There is now no doubt about that. Brazil has thirteen big clubs.
Athletico Paranaense must be included after winning the Copa Sudamericana, a similar Europa League, with a 1-0 victory in Montevideo, Uruguay, over other Brazilians Red Bull Bragantino.
The traditional idea is that Brazil has a big twelve, spread over the big centers – four teams each from Rio and Sao Paulo, two each from Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. From the smaller southern town of Curitiba, Athletico Paranaense have stormed the party with their second international title in three years.
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They won the Sudamericana in 2018, but the triumph in 2021 may very well be a sweeter memory. In 2018, they were played by Junior from Colombia, but held on to winning on penalty shootout. This victory came during the 90 minutes, the result of an excellent goal, and on the balance the game was deserved – which may not have been so good news for the neutrals.
Athletico and Bragantino is a story about similarities and differences, about well-run clubs from the provinces – Bragantino is from upstate Sao Paulo – with different game models. Athletico, with their 3-4-3 side, like to defend deep and start the counter-attack.
Coach Alberto Valentim first arrived at Athletico in October after the semi-finals, but he has provided continuity to a well-established style. Bragantino, meanwhile, are looking for something more proactive with a high defensive line and a game based on possession in the opposite half.
Their young coach Mauricio Barbieri adjusted his usual side. The Argentine left wing was moved onto the pitch, opening the way for the introduction of left-footed winger Helinho, with midfielder Bruno Praxedes moving closer to center-forward Ytalo.
The idea was clear; open the field up, attack the space behind Athletico’s wing backs, turn their back three into a back fiver and dominate the space in front of the penalty area. It never worked. Praxedes lacked the pace to make an impression higher up the field, and the switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 deprived the team of the natural triangle needed to bring right-wing star Artur into the match.
Athletico focused on blunting Bragantino, waiting to hit the counter. The crucial moment came just before the half hour, and involved the wingers who are so important to the team. Bragantino did not manage to connect with it, as his team mates had hoped, and the ball went out. Keeper Cleiton pushed out, and right winger Nikao, one of the side’s skilled, scored with excellent acrobatic scissors and kicked acrobatic volley back across and inside the post.
Bragantino returned after the break with Praxedes deeper, and with the team sitting back in their usual 4-3-3, Artur began to emerge. But the team suffered a frustrating afternoon in the late spring sunshine. They struggled to find any rhythm, perhaps hampered by their own lack of great player experience and by the stop-start character in the second half, often interrupted by injuries and substitutions. Athletico goalkeeper Santos had a remarkably comfortable match.
At 0-0, he was bothered by Cuello’s attempt to score directly from a corner – and as he pushed the ball out, Cuello curled another shot just past the far post. It was the closest Bragantino came, and with Athletico content to defend deep, the only moments of danger came from several corners – with center-back Leo Ortiz replacing Leandrinho on his way past the nearest post.
At the end, Bragantino even sent goalkeeper Cleiton up to the corner kick – with no luck, with Athletico counting down the clock and waiting for the festivities to start. If the game was not a great spectacle, it will surely live long in the memory of Athletico fans, for the triumph and the wonderful goal with which it was achieved. It was then a shame that there were so few fans in the stadium who saw it.
There are pros and cons to the idea of holding a one-time finale in a neutral venue. It is undeniably more dramatic than a home and away affair, often the quality of the game is better and there are marketing benefits. But the disadvantage was especially evident this time. Travel across South America is still recovering from the pandemic, pushing up the price of flights to Uruguay – and hotels in Montevideo. In this context, it was extremely unwise to price the cheapest tickets at $ 100 USD – a small fortune for the Brazilian public.
As a result, the famous old Centenario Stadium was not even a third full, which for a performing occasion is desperately disappointing. Athletico took more fans than Bragantino, but none of them have anything resembling the mass supporters of Palmeiras and Flamengo, Brazilian giants who will contest the main event, the final of the Copa Libertadores, next Saturday.
Then the stadium will probably be full – but the outrageous price for the experience will mean that those in the Centenario will not be representative of the average supporter. This is a question that requires serious consideration. If South America is to move on with neutral Venus finals, then ticket prices should certainly be cheaper and steps should be taken to negotiate less exorbitant prices on flights and hotels.
At the moment, however, Athletico Paranaense do not need to dwell on this – and not just because they are busy celebrating. They have opposing immediate priorities – a two-legged final in the Brazilian Cup, while also trying to avoid being drawn into the relegation battle in the last few weeks of the league season.