There is now no doubt about it. Brazil has thirteen big clubs.
The traditional idea is that Brazil have a big twelve, distributed around the major centres -- four teams each from Rio and Sao Paulo, two each from Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. From the smaller southern city of Curitiba, Athletico Paranaense have crashed the party with their second international title in three years.
They won the Sudamericana in 2018, but the 2021 triumph may well be a sweeter memory. In 2018 they were outplayed by Junior of Colombia, but hung on to win on a penalty shoot-out. This victory came in the 90 minutes, the consequnce of an outstanding goal, and on the balance of play was deserved -- which may not have been such good news for the neutrals.
Athletico and Bragantino is a story of similarities and differences, of well run clubs from the provinces -- Bragantino are from upstate Sao Paulo -- with different models of play. Athletico, with their 3-4-3, like to defend deep and launch the counter attack.
Coach Alberto Valentim only arrived to Athletico in October, after the semifinals, but he has given continuity to a well established style. Bragantino, meanwhile, seek something more pro-active, with a high defensive line and a game based on possession in the opposing half.
Their young coach Mauricio Barbieri tweaked his usual side. Argentine left winger was moved infield, opening up space for the introduction of the left footed winger Helinho, with midfielder Bruno Praxedes moved up closer to centre forward Ytalo.
The idea was clear; open up the field, attack the space behind Athletico's wing backs, turn their back three into a back five and dominate the space in front of the penalty area. It never worked. Praxedes lacked the pace to make an impression higher up the pitch, and the switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 deprived the team of the natural triangle needed to bring star right winger Artur into the game.
Athletico focused on blunting Bragantino, biding their time and waiting to strike on the counter. The decisive moment came just before the half hour, and involved the wingers who are so important to the team. Bragantino failed to cut out a raking cross field ball directed towards the left, where Uruguayan David Terans collected and blasted a shot from a narrow angle. Keeper Cleiton pushed out, and right winger Nikao, one of the stalwarts of the side, scored with a splendidly acrobatic scissors kick acrobatic volley back across and inside the post.
Bragantino returned after the interval with Praxedes deeper, and with the team sitting back into its customary 4-3-3, Artur started to appear. But the team were suffering a frustrating afternoon in the late spring sunshine. They struggled to find any rhythm, hindered, perhaps, by their own lack of big game experience and by the stop-start nature of the second half, frequently interrupted by injuries and substitutions. Athletico keeper Santos had a remarkably comfortable match.
At 0-0 he was troubled by Cuello's attempt to score straight from a corner -- and when he pushed the ball out Cuello curled another shot just wide of the far post. It was the closest that Bragantino came, and with Athletico content to defend deep, the only moments of danger came from more corners -- with centre back Leo Ortiz and substitute Leandrinho heading wide of the near post.
By the end Bragantino were even sending keeper Cleiton up for the corners -- to no avail, with Athletico counting down the clock and waiting for the celebrations to start. If the game was no great spectacle, it will certainly live long in the memory of Athletico fans, for the triumph and the wonderful goal with which it was achieved. It was a shame, then, that there were so few fans in the stadium to see it.
There are pros and cons to the idea of staging a one-off final 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 advantages. But the downside was especially apparent this time. Travel across South America is still recovering from the pandemic, pushing up the price of flight 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.
In consequence the famous old Centenario stadium was not even a third full, which for a showpiece occasion is desperately disappointing. Athletico took more fans than Bragantino, but neither have anything like the mass followings of Palmeiras and Flamengo, Brazilian giants who next Saturday will dispute the main event, the final of the Copa Libertadores.
Then the stadium will probably be packed -- but the outrageous price of the experience will mean that those in the Centenario will not be representative of the average supporter. This is a question that requires serious thought. If South America is to proceed with neutral venus finals, then ticket prices should surely be cheaper, and measures should be taken to negotiate less exorbitant prices for flights and hotels.
For the moment, though, Athletico Paranaense have no need to dwell on this -- and not just because they are busy celebrating. They have contrasting immediate priorities -- a two-legged final of the Brazilian Cup, while also seeking to avoid being dragged into the relegation dogfight in the last few weeks of the league season.