Saturday night at the Estadio do Morumbi, Sao Paulo played Atletico Mineiro, second versus fourth in Brazil’s Campeonato. It was the match of the weekend but the stadium, a huge 80,000 capacity bowl that will host the opening game of the 2014 World Cup and is the city’s equivalent of the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, was barely a quarter full.
Atletico Mineiro, from the provincial city of Belo Horizonte, scored in the second minute and held it to leapfrog Sao Paulo. They should qualify for the Copa Libertadores but few believe Palmeiras, the leaders, can be caught. The club has limitations. It is one of Brazil’s oldest and regularly wins the local state championship in Minas Gerais, but has taken the national title only once, in 1971.
Target man: Atletico Mineiro striker Diego Tardelli is on City boss Mark Hughes' radar and could replace unsettled Robinho
Atletico have a star, though, in striker Diego Tardelli. His winning goal against Sao Paulo, a simple prod at the back post, was his 15th of the season and made him the league’s joint top goalscorer alongside Adriano. Tardelli is, as you would expect, lightning fast with great feet and an eye for goal.
Once the star of Brazil’s Under 20 team, he was considered a certainty to progress to the Selecao but lost his way amid failed loan moves to PSV Eindhoven and Real Betis. Tardelli tumbled through the ranks of the major clubs, leaving Sao Paulo for Flamengo and finally Atletico. Now 24, he is said to have matured and has recently won two caps with the national team. There is talk of a move to St Etienne in France but, recently, Manchester City have been linked with him.
City are said to be in for everybody these days, but the association with Tardelli is worth examining. It comes at a time when a more famous Brazilian already at the club - Robinho - is playing up and exploiting a rumour connecting him with Barcelona for all it is worth. Robinho, who has never looked comfortable as part of City’s project, clearly sees a way out and if Mark Hughes, his manager, is sensible, he will, too.
That does not mean, though, that City cannot be home to a Brazilian. They just need to pick the right Brazilian.
‘Never buy a player who is taking a step down to join you,’ said George Graham, the former Arsenal manager. ‘He will act as if he is doing you a favour.’
And there, in a nutshell, is Robinho at Manchester City. From the moment he arrived it was a mismatch. He wanted to leave Real Madrid for Chelsea, a club the size of his ego, and instead he ended up at one that was not even the biggest in Manchester,
let alone England or Europe.
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Factor in the difficulty of adapting to English football for any foreign player and Robinho’s transfer was beset with difficulty from the start.
The Kaka deal would have been similarly
skewed: great for our game, and for the standing of the club, but not an equal partnership. Kaka is bigger than City right now, and he would have known it.
Graham won two titles with players who were given their big break by Arsenal, having arrived from clubs such as Stoke City, Leicester City and Crystal Palace. A manager could not win the league by scouting the lower divisions now, but there are modern equivalents. Atletico Mineiro to Manchester City, Campeonato to Premier League, Brazil to Europe: all are a step up.
Another Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, is now the master at exploiting this. He buys world-class players from slightly inferior leagues and clubs. Think of the current Arsenal team: Andrey Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen, Robin van Persie, Eduardo. All have an outstanding pedigree - Zenit St Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, Ajax, Feyenoord, Dinamo Zagreb - but improved their status by joining Arsenal.
It was the logic Wenger used when signing the last player to graduate from Atletico Mineiro to the Brazilian national team, Gilberto Silva, Brazil’s defensive midfield player in the triumphant 2002 World Cup campaign.
He played every minute of that tournament and the move to Arsenal was his reward.
He became Brazil’s captain and, until losing his place to Mathieu Flamini near the end of his Arsenal career, remained very low maintenance. He was a patron of the charity The Street League, he used a local pub in St Albans; he fitted right in.
Hughes may feel City do not need another striker, even if Robinho leaves in January. If he is interested in Tardelli he will no doubt have seen more than one game, and it may have been a poorer performance than he turned in against Sao Paulo. Yet whether Tardelli is the man is immaterial; he is the sort of man that Manchester City should be targeting, because to come to the club would be better than playing in deserted stadia in an inferior league.
He wouldn’t think the club owed him, unlike certain compatriots.
There is a reason why burglars go about their business at two in the morning. Nobody is up. The world is asleep.
Who are ya? Carl Froch
The English language is full of phrases which suggest that if you want to keep something quiet, you do it in the small hours: ‘under the cover of darkness’, we say, or ‘in the dead of night’.
Sadly, this was also the time that British boxing took to broadcasting its biggest assets to cash in on the American pay-per-view market. Unsurprisingly, the public here lost interest in drinking four pints of coffee to stay awake, and diverted their attention to sports that did not demand a personal commitment to maintain the same hours of a lighthouse keeper.
