Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, we talk about how Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli overcame initial skepticism to take Santos to the top of the table and become the hottest coach in Brazil. Former leaders Palmeiras, meanwhile, are in a slump following the Copa America break. Also, how the Pan American Games in Lima are playing out, and how one of Brazil’s most traditional clubs is counting on two billionaire fans to rescue them.
The Jorge Sampaoli effect in Brazilian football
As head of the Argentinian national team, Jorge Sampaoli spearheaded a disastrous performance in the 2018 World Cup, which included player mutiny, uninspired performance, and a dramatic early elimination to future champions France in the Round of 16. In December, Sampaoli was announced as the new manager of Santos, to the surprise of many in Brazil. The coach seemed to have lost his mojo since leading Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015.
In Santos, he had a rocky start, publicly calling out the team’s board for the lack of quality players. In the state championships, which kick off the Brazilian football season at the start of the year, Santos was an extremely inconsistent, alternating big wins and humiliating losses. Now, though, Mr. Sampaoli has found his ideal line-up and become the hottest coach in Brazil, leading the league after six straight wins.
This team bears its coach’s imprint. Even when Santos don’t play well, the team attacks without fear—sometimes to its own detriment, like in the May 18 league game against Palmeiras where they lost 4-1. After conceding the first goal, the team kept attacking, leaving space for deadly counter-attacks. Since then, though, Mr. Sampaoli managed to fix many of the team’s weaknesses, as shown by their position in the table.
Of 36 points contested after 12 games, Santos has won 29 (nine wins, two draws, and one defeat). It is the best start for the team since Brazil adopted the round-robin league system in 2003.
Mr. Sampaoli has drawn criticism from some Brazilian coaches who are skeptical of foreign coaches. But the resistance to him is not only based on xenophobia: the attack-minded Argentinian coach is a welcome addition to a league where teams’ number one priority is not losing. If clubs begin trying to mirror Santos’ style, it could be a bad omen for many Brazilian coaches who today are mostly unimaginative in their reliance on old systems.
In Santos’ favor this season is the fact they only have league football on their plate—other title contenders must juggle multiple competitions (at least for now).
What has happened to Palmeiras?
Since Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as Palmeiras’ manager, midway through the 2019 season, the team became known for its efficient, though often boring, style of play. The consistency led the club to the league title last year and a hot start this season. That is, until the Brazilian league went on a break during Copa America. Before the hiatus, Palmeiras had won 92.6 percent of points up for grabs. Since returning to action, that figured dropped to 22.2 percent after going five games without a win.
And the team’s management is starting to show signs of desperation. Last year, Palmeiras’ approached playing multiple competitions through heavy squad rotation, as a way to preserve athletes. Now, in need of a result, coach Scolari played all starters in games against Inter (Copa do Brasil, July 17), Ceará (Serie A, July 20), and Godoy Cruz (Libertadores, May 23). Only on Saturday, against Vasco, did Mr. Scolari spare his first XI. Despite the efforts, the matches all ended in a draw or defeat.
To make matters worse, some fans are turning on the team. On Saturday, after the home tie against Vasco, the players were booed off the pitch and called quitters. Ultras have also threatened players, including a recent episode in which rocks were thrown at the team’s bus in São Paulo.
Most concerning, perhaps, is the fact that the team has not varied its playing style—rather depending on the same formula to win. Opponents seem to have learned how to play against them, so when players go through a rough patch, wins become scarce.
Botafogo: Billionaires to the rescue
Billionaire brothers and die-hard Botafogo fans, Walter and João Moreira Salles, have a plan to save the team from its financial downward spiral. The brothers had commissioned a study by consultancy EY and law firm Trengrouse Advogados, which they presented on Friday to the club. The plan consists of creating a private company, instead of an associative club, to run Botafogo’s football department.
This new company would have the right to use the club’s image and would have illimited and exclusive rights to all assets related to football—with the exception of the concession to use Rio’s Nilton Santos Stadium—for 30 years. According to EY, investors would need to inject around BRL 300m to pay off short-term debts, which is hardly a lot for the Moreira Salles brothers, who are part of one of Brazil’s wealthiest families.
