Big Lang Theory: In praise of Fluminense



As title-clinching wins go, Fluminense's victory over Palmeiras on November 11 felt slightly anticlamactic. Sure, Brazilian broadcaster Globo wheeled out treasured commentator Galvão Bueno for the occasion (the Brazilian analogue of the proverbial fat lady clearing her throat) and the match itself produced the goods (Flu won 3-2, simultaneously pushing their opponents further down a path that ended in relegation a couple of weeks later), but the occasion felt flat. The location didn't help: the game, nominally a home fixture for Palmeiras, took place not in São Paulo but in Presidente Prudente, a good 500 kilometres away. The attendence of 8,461 would hardly have befitted a dead rubber, let alone a title decider.

The atmosphere improved when Flu were welcomed back to their Laranjeiras training complex by thousands of fans in the early hours of the following morning, but the reaction - not least in the press - remained slightly muted. Celebratory opinion pieces swiftly gave way to the next wave of articles on the battle against the drop and the seemingly endless previews of Corinthians' World Club Cup campaign – something many saw as another example of the pro-São Paulo media bias.

In reality, however, the explanation was rather more simple: Flu's second Brasileirão in three seasons had long had an air of inevitability about it. A title race that for a time promised much petered out in the second half of the championship. Atlético Mineiro, for whom a certain Ronaldinho Gaúcho was joyfully channeling his salad days, looked an irresistible force for a time. The Galo played some of the most sumptuous football of the year, but a lack of strength in depth eventually took its toll. Grêmio, too, harboured realistic aspirations of pushing Flu all the way, but eventually fell off the pace.

This is not to belittle Fluminense's achievement, however. The Rio giants, while perhaps not the neutrals' choice, were ruthless in pursuit of their tetracampeonato. With one game to play, they have conceded just 31 goals - the fewest in the league - and scored the second most. They have lost just four of 37 games. The resilience that earnt them the nickname Time de Guerreiros (Team of Warriors) has hardly even been needed; relentless efficiency has been the key. "They're a good team, an organised team," said former Brazil striker Tostão, now a respected newspaper columnist: "Flu know how to win. They don't lose focus and they don't try to be better than they are."

Coach Abel Braga, who helped Flu to four state championship titles as a player, deserves plenty of the credit. A spiky character of no little experience, Abelão eschewed the tactical tinkering and revolving-door transfer policy that disrupt many Série A sides, instead keeping things relatively simple. That approach paid off handsomely, with the squad growing into a picture of unity and confidence. Braga himself cited the blossoming team spirit as a key factor in his decision to extend his spell at the club last month.

A happy dressing room can only get you so far, of course, and Flu are blessed with players that most other clubs in Brazil would give an arm and a leg for. Former Liverpool goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri has been a revelation, recently earning a seleção call-up following a series of eye-catching displays. In front of him, sturdy centre-back Gum (insert joke about sticking tight to his man here) and flying left-back Carlinhos have both enjoyed excellent seasons, aided and abetted by diligent defensive midfielders Edinho and Jean.

Further forward, the absence of Deco for much of the campaign was glossed over, with Thiago Neves, Wágner and Rafael Sóbis all chipping in with creative contributions. The two big stars, though, have been Fred and Wellington Nem - two players at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. The latter, who caught the eye at Figueirense last term, is a lovely player, all zippy runs and dancing feet. Fred, meanwhile, boosted his reputation as Série A's most unforgiving matador, gleefully plundering goals with head, shoulders, knees and toes.

It was an infallible recipe for success, and success duly followed. The 2012 Brasileirão may have ended up being a case of grinders keepers, but few could dispute that the best team won.