This has resulted in an exciting fighter like Carl Froch being left without a public profile. Few would recognise him in the street and there was zero mainstream TV interest in the second defence of his WBC super-middleweight title against Andre Dirrell.
The fight took place in Nottingham at 2am on Sunday and Froch won, meaning another opportunity was missed. Boxing is trapped in a vicious circle. Carry on like this and it will die in our sleep.
A power play puts bigot out of bounds
Who says all sportsmen are dumb? Rush Limbaugh, the American right-wing commentator and broadcaster, was a member of a consortium looking to buy the St Louis Rams NFL franchise, but was kicked off the bidding team following objections from black players.
They no doubt remembered Limbaugh’s claim that the media favoured quarter-back Donovan McNabb - now the Philadelphia Eagles’ all-time leader in career wins, pass attempts, pass completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns - just because he was black.
Perhaps they also recalled the time he compared the NFL to a game between gangs of Bloods and Crips but without any weapons (because, obviously, that is all black people can be: gang members or footballers); or when he encouraged a song called Barack The Magic Negro to be sung on his show to the tune of Puff The Magic Dragon. Maybe they even went as far back as the day when, broadcasting under the name of Jeff Christie, he told a black caller that he was having difficulty understanding, to ‘take that bone out of your nose and call me back’.
In a league in which 65 per cent of the players are black, the protests had power. Limbaugh was dumped by SPC Worldwide, who will now pursue a deal alone.
Meanwhile, in part-time moral England, Sven Goran Eriksson says he does not know where the money is coming from at Notts County and thinks it does not matter. Yes it does.
Talk of a takeover at West Ham United by David Gold and David Sullivan is looking wide of the mark, with both men balking at the price and the debt. A likelier long-term destination could be Crystal Palace, where Simon Jordan is anxious to sell. Ron Noades, the former Palace chairman, might get involved, too.
AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT...
Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has it right about the problems created by over-familiar referees. This is a particular issue for smaller clubs in the Premier League, or lower division clubs in cup matches, when the players from one team are addressed by first names and the others by the number on their backs.
The right call
The lineswoman who gave the famous foot fault against Serena Williams at the US Open will not be officiating at the final event of the season in Doha next week. Mystery surrounds her absence, with some saying she has family commitments, others that she has been ordered not to attend to avoid a media circus.
Might there be a third explanation, the most sensible of all, in that having got an unnecessarily contentious call completely wrong at a vital stage of a semi-final tie, she has rather forfeited her right to rule on major tennis tournaments in the short term, regardless of Williams’ improperly hostile reaction?
Collins a costly cost
Every relegation season has a a tipping point, a result, an injury, a decision that turns a drama into a crisis.
Often it is a nuance, a seemingly inconsequential event unnoticed beyond the boundaries of the club. For West Ham, it is the sale of James Collins (right) to Aston Villa for £5m, a relatively low-key deadline-day transaction.
Now flourishing - he scored the winner against Chelsea on Saturday - Collins played three games for West Ham this season, all in the League, and two were clean sheets.
West Ham let in two goals and took four points from nine: a win, a defeat and a draw. Then Collins departed, since when West Ham have played six, lost five, drawn one (against 10-man Fulham at home) and conceded 14 goals. They have not kept a clean sheet and have let in two or more goals in their last five consecutive matches.
The form of Matthew Upson, the England defender, has collapsed under the strain of working with James Tomkins, an excellent prospect but - at 20 - inexperienced.
West Ham may soon have new buyers, but the damage has already been done. They cannot correct the sale of Collins until January at the earliest and, by then, it may be too late.
Diego's the write stuff
Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, said Bill Clinton. In other words, we can look after ourselves, thanks.
FIFA are now investigating the invitation from Diego Maradona, the Argentina manager, for the press to perform several obscene acts after the victory over Uruguay, but this is unnecessary.
Maradona (right) turned up to speak, so fulfilled his obligation, and what he then said was up to him. Ask any journalist in that room and he would rather been told to suck it by a vengeful Maradona than have the manager’s words sanitised or, worse, no interaction at all.
Sir Alex Ferguson does not give a general press conference after Manchester United matches these days, which is a great loss.
We would gladly put up with the odd outburst to query, for instance, his comments about Alan Wiley. Indeed, one of the reasons Ferguson goes unchallenged so often is because he speaks only to Manchester United’s tame television station.
Maradona can rant, but journalists get the last word, and have the power to make suckers out of anyone. It is a fair fight.