In theory, the club can refuse the plan. But with debts amounting to four times its turnover, club executives may be forced to relinquish control—unless they want to oversee the total financial collapse of one of Brazil’s most traditional clubs.
Brazil at the Lima Pan American Games
The Pan American Games are the only shot at a medal for many Latin American athletes, with the U.S. usually sending B-teams and college athletes to the competitions.
Here’s how Brazil has performed so far:
Gymnastics. With the U.S. sending a reserve team, Brazil’s male gymnastics won the team competition by a single point! As well as the gold medal, Brazil snatched 12 spots in the finals of individual competitions.
Cycling. At 43, Jaqueline Mourão won her first Pan American medal: bronze at the cross-country competition. In the men’s race, Henrique Avancini was favorite, but a flat tire held him to only a silver medal, as Mexico’s José Ulloa Arevalo took gold.
Shooting. Julio Almeira won bronze in the air pistol competition, trailing behind Cuba’s Jorge Potrillé and the U.S.’ Nickolaus Mowrer.
Taekwondo. Edival “Netinho” Marques won gold in the 68 kilo category, after a thrilling win against Dominican fighter Bernardo Pie (17-14). It was the third Brazilian medal in the sport, after Talisca Reis grabbed the silver (49 kilos) and Paulo Ricardo won bronze (58 kilos).
Shortcomings. Brazilian duo Oscar and Thiago were eliminated in the beach volleyball quarterfinals. Since 1999, when the sport became part of the games, Brazil had reached every final. Brazil’s women’s rugby 7s team lost the bronze-medal game to Colombia (29-24). The men’s team also lost the bronze, after a come-from-behind win by the U.S.
The final shot…
Neymar. The soap opera involving the future of Brazilian football star Neymar continues. The player has been explicit in his wish to leave Paris Saint-Germain (which only two years ago made him the most expensive player on earth). His priority is returning to Barcelona, but a deal remains difficult to achieve. The blaugrana want to pay “only” EUR 100m plus two players for the Brazilian forward. But PSG is playing hardball after having invested EUR 222m to secure his signature in 2017.
Debts. Former footballer Ronaldinho Gaúcho has had 57 properties seized by authorities— with four of them being pawned—to pay off his BRL 9.91m in tax debt he owes to Porto Alegre municipality, his hometown. He is accused of violating a protected area in the city to erect one of his properties.
Libertadores. This will be a decisive week for Brazilian teams playing in the Libertadores. Of the six teams from the country, only Grêmio and International won in the first leg. Flamengo (who lost 2-0 against Emelec) and Athletico-PR (who lost at home against Boca Jrs.) face the hardest tasks.
Government. Former football striker Washington “Braveheart” Cerqueira was named Brazil’s National Secretary for Sport and Leisure. He was handpicked by President Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff, Onyx Lorenzoni. He will be in charge of federally funded campaigns for social inclusion through sports.
Derby. On Sunday, Palmeiras and Corinthians will play the São Paulo Derby—one of the fiercest rivalries in Brazilian football. The two teams have split the last four league titles. With Palmeiras going through a rough patch, Corinthians will want to seize the moment to inch closer to the Libertadores spots—and plunge its rival into crisis.
Goal of the week
The goal of the week had an element of luck, as Santos’ Felipe Jonathan’s shot hit the net after a defender tried to block his cross. But the lead-up to the goal is beautiful.
- Palmeiras 1-1 Vasco
- Santos 3-1 Avaí
- Flamengo 3-2 Botafogo
- Fluminense 1-2 São Paulo
- River 0-0 Cruzeiro
- Athletico-PR 0-1 Boca Jrs.
- Godoy Cruz 2-2 Palmeiras
- Grêmio 2-0 Libertad
- Emelec 2-0 Flamengo
- Nacional 0-1 Inter
- Cruzeiro v. River (Tue. 7:15 pm)
- Palmeiras v. Godoy Cruz (Tue. 9:30 pm)
- Libertad v. Grêmio (Tue. 9:30 pm)
- Flamengo v. Emelec (Wed. 9:30 pm)
- Boca Jrs. v. Athletico-PR (Wed. 9:30 pm)
- Inter v. Nacional (Wed. 7:15 pm)