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Tim Vickery Column: When early elimination is a good thing

The spotlight will be on Mano Menezes
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In recent times there have not been too many Brazilian sides as influential as the Santos team that won the 2002 domestic title.

It is a team that launched a thousand careers – Diego and Robinho, Elano and Renato, Leo and Alex, all of them Brazil internationals, made their names in that campaign. 

It was the team that made the team a force in the Libertadores after nearly 40 years, getting all the way to the final the following year. And it is the team that established Santos as an interesting starting point for a talented youngster. 

The Neymar generation, who ended the long wait for the third Libertadores title, are descendents of the 2002 side, as are the current crop of Santos youngsters developing nicely under Oswaldo de Oliveira.

This, then, was a team that had serious consequences, a collection of players who not only became individual stars but who also began the process whereby one of the world’s most famous clubs was rescued from the curse of mediocrity.

And it nearly never happened. We have the vagaries of the Brazilian football calendar to thank for the game-changing success of the 2002 Santos side.

First because this was one of the final championships played under the old play-off system, where the top eight teams qualified for a knock out phase. 

Under the league system now in operation that Santos team would have been little more than a fascinating curiosity. They were an extraordinarily young side; centre forward Alberto, 27, was the oldest member of the side. Diego, the brains of the team, was a full ten years younger. And the price of youth, as so often, was inconsistency. 

Santos blew hot and cold through the league campaign, and only managed to sneak into the knock out phase with by claiming the last of the eight places.

Then they caught fire at exactly the right time, and were at their irrepressible best as they swept away Sao Paulo, Gremio and then Corinthians to claim the title. Under this league system, though, they would have been a mid-table side, and history would look very different.

And there is also another aspect. As coach Emerson Leao confirmed to me in 2003, that Santos team would almost certainly not have happened without the club’s early elimination from the 2002 Sao Paulo State Championship.

This marked the end of the policy of trying to build success around big name signings – a line of conduct the club could no longer afford. And, crucially, it meant that Leao had time to construct a side for the Brazilian Championship. 

There was time to observe the products of the club’s youth development work, time to work out how to fit them together into a team, time to transform that idea into a functioning reality. None of this would have been possible had Santos been busy with the closing stages of the State Championship – in which case they would have been running the risk of winning very little (for it is a title which is well past its sell-by date) and losing a lot (for there is no guarantee that the opportunity would have presented itself again in the same way). 

Getting kicked out early of the 2002 Sao Paulo State Championship is a happy accident in the history of Santos. And might the same apply to Corinthians this year?

It is not so long ago that everything seemed to be going Corinthians’ way’ Brazilian champions, Libertadores champions, World Club champions, about to move into their own brand new stadium – some were predicting a decade of dominance for the ‘Big Team.’

Instead of which they soon found that success brings its own problems. The need for transition can be traumatic; winning sides need to be broken up, rethought and rebuilt. 

It was not a process that Corinthians were able to handle smoothly, and the wonderful spell in charge of impressive coach Tite ended with a whimper – the side managed just 27 goals in the 38 matches of last year’s Brazilian Championship.  With 22 goals conceded they had by some distance the best defensive record.  But such solidity alone cannot make a team title challengers. With just 11 wins to their name, Corinthians finished a disappointing tenth.

It was perhaps inevitable that coach Mano Menezes would not have an easy return to the club. The initial stages of the state championships are often difficult for the big clubs. With no time for a proper pre-season they are nowhere near their physical peak. And Menezes had not had time on the training ground to make the team his own.

He has it now. He has had nearly two and a half months to evaluate the players at his disposal, to judge where he needs to strengthen the squad, and what might be the best collective idea to introduce. 

A month on the training ground, punctuated by the occasional game in the Brazilian Cup, will come in very handy as he seeks to prepare for the national championship – where after nine rounds he will have another month and a half (the pause for the World Cup) to whip his side into shape.

After all of that time there can be no excuses. After a bad 2013 the Sao Paulo sides look strong contenders for this year’s title. If they can take advantage of their fortune in falling out of the state competition, then Corinthians should be up there and fighting when it really matters.


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