in mind for the team, I said it sounded great,” said the No10. “I love being the main creator.”
Playing with a smile on his face again after a problematic spell with Flamengo, Ronaldinho became the leader of a strike force that proved deadly in both the Brazilian championship and their Libertadores campaign, during which O Galo dished out heavy defeats to big-name rivals such as Sao Paulo and Arsenal. Ronaldinho has also been crucial in unlocking the potential of team-mates such as Jo, who ended the 2013 Libertadores as the competition’s leading scorer.
“Here at Atletico I’m lucky enough to have people around me who still believe in my football,” said Jo. “Cuca said it would come and that everything would happen naturally. I played some great games last year but everything has been fantastic this year. Everything’s going right and my confidence is sky high.”
Words of gratitude for Cuca have become commonplace at Atletico, who have grown in both confidence and stature, with Ronaldinho and Jo not the only players to get their careers back on track. Bernard grew in maturity before being sold, while Marcos Rocha has become one of the best right-backs in the country after a series of loan spells, and the versatile Tardelli has regained his status as an idol since returning to the club following largely luckless stints in Europe and the Middle East.
“Atletico have had the same system in place since 2012, with two strikers who track back on the opposing full-backs. I’ve had to adapt my game,” Tardelli told FIFA.com. “It’s not been a problem for me though because I’ve never been one of those strikers who just hang around the penalty box. I’ve been surprised with how mature I’ve become on the pitch though, and the fact that I’m able to perform other roles, sometimes out wide and sometimes in the middle. It’s great that I’ve been able to do that, especially playing alongside such good players.”
Cuca has also had a quick and effective response to the departure of key players such as Bernard, who signed for Shakhtar Donetsk after the Libertadores, bringing in able replacements such as Tardelli and Fernandinho, who has impressed coach and fans with his drive and sterling contributions since returning to Brazil from the United Arab Emirates.
“He’s in prime form,” said Cuca of Fernandinho at the end of the Brazilian league season. “If he keeps on playing like this, he could well make the World Cup team.”
An encouraging precedent
Well prepared and full of confidence, Atletico are in good heart ahead of their FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 semi-final against Raja Casablanca on Wednesday.
Their situation is not unlike that of Corinthians, who represented Brazil and South America so successfully at last year’s Club World Cup. Though the two clubs play a different type of game, the fact that their coaches both came through rocky patches to take their teams to the top should give O Galo plenty of encouragement as they go for glory.
Like Cuca, Corinthians boss Tite very nearly found himself out of a job after O Timão were knocked out by Deportes Tolima in the preliminary round of the 2011 Libertadores. He held on to his job, however, and took the Sao Paulo side to the summit of world football the following year, the kind of happy ending that Cuca and O Galo would dearly love to play out again in Morocco.