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riquelmeAfter months of speculation, Palmeiras are reportedly closing in on signing Juan Roman Riquelme.

For the sake of both the player and the club I hope the deal doesn’t go through.

Palmeiras will play in the second division this year but have also qualified for the Copa Libertadores. They need a big squad with players who can perform over what will be a long and grueling campaign and who will stand up and be counted.

Riquelme is 34 and hasn’t played professional football since July when he fell out with Boca Juniors.

He is clearly not a player who will be able, much less willing given his attitude over the years, to put his heart and soul into every game. He has a history of clashing with teammates and managers throughout his glorious career. He is certainly not a player you build your team around.

Not because he isn’t talented. Fewer Argentines have shown as much deftness with a ball at their feet that mercurial No. 10.

But Palmeiras need a leader, with experience, character and stamina.

That the club’s directors think Riquelme is that man goes a long way to explaining how they’ve driven the club into the ground over the last 10 years.

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Fluminense won their fourth Brazilian league title on Sunday and this piece explains why.

In short, two men were outstanding. Fred finished the season as top goalscorer with 19 goals, and more than half of them ensured Flu took all three points. His goals were decisive in 10 games.

Goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri couldn’t establish himself as first choice at Palmeiras or Liverpool, where Marcos and Pepe Reina were No. 1, respectively. But he was fantastic for Fluminense, keeping 13 clean sheets over the season and making countless great saves.

A team wins the league, not individuals but they were two of the best performers over the season.

Congratulations to Fluminense who will now want to emulate Corinthians and win the Libertadores for the first time.

If players like Deco, Rafael Sobis and Thiago Neves turn it on like they’ve turned it on before then they are in with a real chance.

See O Globo’s photo essay on Flu’s triumph here.

A Brazilian court has turned down a habeas corpus appeal by lawyers for Kia Joorabchian and is maintaining charges he laundered money while working as a director of Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians in 2005.

The court said Joorabchian and Nojan Bedroud illegally brought $32.5 million dollars into Brazil while directors of Media Sports Investment, the company that ran Corinthians from 2004 to 2007.

The money came from illegal sources in Russia and elsewhere and was used to buy players for Corinthians, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano among them, the Superior Court of Justice said.

Argentines Tevez and Mascherano signed record deals with Corinthians in 2005 and helped the club win the Brazilian championship that year. They were later transferred to West Ham in a financially controversial deal.

Tevez now plays for Manchester City and Mascherano is at Barcelona.

Joorabchian, an Iranian who spent much of his life in the UK, became friendly with Tevez when they were both at Corinthians and is still close a close advisor to the controversial striker.

Joorabchian’s lawyers had requested the case to be thrown out, claiming all evidence was gained by illegal wire taps. The court rejected that appeal and said the accusations stand.

It is unclear if there is still an arrest warrant out for Joorabchian, who now rarely visits the South American nation.

Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores in July and go to Japan for the World Club Championship in December where they could face Champions League winners Chelsea.

Here’s a piece I did for Time magazine in 2007 before the extent of Kia’s shenanigans became clear.

I came across an interesting little article buried in Lance today that tells us something about the mindset of Brazilians in general and Brazilian football fans in particular.

The piece is about Corinthians fans visiting Tite, the manager who recently guided the club to its first Libertadores trophy, the club’s biggest title triumph in decades.

The fans paid tribute to Tite for his work this season and apologised for demanding he be sacked last season after the club had lost in the Libertadores qualifying rounds to a lowly Colombian team.

“One day we wanted him sacked and today we are here to ask for him to stay for the rest of his life,” said the leader of the biggest fans’  organisation, the Gaviões da Fiel.

The irony of all or nothing, hero or villain and nothing in between, was lost on all present, it seemed.

But that’s Brazil, a country of extremes, where cool heads seldom prevail and where emotion is driving factor in so much of what goes on.

Just 11 games into the Brazilian First Division and seven of the 20 teams have already fired their manager.

 

One of the biggest football matches of the year takes place in Sao Paulo tonight when Corinthians face up to Boca Juniors in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final.

Corinthians have never won the trophy, South America’s version of the Champions League, and they are desperate to do so, as I said here in May.

If they win, they can finally shake off their unwanted tag as the only one of the state’s top four clubs not to have lifted the famous cup.

(That’s a young me on the left lifting it in Paraguay in 2002 when I interviewed Nery Pumpido, coach of then holders Olimpia.)

Tonight’s match promises to be a tense affair between two teams who are not know for their flair or creativity (Riquelme aside).

There’s probably too much at stake for it to be an attractive football match.

Corinthians are favourites because they have home advantage and because they are hard to score against. But if anyone can beat them it’s Boca, one of the most experienced teams not just in Latin America, but in the world.

Corinthians must not only guard against overconfidence, but they must also work hard to focus only on the field of play. Corintianos are rightly known for their passion and unstinting support but if their team struggles the pressure will mount and that could be telling.

Here‘s the match preview I wrote yesterday for Reuters.

