Vasco da Gama have played 40 matches this year. Their No10 has partaken in zero. Not in the club’s unmistakable camisa cruzmaltina; nor in an alternative jersey.
It is, in fact, 236 days since Ze Roberto's last competitive outing. He finished that match caped in red and black, tears in his eyes, an illustrious trophy in his arms. The attacking midfielder had just helped Flamengo beat Gremio at the Maracana to end a 17-year wait for the Brasileirao crown. He had just helped enrapture close to 40 million supporters.
Ze Roberto will attempt to depress those masses of Flamenguistas upon his belated return to action at the same stadium on Sunday. There, the Itumbiara native will strive to enhance the resurgence of the club he joined in May, when his contract with German outfit Schalke was rescinded. Vasco have, since appointing Paulo Cesar Gusmao, won two and drawn two of their four outings to escape the relegation zone and move just three points behind their seventh-placed upcoming opponents and fifth-placed Avai.
“I’m very excited,” said Ze Roberto. “I’m happy that I’m returning to play football, to a big team, to the Maracana and in a game of this importance. I’ve been training hard for a long time now and I’m in shape. It’s a huge derby and I’m very eager to show my worth.
“It doesn’t bother me that it’s against Flamengo. I’m not worried about the reaction of their fans. I’m used to this life. The supporters usually boo when a player is on a rival team, but my concern is the Vasco followers – I will do my best to give them reason to applaud me.”
Another man who will be out to win over the Vascaínos is Felipe. The 32-year-old emerged from the club’s youth ranks and exploded on to the first-team picture in 1997, immediately employing his exceptional flair to install himself as fans’ darling. He aided the capture of, among other honours, two Brasileirao titles and the Copa Libertadores crown before leaving in 2000.
But a sure-fire way to cascade from hero to villain at the Sao Januario is penning a contact with arch-enemies Flamengo. That’s what Felipe did upon his return to Brazil from Turkey in 2003, and that’s the crime for which he now hopes to earn forgiveness after rejoining Vasco following five years in Qatar.
“I did my best for Flamengo when I was there, but now I’m with Vasco and I will do everything I can to help us win this derby,” he declared. “I want to gain the confidence of the supporters again. I’m short on match-fitness, but my desire to win will overcome this.
“I’ve missed playing at the Maracana. I really hope it’s full of our supporters on Sunday. Playing in front of a full house really motivates me. It’s a game every player enjoys playing in. It’s a massive derby and I’ve always enjoyed playing in big games.”
Flamengo ace Petkovic played alongside the former Brazil international at Fluminense in 2005: “Felipe is a great player. He’s very talented and can decide a game with one play. He will certainly make his team much better.”
So, too, will the fact that forward Eder Luis, who recently joined Vasco on loan from Benfica, is at the disposal of PC Gusmao for O Clássico dos Milhões (The Derby of the Millions), along with extravagantly gifted captain Carlos Alberto, who has been plagued by injury this year but, having penned a contract extension, illuminated yesterday’s training session.
“I’ve had a lot of injury problems this year, but now I’m fit,” explained the attacking midfielder, who helped Porto win the UEFA Champions League in 2004. “I’ve really missed playing but PC will decide whether or not I start.
“We have a very strong squad following the recent signings. We even have quality players who can’t make the bench. This is good for Vasco. We have the capacity to have a great campaign.”
That notion seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago, when O Gigante da Colina were submerged in the relegation zone. It is one that plenty will subscribe to if PC Gusmao’s remodelled Vasco can win the fixture that means most to them.