Foes do Porto Alegre proud
The final-day headlines in Brazil's national championship belonged to teams from its two most celebrated footballing cities. Sao Paulo's seizure of an unprecedented third successive Brasileirao title, and Rio de Janeiro giants Vasco da Gama's drop into Serie B, accounted for this.
And while Porto Alegre's two giants ended the campaign miserably - Gremio, despite victory, watched their title dreams evaporate, while Internacional signed off in defeat - it is impossible to overlook the success they enjoyed in 2008.
By taking the title race into the concluding matchday, Celso Roth's team finally tested the home-straight nerves of Sao Paulo, who had cantered to glory the previous two seasons. Moreover, their runners-up finish ensured them what, at least on paper, appears a favourable group in the Copa Libertadores 2009 (Bolivia's Aurora, Boyaca Chico of Colombia and the winner of a preliminary-round match will provide their opposition). Internacional, meantime, came sixth in the Brasileirao, but lifted aloft two trophies: the Campeonato Gaucho and the Copa Sudamericana.
It was hardly a sudden annus mirabilis for the Porto Alegrense football; more an affirmation of the powerful voice it has held since the second half of this decade began. Inter finished as Brasileirao runners-up in 2005 and 2006, which was a year in which they seized the two biggest prizes available to South American clubs: the Copa Libertadores and the FIFA Club World Cup. They then added the South American Super Cup to their trophy cabinet last year. Gremio, for their part, finished third in the Brasileirao 2006, and 12 months later, at the end of a year in which they reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, they ran home in sixth.
Still, few envisaged them challenging for domestic crown this term. Sao Paulo were the favourites; Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Fluminense and Palmeiras the pretenders to their throne. However, with goalkeeper Victor, centre-back Rever, and midfielders Rafael Carioca and Tcheco in impressive form, O Tricolor Gaúcho established themselves as the forerunners for gold until they were undone by Sao Paulo's 18-match unbeaten run.
"We didn't manage to win silverware, but it was a prosperous year for us," said Roth, who will stay on at the reins next season. "The Libertadores is so important. It's the most important competition on the continent, and we've set ourselves in good stead to do well next season."
The fact that the Stadio Olimpico crowd gave their heroes a standing ovation on a day when their title hopes ended is testament to Gremio's success. "It's an honour to play for a team with supporters like this, who still applaud knowing they've lost the title. It's so beautiful," said captain Tcheco, who has since rejected offers from elsewhere to extend his stay at the club.
"It's been a good year for Gremio. Nobody expected us to qualify for the Libertadores. Sao Paulo are a great side and they deserved the title, but it's to our credit that we pushed them all the way. We're pleased with our work and we'll now look forward (to 2009)."
The emergence of 18-year-old Douglas Costa, a breathtaking talent who, predictably, is being hailed as 'the new Ronaldinho Gaucho', has also raised optimism that 2009 could be rich on success for Gremio.
Internacional will also be high on confidence going into their centenary year. After making light work of Boca Juniors and Guadalajara, Tite's team edged Estudiantes to become the first Brazilian winners of the Copa Sudamericana.
"It's been a great year for me and for Inter," enthused attacking midfielder Alex. "We hope to be stronger in the Brasileiro next year. This is definitely a competition we want to win. We want to begin the year well and win all the competitions we're in." Their chances of achieving this objective will certainly be enhanced if O Colorado succeed in maintaining coveted stars such as Alex, Andres D'Alessandro and Nilmar, which the club believe is likely.
There is no doubt that the contesters of the iconic Gre-Nal derby did Porto Alegre proud in 2008. And if any further hint was needed as to their bright futures, look no further than the one of the semi-finals for the Brazilian U-20 Championship tomorrow: Gremio-Internacional.