In the last round of the Brazilian league, with their place in the top flight on the line, Gremio tore into recently crowned champions Atletico Mineiro and were three goals up inside the 20 minute mark.
Gremio had started the evening with their probability of relegation calculated at 96%. If the great escape was to happen, they had to win and the two teams above them in the table had to lose. For one brief moment, it seemed possible. One of Gremio's rivals, Bahia, took the lead against Fortaleza but went 2-1 down with 15 minutes to go. All that was needed was for Corinthians to score against Juventude, where the game was 0-0.
In Gremio's stadium the fans were paying more attention to the action elsewhere than what was happening in front of them. But no sooner had they stopped celebrating the second Fortaleza goal, then Juventude were awarded a penalty. When that was converted all hopes were extinguished. In the end Gremio beat Atletico Mineiro 4-3, but it was to no avail. The club that were champions of South America four years ago will spend 2022 in Brazil's second division.
They are in good company. Cruzeiro and Vasco da Gama, two traditional heavyweights, will be spending their third season in the second division, but there is a difference. Cruzeiro and Vasco have suffered a financial and administrative explosion; Gremio, in contrast, are a well-structured outfit with, on paper at least, a strong squad who are being paid on time. At the start of the campaign, no one saw this coming. So why has it happened?
Part of the explanation lies in the wonderful unpredictability of football, but there are deeper factors which have conspired to drag Gremio down.
A good starting place is a brief examination of recent trends in the Brazilian game. The traditional view is that the country has 12 giant clubs -- four each from Rio and Sao Paulo, and two each from Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, Gremio's city -- but gaps have opened up and new forces have emerged. Some of the giants -- such as Cruzeiro and Vasco -- have failed to keep up. At the other end of the scale, three have expanded their resources and broken away: Flamengo, Palmeiras and now Atletico Mineiro are monopolising the major titles. This has had a profound effect on the approach of some of the other clubs.
It seems clear that in recent years Gremio have decided that they have little chance of winning the league. The calendar is too demanding for them to do battle with the big three. Their priority, then, has been the cup competitions, South America's Libertadores and the highly prestigious domestic cup. Gremio have been producing plenty of promising youngsters, and have used the league to give them experience. Their objective in the league was limited to ensuring they finished high enough to qualify for the following year's Libertadores - not an over-demanding target since Brazil has eight slots available.
This year, the problems of this model have been laid bare. A team with a similar model are Athletico Paranaense, winners of last month's Copa Sudamericana (the Europa League equivalent) and about to take on Atletico Mineiro in the domestic cup final. Until last week they were flirting with relegation, paying the price for fielding weakened sides in some of their league games. In the case of Gremio, there was always the feeling that at some stage they would be able to turn on the tap and power themselves up the table. It never happened. Their year was marked by a bizarre mix of complacency and panic.
The team has been on a downward slope, emphasised by their results in the Copa Libertadores. In 2017 they were worthy winners; the following year they were unlucky not to make the final; they reached the semifinals again in 2019, where they were thrashed by Flamengo; and in 2020 they were bundled out of the quarterfinals by Santos. This year they had to go through the qualifying rounds, where they were beaten easily by Ecuador's Independiente del Valle, marking the end of the long reign of coach Renato Portaluppi in April.
How to move forward without Renato, a club icon as player and coach? How to renew? The centre-back partnership of Pedro Geromel and the Argentine Walter Kannemann had probably been together too long. But rebuilding is a tough task. New coach Tiago Nunes tried to work within the identity established by Renato -- of Gremio as a patient, possession based side - yet when results proved disappointing, the panic button was pressed and he was let go in July.
The call came for the returning hero, 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who made his name with the club in the mid-1990s. The Scolari style of deep defence and counter attack was a radical break, but he was another failure and left in October. The third coach of the campaign, Vagner Mancini, took over for the home straight with the club deep in trouble.
By this time the players were clearly feeling the pressure that can afflict big teams when they get themselves in relegation danger. Legs felt as if they were running through treacle; minds were frazzled by tension. The simple tasks became difficult. At home to Palmeiras, Gremio took the lead but suffered a mental collapse when they conceded the equaliser. On the final whistle of yet another defeat the fans invaded the pitch and staged a riot -- and the pressure cranked up a few notches higher.
The big mid-season signing was former international winger Douglas Costa, returning to Gremio after 11 years in Europe playing for Shakhtar, Bayern Munich and Juventus. The 31-year-old struggled for fitness and did not find top form until the closing weeks, while his relationship with the fans was strained when he picked up a silly yellow card for taking too long to leave the field when he was substituted with the points already in the bag against Sao Paulo. It meant he was suspended for the penultimate game against Corinthians, where Gremio were held 1-1.
In the end, even beating champions Atletico Mineiro was not enough to save Gremio from the second division. The slide had taken them too far down. It was on Dec. 16, 2017 that Gremio took on Real Madrid in the final of the Club World Cup, finding some dignity in a 1-0 defeat. But four years later, Gremio will be scanning the map of Brazil and preparing to face less glamorous opponents.