Few sets of supporters across the globe celebrate their
team's victories as enthusiastically as the Sport Club do
Recife faithful, so the outpouring of joy that swept through the
capital of Pernambuco state after Wednesday's Copa do Brasil
final triumph over Corinthians came as no surprise. But a quick
look at the history of this relatively new cup competition tells an
interesting story: were Sport to have picked up the coveted trophy
in 1998 instead of 2008, the celebrations may well have been less
In stark contrast to European equivalents such as Spain's Copa del Rey or the English FA Cup, both of which are over 100 years old, the Copa do Brasil was only founded in 1989. Despite the winners being awarded a place in the Copa Libertadores, the fledgling cup was still treated by the country's biggest clubs as secondary in importance to the state championships and the national league, the Brasileiro. After a few years, however, this mindset gradually began to change, the clubs' ardour stoked by the lure of a lucrative spot in South America's biggest club competition.
Winning a place in the Copa Libertadores 2009 is a fantastic
achievement for Sport, who have not appeared in continental
competition for over 20 years. "The importance to the club of
this title win is beyond measure," said coach Nelsinho
Baptista, who ironically was in charge of beaten finalists
Corinthians when they were relegated from Brazil's top tier
"And it's important to note that, quite apart from simply qualifying, we've done so early enough to make a decisive difference. Sport now have nearly a year to plan their approach to the South American competition."
Following the Fluzão lead
Baptista's theory is borne out by the success of fellow Brazilians Fluminense. The Rio de Janeiro outfit earned their place in this year's Libertadores after defeating Figueirense to win the Copa do Brasil in June 2007.
For ten long months, while other teams sweated it out over 38 rounds of the Brasileiro in the hope of joining them, O Fluzão were free to build a settled side and decide which new signings would further boost their continental prospects. The results are there for all to see: having finished the Libertadores group phase with the best record of all the competing teams, Fluminense have since reached the final for the first time, where they will face Ecuador's LDU.
In its early years, and with the very biggest clubs still unsure how seriously to take the competition, the Copa do Brasil proved to be the perfect stage for some of Brazil's lesser lights to shine. This unorthodox route to the top was one followed by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the soon-to-be Chelsea manager who led Brazil to 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ glory. Back in 1991, Felipão was able to instil a high-pressure style and fierce will-to-win into his players at humble Santa Catarina outfit Criciuma, who stunned mighty Gremio in the final of that year's competition to claim a surprise Libertadores berth.
And it is this propensity for upsets that supplies the magic of Brazil's national cup. Even though the country's heavyweights have since accepted the tournament's worth, its knockout format still leaves the door open for surprise results. The proof is in the honours list: in 20 editions of the competition there have been 12 different winners, even allowing for three-time champions Gremio and Cruzeiro. The Brasileiro, by contrast, has had just 15 different victors over 37 editions.
Following in the footsteps of Scolari's Criciuma, the trophy has also been raised aloft by other minnows such as 1999 champions Juventude. Even more surprising were the triumphs pulled off by two sides from the inland areas of Sao Paulo state, both of whom were playing second-flight football at the time of their coronations. Santo Andre won the Copa do Brasil in 2004 by beating Carioca giants Flamengo, with Jundiai club Paulista matching their achievements one year later by defeating Fluminense.
As the dust settles on their success, Sport now have time to savour their victory and dream of a Copa Libertadores campaign. The boys from Recife had to negotiate 12 games on the way to the trophy, starting with two-legged ties against Imperatriz and then Brasiliense.
" ," remarked Baptista. This added determination was reflected out on the pitch, as O Leão da Ilha (The Lions of the Island) dumped out Palmeiras and then Internacional, winners of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006, before ending Vasco da Gama's hopes of cup glory.
The 2-0 second-leg win over Corinthians, which completed a 3-3 aggregate result and sent Sport to the top of the podium on away goals, was the Recife side's sixth win in six Copa do Brasil matches at the Ilha do Retiro stadium. It is a fortress in which they will now attempt to intimidate South America's elite in 2009.