  Ten days ago, only the most fanatical Corinthians fans knew who Romarinho was. Today, he is a hero.

The 21-year old striker made his starting debut two weekends ago in the local derby against Corinthians’ arch-rivals Palmeiras, scoring twice to help the club to a 2-1 win.

Three days later he came off the bench in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final in Buenos Aires and grabbed the goal that brought his side level 1-1 with Boca Juniors.

That goal has made Corinthians favourites to lift their first ever Libertadores trophy when the sides line up for the return leg in Sao Paulo’s Pacaembu stadium on Wednesday.

Corinthians are in the final for the first time, while Boca are in their tenth, seeking a seventh win that would bring them alongside fellow Argentines Independiente as the most successful team in the competition.

However, while Boca have the experience, Corinthians have the form.

They are unbeaten in the tournament so far and have conceded just four goals in their 13 matches.

For all that, they still have trouble scoring and have drawn uncomplimentary comparisons with Chelsea, who beat attack-minded Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to winning the Champions League this year.

Like the Londoners, Corinthians put organisation ahead of flair and like to pack players behind the ball.

Romarinho could be the answer to their goalscoring problems.

The youngster fulfills all the requisites of a Brazilian footballing hero. Son of a poor family whose father cut sugar cane for a living, he was rejected by several top teams before finally coming good at lowly Bragantino.

Corinthians snapped him up last month after he scored six goals in 23 games in the Paulista State Championship earlier this year.

Although his name means little Romario, he is not related to the former Brazil striker turned federal Congressman, even if he reportedly shares the same penchant for nightlife and killer instinct in front of goal.

“Romarinho is cool, he’s ice cold, and he had already showed that in the game against Palmeiras,” coach Tite said after the Boca Juniors match.

“He’s deadly, you just have to give him the ball in the last third of the field to let him do what he knows how.”

Both teams will be at full strength for Wednesday’s decider. Boca Juniors did not play at the weekend because the Argentina Clausura tournament is over, while Corinthians’ match against Botafogo was postponed to allow the team to prepare.

The Brazilian teams still in the Libertadores and Copa do Brasil have adopted the same strategy as every year, saving the best players for the midweek games and playing their reserves in the league.

Both Santos and Corinthians are getting exactly what they deserve for such stupid, short-sighted and insulting policies. After four games, Corinthians are bottom of the table with 1 point and Santos are just above them with 3 points.

The clubs still in the Copa do Brasil playing semi-reserve teams are doing almost as badly. Palmeiras are second bottom of the table and Coritiba are in 14th place. Only Sao Paulo in seventh and Gremio – in third after defeating Corinthians (reserves) yesterday – are anywhere like they should be.

The policy is stupid because resting top players for league games doesn’t make these teams any more likely to triumph in the Libertadores.

It’s short-sighted because giving up on so many points at the start of the season will inevitably cost them any chances of league success later on.

And it’s insulting to players because it presumes they can’t perform to the best of their abilities twice in a week and to fans, who are asked to pay to see sub-standard line ups.

Pele used to play more games in a season than any player does today. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo play twice a week and seem to do just fine. Players in England, Germany, France and Italy all play high profile, energy sapping league matches at the weekend and Champions league fixtures during the week.

Supporters deserve better. They’re not daft. Yesterday’s crowd to see Santos (reserves) play Sao Paulo (reserves)? 6,327.

I’ve been to hundreds of football matches in my life but without doubt the 2006 Copa Libertadores match between Corinthians and River Plate was one of the most unforgettable.

Kia Joorabchian’s Corinthians had Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez in their ranks and were favourites to overturn a 3-2 deficit from the first leg.

Instead they went down 3-1 amid sensational scenes at the Pacaembu stadium. Several irate fans invaded the pitch to remonstrate with Corinthians players and as frustration boiled over into fury police fired stun grenades to hold back angry fans.

I was in the press box and watched open-mouthed as fans hurtled down the terraces in waves to try and get on the pitch. It was like those scenes you saw on British TV in the 1970s from Liverpool or Manchester before crash barriers went up.

There were a dozen or so police with batons hitting everything that moved as fans on the other side of the fence tried desperately to tear it down and get on the pitch (see the footage below). It was incredible.

I realized there and then just how deep Corinthian’s obsession with winning the Libertadores is. I also realized that desperation can do more harm than good.

(I try and explain the phenomenon in more detail here in my Reuters piece.)

As one Corinthians fan said to me yesterday outside the Pacaembu, Imagine you have thousands of people looking at you as you do your job just waiting for you to screw up. You’d be too scared to do anything.

Corinthians play Emelec tonight in the second leg of their last 16 Libertadores tie. The score stands at 0-0.

I fancy Corinthians to squeeze into the quarter finals with their usual struggle. But if they don’t, their fans probably won’t lose it like they did in 2006. That game, given the participation of Tevez and former Corinthians manager Daniel Passarella, was very highly charged.

But if it all goes wrong there will be a lot of unhappy campers. And I wouldn’t rule anything out.

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