In the tradition of football in Brazil there are 12 giant clubs: four each from the main centres of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and two each from Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre.
But times are changing. Gaps are opening up, new forces are breaking through. Three of the 12 are now considered super-clubs: likely league champions Atletico Mineiro plus Flamengo and Palmeiras, who a week on Saturday will contest the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. Others in the traditional ‘big 12’ have stumbled on hard times. Cruzeiro and Vasco da Gama are condemned to another year in the second tier. Their space is being squeezed by clubs on the rise who are busy writing the most exciting chapters in their histories.
Two such clubs will dispute the Copa Sudamericana, CONMEBOL’s equivalent of UEFA’s Europa League, in Uruguay on Saturday. Athletico Paranaense and Red Bull Bragantino will face each other in Montevideo’s Centenario stadium.
It may be a stretch to describe Athletico as an emerging club — they have been emerging for more than 20 years. Some would see them as the 13th giant. They won the league title in 2001, made it through to the final of the Libertadores four years later and won the Sudamericana in 2018. From Curitiba in the south, an important component of the club’s self-image is the fact of not being part of the group of big city fat cats.
But Red Bull Bragantino are certainly an emerging force. From Braganca Paulista, a town in upstate Sao Paulo some 65 miles out of the metropolis, they were founded in the 1920s, like Athletico. Bragantino enjoyed some glory days around 30 years ago, finishing as league runner-up in 1991, but had sunk back into regional anonymity by 2019, when the drinks manufacturer took them over.
There are similarities between the two clubs. Both are unconventional. Athletico, for example, refuse to take part in their local state championship with their first team. These competitions, staged in the first few months of the year, are a controversial aspect of the Brazilian calendar, imposing an excess of meaningless games on the big teams. Athletico dismiss the whole thing as a con, use it to develop younger players and save gas in the tank for the more serious races. In addition to the Sudamericana, they are also preparing for the final of the highly prized domestic cup, a title they won two years ago. Bragantino, meanwhile, are attempting to bring a more rational and stable business model to the turbulent world of Brazilian football. It is significant that Mauricio Barbieri, their young coach, has been in charge for over a year — longer than any other boss in the Brazilian first division.
Another point in common is the aim, in addition to winning titles, of making money from the transfers of players. In the course of their Sudamericana campaign, both have had to part company with a star. Athletico transferred winger Vitinho to Dynamo Kiev, while Bragantino lost playmaker (and Olympic gold medalist) Claudinho to Zenit St Petersburg.
But in terms of playing style, there is a significant difference. Athletico coach Alberto Valentim, only recently arrived, has given continuity to a well-established model of play that is typical of much of Brazilian football in recent decades — deep defence and counter-attack. The base formation is 3-4-3, with Nikao and the Uruguayan David Terans as quick, clever wingers enjoying plenty of space to link up with centre-forward Renato Kayser. The key defensive figure is captain Thiago Heleno, who clinched the 2018 title in the penalty shootout against Junior Barranquilla of Colombia with a gloriously emphatic spot kick. He sits in the middle of the back three, operating in reduced space.
Thiago Heleno would not fit in to the Bragantino side. Their model of play is more modern. Centre-backs Leo Ortiz and Fabricio Bruno are rare in the domestic Brazilian game for their capacity to play in a high line. So good has the form of Leo Ortiz been that he was recently called up to the Brazil squad for World Cup qualifiers. Bragantino, then, aim to keep their compact block further down the field, giving priority to passing combinations which showcase the promise of midfielder Bruno Praxedes. The main attacking threat is highly talented winger Artur, who has six goals in the campaign and has been linked with interest from Barcelona. On the left flank the young Argentine Tomas Cuello is developing nicely, helping keep centre-forward Ytalo well supplied.
They are probably narrow favourites. Thirteenth in the league table, Athletico are not totally clear of the threat of relegation. Bragantino are fourth, and even if they lose on Saturday they would seem to be guaranteed a place in next year’s Libertadores. For a club that were in the second division when the Red Bull partnership began less than three years ago, this is rapid progress. Can they emerge all the way to the Sudamericana title? Or will the day be carried by the extra experience of Athletico, the oldest ’emergent?’