His team fresh off their fifth consecutive win, this one a thrilling 3-2 nail-biter over cross-city rivals São Paulo FC to keep them unbeaten and top of the table, Corinthians coach Fábio Carille refused to budge from a stiff-lipped stance exerted days prior in the build up to one of Brazilian football’s most famous clássicos.
Cast down by their rivals and the media as the ‘quarta força’ (fourth force) in São Paulo state – let alone the rest of the country – after the pitiful defence of their 2015 Série A title ceded to a foe even more loathed than SPFC, Palmeiras, pride has been restored through a master turnaround from Carille, charged with navigating the rubble only slightly still dusty from the ashes of glory left by Tite after he too was called in to salvage the national team from comparable troubles.
Spurned on by a lifting of the Paulistão state championship, this near-perfect start, marred only by an opening day draw to Chapecoense, now has tongues wagging as to whether Corinthians, contrary to expectations, are genuine contenders this season. Carille, though, reiterated his comments that any genuine push to be crowned champions comes down to whether or not an already threadbare squad can keep its players for the duration of the campaign.
Spearheaded by a lost sheep tangent of ex-Manchester City striker Jô, new Seleção inductee Rodriguinho and to a lesser extent a diminished Jádson, who between them as a trio have made their way back from spells in China and the Middle East at various points to finally unite at this crucial hour, with added help from tireless Paraguayan international Romero, Corinthians are currently playing an attractive brand of attacking football that has brought an increased amount of goals conceded against them in comparison to the norm, but finds the team also scoring far more at the opposite end whilst freeing themselves of the shackles that have them widely reputed as specialists in 1-0 defensive-heavy scrapes.
The real revelation, however, has come from defence. Linking with Romero and devastating opponents down their right flank, as witnessed in Sunday’s derby ad nauseam, academy graduate Guilherme Arana looks to be a classic Brazilian left-back who, although some considerable years younger, could one day pose a serious risk to Alex Sandro’s quest to succeed Marcelo as the country’s number one choice in the position.
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Already capped at under-20s level, Arana was pivotal in the Paulistão, forcing his way into the team of the tournament, and, with eight assists until now, is only lacking an elusive goal to top off a purple patch which has naturally attracted foreign attention from Bordeaux, interested in a trade for on-loan defender Pablo, Sevilla, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan’s newly-formed Chinese democracy.
Carille’s comments were more a thinly-veiled allusion to this speculation above all. While injuries remain a possibility for any squad, championship credentials are faced with a constant threat as their best talent is picked off, and although left financially improved, Brasilerão hopefuls become overtaken by the competition in the long run.
More specifically, with the Brazilian season officially starting in May, any promising start as that made by Corinthians this time round can come to an abrupt halt once the summer transfer window unleashes a stampede of European clubs, teeth sharpened clenching bulky chequebooks, hurtling over the savannah to relieve Brazilian outfits of their prized cubs, the majority of which have been personally reared since infancy or early adolescence.
This phenomena, amplified in cases when a player barely manages to see out a regular season as a starter before setting sail across the Atlantic, becomes a case of “So long, kid, we hardly knew ye” and makes Brazilian clubs and their fans seasoned veterans in coping with footballing grief and loss – left with no other choice than to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and plod on towards the finish line.
An easy bunch to rile up in the best of times, Corinthianos will be particularly ticked off should any agreement for Arana at all resemble that struck by Roma for Marquinhos. Nurtured since eight years of age, a sturdy centre-back well on his way to become one of the world’s best made just 14 first team appearances in Brazil before heading to Serie A for a paltry €1.5 million that was doubled upon completion of a handful of games in Italy.
After barely a year in Rome, Marquinhos would swap one European capital for another when Paris’ Arab-backed money men came knocking with a fee over 10 times the amount the Giallorossi acquired him for, at €31 million – then the highest paid for a teenager – with Corinthians receiving just a small cut of the proceeds. It’s a development no doubt resonating with fans of teams from the lower reaches of English football yet occurring in South America on a far grander, more frequent scale.
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There was ample competition for the debacle that was eventually dubbed by domestic media as the worst deal in recent club history. Player of the season two times running as Cruzeiro succeeded Corinthians as champions in Tite’s most-fabled reign and claimed back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, Everton Ribeiro was granted passage to Coritiba for a meagre £350,000 before being sold on to Cruzeiro for £1 million, Dubai’s Al-Ahli for €15 million and then this week Flamengo for a fee of €6 million. An integral part of the 2015 winning side Malcolm, spotted age 12, was bought by now regular business partners Bordeaux for an undisclosed fee shortly before his 19th birthday.
