Why São Paulo is the envy of Brazil
São Paulo won its third straight Brazilian Championship and record sixth overall
The club has lasting model that stresses smart spending without big-name sprees
Current team features up-and-coming players and European reclaimation projects
At the beginning of November, I was on a roundtable debate on Brazilian TV when I was asked to pick out the most interesting result of the weekend's action.
My answer: São Paulo's 3-0 win over Internacional. São Paulo is always strong at home, and Inter, with more than an eye on the Copa Sudamericana, had fielded an under-strength side. The result was entirely expected and predictable. And that's what made it so interesting.
The other teams in contention for the 2008 Brazilian title didn't have such a smooth ride. True, Palmeiras won 2-1 at Santos, but São Paulo's crosstown rivals were already on the slide, and managed just one more win in their remaining five games. Who would have expected that Grêmio would be held at home by relegation-bound Figueirense? Or that Flamengo would draw in front of its own fans against Portuguesa, another team destined for the second division? Or that Cruzeiro would lose 3-0 at Goiás?
These were all shocking results. And while everyone else was being buffeted around in a storm, São Paulo was making progress, which came to a conclusion on Sunday when it became the first club to win six Brazilian titles and three in a row.
This latest one was won in the home stretch. São Paulo went unbeaten in its final 18 games, and registered 10 wins in its last 12. At one point, its away record looked like the biggest impediment to yet another title, but it finished the championship with the best on the road record.
São Paulo couldn't boast the best attack (Flamengo scored one more goal) or the best defense (Grêmio conceded one fewer). It wasn't the most brilliant of triumphs (coach Muricy Ramalho is quick to confess that his team has limitations).
Opponents are complaining about the odd slice of fortune -- a goal they scored that should have been disallowed here, a goal against them that should not have been disallowed there. But over the course of a 38-game season, coming out on top takes a lot more than a piece or two of luck along the way -- especially when that club has now won the last three championships. Rivals may groan, but to the neutral judge, such prolonged success sure looks like a sign of competence.
There is undeniably something different about São Paulo, founded in 1935 and traditionally associated with the giant city's elite. It is a club whose directors have always understood that they have two main objectives. They are, in no particular order, to win titles and to preserve and increase the assets of the club. One is as important as the other. So money coming in should be spent chasing titles, but the club shouldn't overreach itself hunting cups with money it doesn't have.
In the early years, São Paulo established itself by signing top-class players nearing the end of their careers: the likes of Leônidas, Zizinho and Gérson. The club's long-term strategy was based around building its own stadium, the giant Morumbí, inaugurated in 1960 and not completed for another decade. During this time, São Paulo was happy to sacrifice short-term results while it plowed resources into constructing one of the world's largest privately owned soccer stadiums.
To put this in context, the club's biggest crosstown rivals, Corinthians, are 25 years older and have a bigger supporter base, but despite constant promises, they're still using the municipally owned Pacaembu stadium and are forced to hire out the Morumbí for special occasions.
In the early 1990s, it was São Paulo -- with coach Telê Santana's stylish side -- that was responsible for raising the profile and the prestige in Brazil of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. The club has a special relationship with this competition, which it has won three times. Next year, it will be taking part for the sixth consecutive year.
The Libertadores brings in much-needed revenue from TV, and also from the box office -- the fans flock to these games and don't mind paying a little bit more than for normal domestic matches. Because the stadium belongs to the club, all of that money swells the coffers -- and that means São Paulo can sustain a structure which would surprise many in Europe.
The club's medical facilities are a major source of pride. European-based Brazilians who suffer an injury often choose to carry out their recuperation at São Paulo. And a lot of money -- some $2.5 millions annually -- is spent on youth development. This, though, is an investment. The club aims to make around $9 million in selling the products of their work.
A glance at the current São Paulo team shows how the system works. The 2008 championship-winning side contains just three players who came through the club's youth ranks: captain and talisman, the extraordinary goal-scoring goalkeeper Rogério Ceni, who has been with the club since 1991 and will be 36 next month; hugely talented international midfielder Hernanes, who will inevitably be on his way to Europe sometime next year; and central midfielder Jean, the find of the campaign.
Hernanes, at 23, and Jean, at 22, are the youngest members of the team. This is an experienced side, with an average age older than 27. São Paulo produces the likes of center back Breno, sell them to Europe (Bayern Munich in his case) and use the money to assemble a squad of good, workmanlike players.
Many of them have come back from Europe, some after not quite living up to expectations. The current team has center backs Anderson, Rodrigo and Miranda (the latter surely bound for another crack at Europe), midfielders Hugo and Jorge Wagner, as well as substitutes Júnior, Richarlyson and André Lima -- all of whom have had spells on the other side of the Atlantic. They're not stars, but they're good players who, given the right collective context, can form a highly competitive team.
It's a pragmatic model from a pragmatic club, and, unsurprisingly, it produces pragmatic football. As 1970 World Cup great Tostão wrote recently, the defining characteristics of São Paulo are "marking, physical strength, power in the air and making few mistakes." But it's a model which has proved sufficiently effective to establish São Paulo as Brazil's undoubted top team.