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Cash-rich Brazilian league on the rise
It seems only fitting that Fluminense claimed the Brazilian title for a second time in three years over the weekend. Few, if any, clubs better mesh the old and the new in a competition that has evolved significantly over the past few years. Suddenly, Brazil — once the great exporter of talent – is seeing its players stay home.
The dramatic rise of the Brazilian real may have slowed a bit this year, but its increased strength (the current exchange rate is roughly two reals to one U.S. dollar, down from three or four to one a decade ago) provides Brazilian clubs with more spending power than they enjoyed in the past.
These increasingly professional and organized outfits have used their increased resources to bring foreign-based stars back to their homeland and retain promising talents far past the point when they would usually make their way to Europe.
Not so long ago, it would have seemed fanciful to suggest Clarence Seedorf would sign with Botafogo, Ganso would make a lucrative move within the country from Santos to São Paulo instead of selecting a foreign suitor or Leandro Damião or Neymar would postpone moves to top European sides to remain on home soil.
Some might argue players are motivated by the approaching World Cup, but Brazil’s new-found ability to acquire and retain that sort of talent has raised the standard of the league and provided an opportunity for wealthier clubs to build stronger squads.
Fluminense has taken advantage of its additional clout to create a deep squad capable of producing consistent results over the course of the campaign. Veteran manager Abel Braga (a Copa Libertadores winner with Internacional in 2006) had enough choices that the intermittent availability of former Chelsea and Portugal midfielder Deco (hampered by injuries) and ex-Real Betis striker Rafael Sóbis (in and out of favor) did not hinder the efforts.
The contributions of less heralded players – recent Brazil call-ups Carlinhos, Jean and Thiago Neves and other lynchpins like Gum and Wellington Nem – picked up the slack and set Fluminense on the path to another title.
The champions-in-waiting employed the somewhat standard formula for a title challenge at a significantly higher standard than usual. Braga wielded a firm hand to avoid the usual chaos associated with a top-flight season. He relied on a group of Brazilian players capable of allying attacking intent (59 goals scored, tops in the league) with defensive resolve (28 goals conceded, also top of the table) to distance itself from the pack.
Fluminense's success secured the title with three rounds to play and sparked the usual cries to include one or two of its stars in the national team set-up. Brazil coach Mano Menezes complied with the entreaties by selecting five Fluminense players – including a first call-up for stalwart goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri and a return to the side for top scorer Fred – in the purely domestic-based delegation scheduled to face Argentina in Buenos Aires next Wednesday. It is the least he could do to reward the collective and personal success achieved during this outstanding campaign.
Although Fluminense leaned on tried and true principles for the foundation of its success, it also operated deftly to claim its place at the top of an evolving championship now boasting several clubs with the financial capacity to attract established players.
The eventual triumph would not have occurred without consistently excellent displays from Cavalieri in goal and Fred up front. Both players once saw their European careers truncated perhaps a bit earlier than expected. Former Palmeiras number one Cavalieri played sparingly during spells at Liverpool and Cesena before signing for Fluminense last year. Current captain Fred appeared for Brazil in the 2006 World Cup during his productive four-year spell with Lyon, but he dropped out of the side, requested a move and signed a five-year deal to return to Brazil with Fluminense in 2009.
Those decisions benefited both club and player. Cavalieri quickly established himself as the number one upon his return and secured the regular match action he failed to secure during his European spell. He rewarded Braga with a series of assured displays between the sticks this season. Fred rediscovered his form in front of goal upon his return to Brazil. He currently leads Serie A with 19 goals, three more than ex-Porto and Sevilla striker Luís Fabiano's haul with São Paulo. Both men could find themselves in the Brazil set-up for the short- and the medium-term as a result of their current form.
Long-term planning isn't a strong suit in the Brazilian league, but this Fluminense side – like some of its counterparts – stands a better chance of keeping its integral figures than other successful outfits in recent years. Braga has distanced himself from a rumored return to Internacional, while many of the influential players (though perhaps not Chelsea target Wallace) should stick around to pursue the club's first triumph in the Copa Libertadores next year.
Ambition and stability usually do not mix in these sorts of circumstances. But in the emerging new order for the Brazilian championship, those principles – and the corresponding success of sides able to combine them with their increased financial might – may find themselves more and more applicable in future campaigns.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.