After the most cursory of off-season breaks, football returned to Brazil this weekend as the state championships kicked off with their usual whimper.
As has become tradition, the first round of games drew precious few fans to stadiums, even in the nominally more glamorous Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo competitions, with most preferring to watch from home, if at all. Of all the flaws with Brazil’s footballing calendar, one of the most glaring is that it leaves no time at all for expectation to build.
In the Campeonato Carioca, the year began inauspiciously for the historic big four. Relegated from the top flight of the Brasileirão at the end of a patience-testing 2013, Vasco da Gama kicked off with a draw at home to Boavista. Fluminense, who have drafted in charismatic coach Renato Gaúcho, playmaker Darío Conca and cult hero Walter since their courtroom relegation escape, lost 3-2 to Madureira.
Flamengo, 1-0 winners over Audax, have also been big movers in the transfer market ahead of the Copa Libertadores. Former Brazil midfielder Elano has come in from Grêmio, while former Atlético-PR pair Léo and Éverton are both fine acquisitions. The worry for the Rubro-Negro must be over manager Jaime de Almeida, who proved a safe pair of hands last season but has precious little experience at the highest level.
And then there’s Botafogo. The surprise package of 2013, they inexplicably decided to part company with Oswaldo de Oliveira (who has since pitched up at Santos), opting to promote youth coach Eduardo Hungaro in his place. To make matters worse, two of the squad’s senior players have also left. Rafael Marques is probably replaceable, but Clarence Seedorf’s boots will be nigh-on impossible to fill. If their opening two games of the year (1-1 at Resende, 0-0 vs Bangu) are anything to go by, O Glorioso could struggle to live up to their name in 2014.
The outlook is perhaps a touch more sunny in São Paulo, despite the realisation that yes, the new format of the Paulistão was designed during a bad trip. Palmeiras, who will be keen to ride the momentum built up during their Série B title win, began with a win against Linense, while Santos also claimed maximum points. The latter looked to be getting to grips with life without Neymar in the final months of last year, and should be able to kick on this term. São Paulo should also offer more than they did in 2013 – not that there was much evidence of improvement in the 2-0 defeat to Bragantino.
For now, though, the most intriguing of all the clubs in Brazil’s south-east corridor is Corinthians. Back under the studious command of Mano Menezes – a man desperate to revive his career after missteps with the Seleção and Flamengo – they are something of an unknown quantity. Much will depend on whether they can inject some spark into their attack; in the final 24 games of 2013, they scored a pitiful 10 goals.
With the likes of Paolo Guerrero (above) and Alexandre Pato on the books, they should be capable of bettering that haul, and have a sturdy defence. If Menezes makes as big an impression as he did during his last spell at Parque São Jorge, the Timão may be the side best equipped to gatecrash the Belo Horizonte party at Brazilian football’s top table.
Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop