Sunday’s climax to the Argentine championship was a boon for cardiologists, with the destiny of the title in doubt until the last kick of the season. By contrast, the Brazilian league looks extremely sedate.
With four rounds still to play, only the mathematics of a barely credible collapse can take the title away from Palmeiras, the traditional team of Sao Paulo’s Italian community. Palmeiras lead Internacional of Porto Alegre by ten points. Twelve points are left on the table. One win will be enough to guarantee the title. Two draws would probably be sufficient even if Internacional were to win all their remaining games.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (US)
This coming title looks like yet another triumph for Abel Ferreira, the club’s youthful Portuguese coach. His two years in charge have been a victory procession. After a solid but unspectacular career as a right-back, Ferreira coached Braga in Portugal and was in charge of PAOK in Greece when Palmeiras came looking. Little known and not particularly glamorous, he was an unexpected choice, but an inspired one.
There is something of the young Jose Mourinho about Ferreira. He is ferociously intense, and often gets himself in trouble for his behavior on the touchlines. And the quality and detail of his work has won over the players.
« He always has a plan, » is a comment frequently heard from the Palmeiras players, who have learned that following his instructions is likely to increase their chances of success. Ferreira led Palmeiras to consecutive Copa Libertadores titles and came close to a third before going down narrowly in the semifinals.
Brazil’s league title might not be quite as glamorous as the Libertadores. But in a way its value is even greater. It is the consequence of extraordinary consistency over a prolonged period of time in a competition full of logistical difficulties. It also answers a question that was hanging over the coach. Was he more of a cup specialist, a figure too risk averse to accumulate enough league points to be champion? It was a fair question. Caution is certainly part of the Ferreira mindset. He tends to approach the big games with a ‘clean sheets first’ mentality. And some will also say that this title has been handed to him on a plate.
Brazil’s league went into this season with the idea of a ‘Big Three.’ But one of them, last year’s double winners Atletico Mineiro, fell back alarmingly. The other, Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro, got off to an awful start in a disastrous experiment with Paulo Sousa, another Portuguese coach, and then gave priority to cup competitions, often fielding reserve sides for the league games.
But none of this should take away from the excellence of the Palmeiras campaign. They were beaten in the opening match of the season. The subsequent 33 games have brought just one defeat — a splendid display of consistency from a squad without as many eye catching names as Flamengo and Atletico. Ferreira is a thoroughly efficient collective organizer of a side, and — a side of his work which perhaps does not receive enough recognition – an impressive developer of individual players. The transformation of Rony from misfit winger to dangerous central striker has been a wonder to behold.
And now Ferreira has another talent to develop, this one of quite astonishing potential. Tuesday’s win against Athletico Paranaense will go down in history as the match in which 16-year-old Endrick scored his first senior goal. Endrick became known all over the world at the start of last year, when he helped Palmeiras win the Sao Paulo Junior Cup, a highly prestigious tournament for players of 20 and under. He was 15 at the time, a full five years younger than many of his opponents, and he ran rings round them.
The breadth of his talent is off the scale. The stand out goal in that tournament last year was an overhead kick from outside the penalty area. But he showed it all — talent, audacity, coolness under pressure and an amazingly mature awareness of space. He is a stocky little left-footed striker. But his first senior goal came from a header, timing his run to perfection and attacking the space between the opposing center backs.
Endrick is a child of the internet age. He was born in Brasilia, but moved to Sao Paulo at the age of 11 when Palmeiras saw a collection of internet clips of him in action and helped the family settle by fixing up his dad with a job as a cleaner. He was on the front page of the Spanish sport dailies at the age of 15. He appears to have dealt with all the attention extremely well.
He has not taken the edge off his game, and the fans have been keen to see him promoted to the first team. Some are criticizing Ferreira for not throwing him in earlier. He could have tipped the balance, they argue, in the semifinals of the Libertadores — or even earlier, in February’s final of the Club World Cup against Chelsea.
Ferreira was having none of it. Back then he said that it would be better for the youngster to go to Disneyland. He has opted to bring Endrick along more slowly, and he is probably right to do so. But the frustration of the fans is understandable. They know that they will not have long to enjoy him. It is almost certain that he will move to Europe when he turns 18 in July 2024, with all the continent’s big clubs queuing up to sign him. It is even possible that Endrick and Ferreira might team up again in the future — because if Endrick is bound for Europe, then his current coach should certainly have plenty of enticing opportunities back in his home continent.