Wide-open race at starting gate
© AFP

Triumph for Flamengo in the 2009 edition of the Brasileirao not only ended a 17-year wait for the country’s best-supported club, but brought a customary dose of unpredictability back to a competition dominated by Sao Paulo since 2006. Indeed, Os Rubro-Negros clinched the title having led the table just twice last term, and Adriano and Co were closer to the drop than the summit with only 17 games to play before a devastating late run.

“The Brasileirao is a tough championship, but why should I tell my players to settle for tenth place?” said experienced coach Joel Santana, currently in charge of Rio de Janeiro outfit Botafogo. And despite O Fogão only narrowing missing out on relegation last year, who is to say they recently-crowned Carioca champions cannot cause a stir this time around?

Boasting strength in depth, mental fortitude and supreme organisation, Sao Paulo won a record three consecutive national championships between 2006 and 2008. Indeed, they came close to holding on to their throne in 2009 only to lose momentum after going top with just three rounds remaining.

The Brasileirao is the toughest league in the world. When it gets underway there are always at least ten teams ready and in with a shout.
Fluminense coach Muricy Ramalho

Yet such an extended period of dominance is unique in the race for the Brazilian championship, which has had 16 different winners in the last 39 years. Compare this with major European leagues such as France, England and Italy, with only ten different victors over the past 40 seasons, while top-flight glory in Germany, Spain and Portugal was tasted by just nine, six and four clubs respectively over the same period. In addition, aside from Sao Paulo, only five teams have won two consecutive Brasileirao prizes: Palmeiras (twice), Corinthians, Flamengo and Internacional.

“The Brasileirao is the toughest league in the world. When it gets underway there are always at least ten teams ready and in with a shout,” said Fluminense coach Muricy Ramalho, the man who masterminded Sao Paulo’s triple success. “Teams are learning how to tackle this competition. Sao Paulo, Corinthians, Gremio and Internacional are the favourites, but we will be going for it too."

Tighter at the top
A more traditional league format has been in place since 2003, with teams playing each other home and away and the trophy going to the club with the most points at the end of the campaign – a change that did away with the title-deciding play-offs often used in previous years. The altered format continues to provide plenty of suspense, however, with five different champions since it was introduced and 11 different teams having finished in the top-four berths, which provide direct access to the Copa Libertadores.

Moreover, ever since the format change, the trend has been for the eventual champions to finish with ever lower points tallies, an indication of the evenly balanced Serie A field. Inauguaral 2003 winners Cruzeiro amassed 100 points over 46 games, Santos finished top the following year on 89, while 2005 victors Corinthians won with 81 points, though played four fewer matches. In 2006, when the current 38-game structure was introduced, champions Sao Paulo gained 78 points, followed by 77 and 75 in their two subsequent successes, while Flamengo’s 2009 total was just 67 – a fall of 14.1 percent over four seasons.

This equilibrium is not restricted to the upper reaches of the standings either, as big-name clubs are routinely among the four teams relegated to Serie B. Since 2003, no fewer than nine former national champions have suffered the dreaded drop, including both Sport and Coritiba in 2009, with 2006 the only year all the traditional heavyweights saved face.

“Whoever has a good squad, a well-drilled team and a great coach will be fighting it out at the top of the table,” was the verdict of Adilson Batista, who occupies the Cruzeiro hot-seat. “So a lot of teams will need to watch their backs."