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Tim Vickery column

By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

Three years ago, after they were beaten by Sao Paulo in the final of the World Club Championship, Liverpool's fan sites were visited by plenty of gloating Brazilians.

Sao Paulo celebrate
Sao Paulo celebrate their win over Liverpool three years ago

To the puzzlement of the normal users, one phrase kept popping up again and again - 'You don't have to be a giant to play football.'

It was a translation of what legendary match commentator Galvao Bueno had said on Brazil's TV Globo. The starting point for his phrase was little midfielder Mineiro - a recent Chelsea signing - who slipped behind the Liverpool defence to score the only goal of the game. But it also went further.

Tostao, a legend of the 1970s World Cup-winning team and these days Brazil's best football writer, once told me that football "has an enormous value for the Brazilian people. They like it in itself, and also, in competition, it turns into something of the nation, something heroic. The people feel avenged - you might be the First World at other things, but we're the best at this."

Galvao Bueno is a genius at articulating this type of nationalist sentiment - as shown by the fact that his phrase was picked up by so many Sao Paulo fans. "You don't have to be a giant to play football" - he said it over and again during the match - was a taunt aimed at Liverpool.

You might have the money and all the glamour of winning Europe's Champions League, he was saying, but our teams can still bring you down with a bump.

In purely physical terms, the phrase might refer to Mineiro. But, then and now, it hardly makes any sense when used about the Sao Paulo team as a whole.

Mineiro signs for Chelsea
Chelsea snapped up Mineiro's talents in September

Just as in 2005, the 2008 team is characterised by big, strong players - three giant centre-backs and plenty of aerial power in both penalty areas. It is part of a formula that is proving consistently successful.

On Sunday, Sao Paulo moved very close to winning their third consecutive Brazilian title. They won 2-1 away to Vasco da Gama. It was a huge result; Vasco, in relegation trouble, had filled their tight stadium, a real cauldron in such conditions.

The Sao Paulo bus was stoned on the way to the ground. The team held its nerve, and the win looked even more important when rivals Gremio were defeated. Two points from the remaining two games will be enough to ensure that Sao Paulo become the first club to reach the total of six championship wins.

Their style of play would surprise those who think that Brazilian football is all about non-stop attack. As Tostao wrote recently, the defining characteristics of Sao Paulo are "marking, physical strength, power in the air and making few mistakes".

In part, the Sao Paulo ethos is a response to the fact that these days the top Brazilian players are all based abroad.

Some of the players are on the way up. Talented midfielder Hernanes, 23, is clearly Europe-bound. Classy defender Miranda, 24, had a spell in France and will surely cross the Atlantic again before long. And midfielder Jean, 22, has been the find of this campaign.

In general, though, this is an experienced side - average age over 27 - made up of good players who didn't quite make the grade in Europe and others who may never receive the call. In a context without stars, the collective is king.

There is also the fact that concepts such as discipline and long term planning are part of the club's DNA. Sao Paulo are known for the excellence of their structure - European-based Brazilians who suffer an injury often choose to use the club's medical facilities.

Brazil's Hernanes
Hernanes also impressed for Brazil at this year's Olympics in Beijing

In the 1950s and 60s Sao Paulo even had the foresight to sacrifice fortunes on the field and instead plough resources into building their Morumbi stadium, one of the largest privately owned grounds in the world.

Coach Muricy Ramalho's reaction to the win over Vasco was entirely in keeping with the Sao Paulo way of doing things. There will be no crowing, and no chicken counting. Players will not be making TV appearances this week.

It is, said Ramalho, "a decisive moment," and concentration needs to be maintained.

If the title is not yet guaranteed, Sao Paulo have made sure of a place in next year's Copa Libertadores. If they win that and then take on the holders of Europe's Champions league then - whatever Galvao Bueno might say - it will be a meeting of two giants.

You can put your questions to Tim Vickery every week on the World Football Phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live's Up All Night programme from 0230 to 0400 GMT every Saturday. You can also download last week's World Football Phone-in Podcast.


How far would Argentina have gone if Diego Maradona had not been suspended for failing a drug test at USA 94 in your opinion? Patrick Clancy

Fascinating one. Obviously it's all speculation, no right or wrong answer, but I'll go as follows; I think they might have beaten Romania in that classic second round tie which they lost 3-2 (to my mind there hasn't been a better World Cup game since).

Having Maradona to pass to would have improved the performance of Redondo - they had a nice little circuit going and together they could have swayed the game in Argentina's favour. Then Sweden in the quarters - another win I think.

I always hated the display that Sweden put up in the semi against Brazil - looked like they were happy to lose by a small margin, and perhaps they would have been similarly intimidated by Argentina - especially as the passing of Maradona and co would have had them running around in the heat.

So then it's Brazil in the semis - and I think Brazil would have won it. It would have been a great game, but I think the Brazil side had a better balance between attack and defence, better centre backs, better keeper. Romario and Bebeto might have enjoyed themselves against a team that would offer them some space. But that's just my view.

If you had to pick out three players in South America who could be big in Europe who would you pick? And why? David Kenney

I nearly went for River Plate midfielder Matias Abelairas - I'm a sucker for a left foot - but in the end I went for three from Brazil. There is plenty of talent elsewhere in South America, but I think Brazilian football has more strength in depth than the other countries in the continent, and these are three players - a defender, midfielder and striker - who could do a job in Europe now.

For all Sao Paulo's efficiency, they are a team that doesn't play much possession football

Tim Vickery

Thiago Silva of Fluminense is a centre back who will almost certainly be moving to Europe (maybe Inter Milan) in January. He has immense technical quality and is quick but will have to learn to position himself a bit higher up the field.

Hernanes, mentioned in the article, is mobile, marks and strikes the ball extremely well with both feet. I think he's reached the stage where he needs a move. For all Sao Paulo's efficiency, they are a team that doesn't play much possession football. A while back he was linked with Barcelona.

If there is interest, he should be prepared to swim there. I can't think of anyone more qualified that Guardiola to develop his game.

And Nilmar of Internacional, a striker who had a brief spell with Lyon, was lured back to Brazil by Corinthians, had an awful run with injuries but is now on fire again. He has always been compared to Bebeto.

He's so sharp, and I'm sure he'll be back in Europe and scoring goals there before long.

Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at

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see also
Tim Vickery column
04 Aug 08 |  Football
Ronaldinho leads Brazil to bronze
22 Aug 08 |  Football
Tim Vickery column
28 Jul 08 |  Football
Tim Vickery column
21 Jul 08 |  Football
Sao Paulo 1-0 Liverpool
18 Dec 05 |  Football

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