Sao Paulo crowned Brasileiro kings
It was always likely to be to be difficult for Sao Paulo to match their achievements of 2005, which saw the club capture state, continental and world titles.
Nevertheless, after narrowly failing to retain both the
Campeonato Paulista and Copa Libertadores, the latter of which
would have granted them the chance to defend the FIFA Club World
Cup crown, the
Tricolor Paulista have erased disappointment by becoming
national champions for a fourth time. They did so in convincing
fashion, too, securing the triumph on Sunday ahead of the final two
rounds of matches.
"It's a great honour - the Brazilian Championship is the most difficult (to win) in the world," said coach Muricy Ramalho after seeing his charges claim a 1-1 draw with Atletico-PR in front of close to 70,000 inside the Morumbi stadium.
"In any country in Europe, only two or three clubs are marked as title favourites. Here in Brazil, before the competition commences, at least seven are tipped to win the trophy," he added, before paying homage to the club's supporters: "They've been like a twelfth player for us all season. We have a strong group of players but with this support we become an even stronger team."
Success has perennially come at a cost to Brazilians sides, and there was no exception following Sao Paulo's remarkable record in 2005.
Standout performers Cicinho and Amoroso played their last games for the club in their FIFA Club World Cup Final victory over Liverpool , before respective moves to Real Madrid and AC Milan, and burly striker Grafite also joined the exodus to Europe following victory in Yokohama. The infallible Diego Lugano was lost too, albeit after the 2006 Copa Libertadores' deciding match in August, leaving the backline minus his vociferous presence.
Given the departures of key players, Muricy Ramalho's decision to return to the Sao Paulo helm (he coached the club between 1994-96, masterminding a Conmebol Cup conquest but failing to deliver the grander prizes) was a brave one. As it is, and in spite of a loss to Internacional - the club Ramalho led to second place in the 2005 Brasileiro - in the final of the Copa Libertadores, the securing of the championship more than vindicates the 50-year-old's appointment.
Paramount to Sao Paulo's achievement has been their ability to positively rebound from defeat. When they were humbled 4-0 by cross-state rivals Santos in July, Muricy Ramalho advocated the need to bounce back immediately; "It's never easy to deal with defeat, especially in front of our own supporters, but we need to demonstrate our fighting spirit and get a result in Rio against Botafogo to show how serious we are about this (Brasileiro) title."
As responses go, his players' was emphatic: they duly embarked upon an eleven-game unbeaten run which propelled them to the top of the table. And this was not a solitary example. After coming off worse in another clássico, 3-1 against Palmeiras in Round 26, Sao Paulo retorted with a convincing 5-1 win over Vasco. It was the first in a series of ten matches without defeat; a sequence that culminated in them clinching the Brasileiro crown in Round 36.
Captain's collection complete
Paulista State Championship, Rio Sao Paulo Tournament, Conmebol Cup, Libertadores Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, FIFA World Cup - Rogerio Ceni's already-stunning collection of winners' medals had one conspicuous absentee going into 2006: a Brasileiro gold.
Fittingly, during the twelve months in which he became the sport's all-time leading goalscoring goalkeeper , the Sao Paulo skipper has added the missing piece to the jigsaw.
Aside from their outstanding goalkeeper, Sao Paulo were also able to count consistently on Mineiro, who once again proved himself to be an indispensible component of their side. Diminutive in stature yet massive in influence, the 31-year-old is a Brazilian version of Chelsea's inexhaustibly effective French international Claude Makelele. Masterful at breaking up opposition attacks and an intelligent distributor of the ball, the defensive midfielder was the heartbeat of Muricy Ramalho's eleven.
His partner in the engine room, 27-year-old Josue, has also enjoyed a fine season, and the rock provided by the pair was crucial to the side's success. Unlikely heroes were also unearthed. Journeyman Aloísio came into his own during the latter half of the tournament, while Ilsinho emerged as a secret offensive weapon, filling Cicinho's position with some purposeful crusades down the right flank.
The Brasileiro victory draws the Tricolor Paulista level with Palmeiras, Vasco, Flamengo and Corinthians on four triumphs. It also ensures that, for the third year in succession, the honours go to the state of Sao Paulo, which has now claimed fifteen titles to Rio de Janeiro's eleven.
The success may have been overdue, but after a few near misses, the name of Sao Paulo Futebol Clube has finally been etched on the Brasileiro trophy this millennium.