If you’re like me then by the time June rolls around on a World Cup or Euros-less summer you’re starting to feel a bit rudderless. The fresh hope of the new fixture list still isn’t out and even the tennis at Wimbledon has started to sound appealing. The Brazilian football season concluded in December, but around here they’ve come up with the perfect solution to the football-lessness: the State Championships.
Having accepted a six month contract to teach English in rural Brazil, I did my darndest to sync my weekend Rio de Janeiro arrival with some futebol, the result being a Guanabara Trophy match between the Carioca giants of Botafogo and Fluminense.
The Rio State Championships is a ludicrously drawn out affair featuring the city’s big four teams with twelve other clubs from around the state. The year starts with the Guanabara Trophy, where two groups of eight teams play home and away to determine group winners and runners ups, who then battle it out for the silverware.
Not enough? With a Guanabara Trophy champion laboriously decided they then do the same thing all over again in the Rio Trophy, the two separate cup winners then face off to become the undisputed and no doubt fatigued champions of Rio de Janeiro.
Well, it certainly fills a hole before the national championship starts up again in May.
The third game of the group stage heralded the first derby between any of the big guns. Across town Flamengo were also in action with some minnows, meaning the botecos were awash with the teams’ reds, blacks, whites and greens, swilling beer from morning time onwards.
Hosts Botafogo are the team of Garrincha and now Clarence Seedorf, while Fluminense are the current Brazilian champions and boast the likes of Fred and Deco, though this early in the competition none of them were starters.
And they aren’t the only ones having the night off. Despite the match’s on paper importance the Estádio Engenhão only ever fills to a quarter of its capacity.
And the five year-old venue hardly lives up to its more famous city brother, the Maracanã. It’s large, has nice curves and when enlarged it will amply serve the 2016 Olympic athletic competitions, but it’s just another grand yet soulless paint by numbers stadium.
The occasion is certainly enjoyable, but League Cup enjoyable, with the start of the competition yet to have captured local imaginations. The numerous gigantic flags being flown in synchronicity by both sets of colourful supporters only hint at the might of the matches that are likely to follow as the trophy narrows towards its conclusion.
What’s more, a sizable chunk of the home Botafogo fans are made up of not maracas-shaking Brazilians but camera-weilding tourists. It seems that going to watch a football match in Brazil is as essential a city tour as the ones that go into the favelas or up to the famed mountaintop Christ the Redeemer statue.
Fortunately, the photo clicking of the tourists is easily drowned out by the horns and drumming of the Botafogo support. It’s by no means deafening, but the tempo sweeps you along and the rustiest of hips could be forgiven for moving along with the pulse of the rhythm. Forget Sloop John B and inane shouted insults, here the drum is in time with the flow of the game and there is a connection between the men performing on and off the grass.
Most leading nations have their typecast styles of play, but the joga bonito of the Brazilians is untouched in both its fame and enduring appeal, I wasn’t going to be satisfied with balls lumped up to a journeyman striker in Rio, and thankfully it wasn’t offered.
The close control of even the central defenders would put England international Shaun Wright-Phillips to shame, and the amount and ease of the one touch passing was joyous to behold. What frustrated, however, was the attackers’ constant desire to take one touch too many and pass up clear shooting opportunities in search of the spectacular. On such occasions my natural national impulse to bellow an inane shouted insult bubbled up after all.
Botafogo where in charge but approaching half time Fluminense’s backfoot kneejerked spectacularly forwards to give the visitors a half time lead. Brazilian international Washington Nem picked the ball up in his own half and set off on a direct path to goal. Reaching the edge of the Botafogo box he wisely accepted help in laying the ball out wide, continuing his forward charge to meet and precisely drill home the low centre.
The home side were more purposeful after the break, but were sorely in need of inspiration, a near scripted cue for the introduction of Clarence Seedorf. The dutch master’s arrival lifted the stadium and everyone in it, breath drawn as he received each possession.
And he didn’t disappoint. His first touch was a raking crossfield ball on a sixpence for the far flanking winger and that was just the start of a repertoire that included dummies, rapid one twos and lollipops.
But Seedorf’s show stopping moment came fifteen minutes from time when in traffic he deftly chipped a half cleared corner to the backpost where an unmarked Bolivar headed home to equalise.
All square it ended, and despite the unpromising starts most will have come away wanting more: the Botafogo fans for their latest hero and me for further Brazilian football.
Iain is a football writer currently traveling around the world. Find him on Twitter here.