The long road to glory
The Copa do Brasil 2010, which will feature no fewer than 14 of the country’s 20 top-flight sides, is set to get underway today. And even without Brazil’s five Copa Libertadores representatives - namely Corinthians, Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Internacional and Sao Paulo - there will be no shortage of heavyweights jostling for a trophy which brings with it a coveted berth in the Libertadores 2011.
In total, 64 teams are involved in the 22nd edition of the Copa do Brasil, with the spotlight falling on the likes of Santos, Palmeiras, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama, Botafogo, Gremio and Atletico Mineiro. These traditional powers have all had reasons to be positive in their respective state championships, though cup stumbles are not out of the question given the plethora of comings and goings in the most recent transfer window.
Today, four of the aforementioned teams will kick off their campaigns away to relative minnows. Vasco, for whom veteran forward Dodo has been in red-hot form, take on Sousa-PB. Botafogo, with well-travelled Uruguayan Sebastian Abreu up front, face Sao Raimundo. Palmeiras, who boast the drive and guile of Diego Souza in midfield, meet Flamengo-PI, while Gremio, with ex-Sao Paulo hitman Borges, tackle Araguaia-MT.
In two weeks’ time, meanwhile, the second wave of fancied teams make their entrance, with a Santos squad featuring Robinho, Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso, Fred’s Fluminense, and an Atletico Mineiro side spearheaded by Diego Tardelli and Obina all eager to hit the ground running.
Enjoying the greatest Copa do Brasil pedigree of the class of 2010 are four-time champions Gremio, while Palmeiras, Fluminense, Sport and Juventude are all gunning for a second crown. But for the 16 debutants and less-heralded outfits also in the field, the competition represents a golden opportunity to perform on the national stage.
Given the rules of the competition for the opening two rounds, a first-leg win by a two-goal margin or more by the visitors avoids the need for a second leg. Thus the likes of humble Naviraense-MS, Assu-RN, Luverdense-MT, Araguaina-TO, Potyguar-RN, Vilhena-RO, Lideral-MA and Ivinhema-MS will be desperate to hold firm on home turf and secure a high-profile and potentially lucrative return match.
With that aim in mind, and one eye firmly on the marketing possibilities, Palmeiras’s opponents Flamengo-PI have made headlines by signing ex-Sporting and Porto marksman Jardel, now 36. Publicity stunts aside, smaller teams in the Copa do Brasil have two vital weapons in the battle against their wealthier and more powerful rivals: home advantage and the big boys’ travel fatigue.
The heavyweights travelling the furthest in the first round are Garrincha’s former club Botafogo, who must cover over 3,500 km from Rio de Janeiro to Santarem in the state of Para. But it is Atletico Paranaense who have had the most arduous journey, reaching Vilhena in Rondonia state via a stop-over in Cuiaba and a 750km coach ride.
“Our biggest concern is player fatigue after this long journey. Our opponents have trained hard for the Copa do Brasil, so we’re in for a tough time,” was the verdict of Atletico coach Antonio Lopes.
Distance could also prove problematic for Palmeiras (2,600 km to Teresina in Piaui state), Atletico Mineiro (3,500 km to Rio Branco in Acre state), Vasco (over 2,200 km to Sousa in Paraiba state), as well as Fluminense and Gremio (nearly 2,000 km to Confianca in Sergipe state and Alto Araguaia in Mato Grosso state, respectively). Robinho and Co, for their part, can count themselves relatively lucky given Santos's trip of ‘just’ 1,000 km to Navirai in Mato Grosso do Sul.
Also sure to motivate the less-lauded clubs, particularly from the second division, is the Copa do Brasil’s propensity for throwing up surprise results. Though Brazil’s big names have mostly held sway, trophy wins by second-tier outfits Criciuma (1991), Santo Andre (2004) and Paulista (2005) prove just how open the competition can be.
Fully aware of that will be Palmeiras, who are determined to sweep aside Flamengo-PI and continue banishing the memories of their late collapse in the Brasileirao 2009 – a run of form which cost O Verdão a Libertadores place. Only keeper Marcos, Brazil’s No1 during their 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ triumph, has missed the trip to take on Jardel and Co due to a thigh injury.
Over in the Gremio camp, coach Silas is expected to stick with his Campeonato Gaucho regulars, including strike duo Borges and Jonas. Despite complaining about his side’s fixture pile-up, Botafogo coach Joel Santana is another who will not be resting his first-choice players when they face Sao Raimundo. As a result, O Fogão should line up with on-form strike pair El Loco Abreu and German Herrera.
Vasco, for their part, are alone among the favourites in sending a second-string team with a view to their semi-final tie in the Taca Guanabara, the first half of the Campeonato Carioca. Coach Vagner Mancini is thus taking just 13 players to meet Sousa, with forward Elton, who helped fire the club out of Serie B last year, to be given a rare chance to shine.