Lest we forget to factor in the ever-present culture of third-party ownership – now outlawed but manifesting itself in alternative forms such as the takeover of smaller, lower tier clubs by consortiums of entrepreneurs commonly behind Brazil’s largest supermarket chains or in Corinthians’ case, premier electronics retailer and past sponsor Kalunga. These takeovers often include the biggest clubs selling stakes in players to keep their head above water, and left with as little as 30 percent of the profits. There remains little hope of deserved, adequate profit being achieved through the certain future offloading of other exciting prospects like Maycon and Pedrinho.
Featuring in just 15 matches in Tite’s domineering title-winning side two years ago, and more of a work-in-progress back then, Arana’s rise to prominence in 2017 means that any potential sale, despite protests from Corinthians hierarchy that he will be staying put at all costs, could make his time in Brazil a mere flash in the pan as mirrored by sales of the likes of Marcelo, Dani Alves and Philippe Coutinho among others to European suitors before Brazilian fans were given the chance to become properly acquainted with them.
While once, partly down to an allowance of just one non-EU player in a starting line-up in Europe’s top leagues in the era, Brazilians stayed at home for longer before making the switch, this modern trend of pouncing on young talent as early as possible has caused distance between fans and their national team in that some of those featuring for it are alien to their countrymen.
This was highlighted in 2014 when locals knew little of World Cup attacker Hulk despite his relatively fresh €60 million move to Zenit from Porto, and in the following year when fans booed the mention of Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred, mistaking him for his Atletico Mineiro namesake and goal shy number 9 for said ill-fated tournament on home turf.
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Sometimes success and reasonable monetary gain have been achieved whilst keeping the wolves at bay until the door comes firmly off its hinges. First paraded in front of Real Madrid, Barcelona and later Chelsea by agent Wagner Ribeiro as young as 11, Santos extracted three consecutive Paulistãos, a Copa do Brasil, a Libertadores and a South American Supercup from Neymar before caving in to an €86 million package from the Camp Nou.
Preceding talks that saw Gabriel Jesus wind up at the Etihad for £27 million, Palmeiras were also able to seal a Copa do Brasil in 2015. Possessing the foresight to realise that his ability would find him plying his trade in the Allianz Arena for a limited time only, Palmeirenses’ insistence on seeing their boy wonder in action spelled part of reluctant coach Marcelo Oliveira’s downfall in a blessing in disguise that brought the appointment of Cuca and a Jesus-inspired first domestic championship in 22 years.
This all brings us to a sticking point. By the time Santos and Palmeiras were ready to sell, Neymar and Jesus were already beginning to demonstrate trophy-winning credentials, therefore upping their price. For every dicey, monstrous outlay, who’s to say whether a European buyer has the next Latin genius on his hands or another Kléberson or Keirrison, resulting in cut-rate offerings. In financial difficulties, Brazilian clubs are keen to get rid as soon as possible to balance the books but could also miss out on the millions if a talked-up target doesn’t come to fruition and flops whilst still in their employ.
An against the grain case, Flamengo boss Zé Ricardo presently finds himself in a similar pickle as Marcelo Oliveira was to a soundtrack of Flamenguista chants for Vinicius Junior to be played while they still have the chance and the club nestles in a peculiar yet welcomed predicament.
Inextricably linked to the Neymar deal in a bid to prevent a repeated eleventh hour ransacking from Barcelona, with the services of part-time-jail bird Wagner Ribeiro as an intermediary seeing the settled sum mysteriously jump from €30 to €45 million almost overnight for an unproven product, a clause that won’t see Junior head to Real Madrid until 2019, could result in Flamengo capitalising on two quality seasons from him whilst having the cash to spend on reinforcements such as Everton Ribeiro in order to mount a decent title challenge.
Whether leaders Corinthians, on the cusp of losing key players to Europe, or reigning champions Palmeiras – simultaneously invested in an attempt to scoop the Libertadores as Barcelona constantly amend the details of their already struck agreement for star defender Yerry Mina in desperation to make the transfer happen sooner than later – will be up there in the mix come late November, only time will tell
By Tom Sanderson @TomSandersonSP