Gremio singing in the rain
Gremio's former employers have been making waves across the globe recently. Carlos Eduardo turned in a wonderful display to help Hoffenheim sprint to the top of the German Bundesliga on Saturday, Luiz Felipe Scolari made a fairytale start to his reign as Chelsea coach one day later, and Lucas, Anderson and Ronaldinho have been impressing for Brazil during the Men's Olympic Football Tournament.
The aforementioned luminaries are not, however, being missed at the Estadio Olimpico. For the name at the summit of the Brasileirao, which entered its second half at the weekend, is Gremio.
O Tricolor Gaúcho were not among the pre-season favourites for gold. They were, supposedly, too short of top-level experience and match-winning genius.
Gremio have, nevertheless, recently evolved into masters at defying the odds. Only a fantasist could have predicted that, playing in their opponents' backyard in November 2005 and at a three-man numerical disadvantage, they would conjure up the only goal in the 11th hour to beat Nautico and snatch the most dramatic of returns to the Brazilian top flight. Thereafter, the Porto Alegre side entered the Copa Libertadores 2007 as unfancied underdogs, but they climbed mountains to reach the final before succumbing to Boca Juniors.
Gremio have upheld this theme during the ongoing league campaign, and they took a five-point lead into Round 20. It was at that stage, though, that they faced an acid test in the shape of defending champions Sao Paulo.
The pundits believed the Paulista giants would derail Gremio's challenge, and burst the bubble of confidence their ten-game unbeaten streak had created. Undeterred by this script, and the rain that poured down at the Olimpico, over 40,000 passionate Gremistas turned up to cheer on their heroes on Sunday.
Their deafening roar began some time before kick-off and continued throughout the game, reaching its zenith when Edixon Perea scrambled home the only goal in the ninth minute and Alicio Pena Junior's final whistle kept the hosts five points clear of runners-up Cruzeiro. "It was a magnificent victory," enthused Celso Roth afterwards. "."
Perhaps Gremio's experience of playing under the showers of this Brazilian winter, which they did against Palmeiras and Coritiba during the three previous weeks, aided their success. Something that certainly did was a telephone call, which the solitary marksman required to gain pardon from Jorge Luis Pinto's squad for Colombia's forthcoming friendly against Ecuador. "Gremio are in great form and I want to be here to help the team win points and stay top of the table," explained Perea. "I spoke with the national team coach and, thank God, he understood."
The ex-Bordeaux forward, 24, along with Reinaldo and Marcel, has been chiefly responsible for Gremio scoring an unparalleled 36 goals in the competition. Even more impressive, however, has been their defensive record. They have conceded just 12 goals all season, and only two - both penalties - in their last eight outings, a statistic indebted to the heroic goalkeeping of Victor and the obstinate defending of Leo, Rever, Thiego and especially Pereira.
"I don't keep count of numbers - they're just statistics," insisted Roth, who almost quit Gremio in April when, within a week, they were eliminated from the Campeonato Gaucho and Copa do Brasil. Fortunately for the supporters, he did not and the board's trust in him held firm when many would have turned their backs. The 50-year-old has conclusively justified this show of faith.
Roth is not resting on his laurels, though, as he attempts to keep Gremio en route to a third Brasileirão title, a journey that will continue against Flamengo at the Maracana on Thursday. "The defeat of Sao Paulo was the result of our collective effort and humility, and it was against one of our rivals for the title," he said. "But we can't relax - we have to keep winning."
If Gremio can do that, not even the fiercest of rainstorms will dampen their supporters' mood.