This is the first of a two-part blog on southern Brazilian club Internacional and their disastrous 2016. Part one tells the story of what went wrong on the pitch, while part two delves into the ugliness behind the scenes which has transformed Inter into one of the country’s most loathed football clubs.
IT STARTED WITH A MISS
It is the 21st of August. In front of their own fans, Internacional are trailing by one goal to nil against São Paulo. The Beira-Rio stadium begins to jeer, the half-empty stands drowning out the home side’s comeback attempts with boos and whistles. Inter have gone 12 league matches without a win. Today’s morning papers warned that no Brazilian club has ever endured 13 consecutive games without winning and subsequently avoided relegation. There are plenty of matches left to play, but desperation is setting in.
Internacional go for broke. An effort from Eduardo Sasha is blocked by a superb save from São Paulo goalkeeper Denis. On the rebound, Luis Seijas’s shot is cleared off the line. Central defender Paulão has a go, once again it is saved by Denis. Muscular forward Ariel Nahuelpán has two chances of his own, neither find the net. The home side are throwing everything they have at their opponents but the ball will not cross the line.
Five minutes from the end, a header from Inter defender Ernando takes a fortuitous deflection and bounces unceremoniously into the corner of the São Paulo net. It is a lifeline, but Internacional must continue to attack. A draw is useless for the home side, they need to win all three points.
In the last minute of the match, midfielder Eduardo Henrique is played through on goal. He scrambles towards the 18-yard box where he is clumsily fouled by São Paulo’s Júlio Buffarini. Penalty to Internacional.
It is all set up to be the turning point of Inter’s season. New coach Celso Roth was brought in the previous week, tasked with putting an end to the bloodletting and steering the club to safety. His first match was an away loss to Chapecoense – always a difficult trip – but a last-minute victory against São Paulo, in front of their own fans, could be the traction needed to get unstuck from the mud of the relegation zone. All they need to do is score this penalty.
Valdivia – real name Wanderson Ferreira de Oliveira, Inter’s curly-haired 21-year-old midfielder who bears a lazy resemblance to Chilean playmaker Jorge Valdívia – takes responsibility and grabs the ball, placing it on the penalty spot. He steps up, striking it cleanly with the side of his right boot…
But it goes wide.
The stunned silence in the Beira-Rio quickly turns to fury. The referee blows the final whistle and Internacional have allowed two crucial points to evade them. That makes it 13 matches without winning, there’s no coming back from that.
THE LONG WAY DOWN
At the beginning of the 2016 season, the odds on Internacional going down to the second division were longer than the Uruguay River. Not only are they among the country’s biggest clubs and one of a select group who had never been relegated (Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Santos and São Paulo are the others), Inter came into the league having won the Rio Grande do Sul state championship in a campaign which saw them concede only 10 goals in 18 matches. Pundits suggesting they would be in for a tough year were few and far between.
Sure enough, Inter got off to a strong start. Of their first eight matches in the league, they won six of them – including five clean sheets – and sat atop the table in mid-June. However, their defensive style of play, enforced by their unfortunately-named coach Argel Fucks (pictured below), proved itself unsustainable.
While Argel’s “soldiers” (as he calls his players) were well-organised and disciplined in defence, they were horribly fragmented and predictable in attack. Their modus operandi involved lumping the ball to their talented forwards Eduardo Sasha and Vitinho, crossing their fingers and hoping the pair could come up with something special.
When their luck in front of goal ran out, Internacional began to lose. After four straight defeats, including a home loss to Grêmio in which they were outclassed and out-thought by their closest rivals, Fucks was shown the door.
With a view to increasing squad morale and whipping up excitement among the fans, Inter’s jowly president Vitório Piffero appointed club legend Paulo Roberto Falcão as the new head coach.
Falcão is widely regarded as the greatest player in Internacional’s history. During the 1970s, he led the club to three Brazilian championship titles, a period that saw Inter transition from regional force to national powerhouse. However, since making the move into management, he has yet to prove himself.
What’s more, in terms of style and methodology, Falcão (pictured below) is the antithesis of Argel Fucks. While Argel treats his squad like a platoon, Falcão is hands-off and observant, focusing more on technique as opposed to physicality and tenacity.
Unsurprisingly, the contrast in styles meant that early results were poor, seeing Internacional stretch their winless run to 11 matches. After less than a month, Piffero thought it prudent to sack Falcão.
Halfway through the league campaign and with the team in the bottom half of the table, Inter hired their third coach of the season: Celso Roth.
As it was with Falcão, the choice of Roth was more emotional than practical. Celso Roth was the coach in charge when Internacional won the Copa Libertadores of 2010, the club’s (and Roth’s) last major trophy.
Based on recent results, Celso Roth (pictured below) should never have been given the reins at Internacional. He was sacked from his last two jobs – at Coritiba and Vasco – having left both clubs in the relegation zone. Piffero had no reason to expect anything different from Roth, a coach who claims “football hasn’t changed since 2006”.
Once again, with the squad forced into another one-eighty in terms of style and method, the football was poor. Valdivia’s last-minute penalty miss against São Paulo was one of many such disappointments. A win against title contenders Santos was a false dawn, being followed by four straight defeats.
Desperate and with three games left to play, President Piffero did what he does best. He sacked his coach. Internacional’s fourth coach of the league season was 44-year-old Lisca, who had never managed a club in the first division.
Needing seven points to avoid the drop, Internacional mustered only four. They reserved their most listless and apathetic performance for the league’s final round, a 1-1 draw with an indifferent Fluminense side which mathematically guaranteed Inter’s relegation.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
Clearly, one must point the finger at the Internacional board, specifically club president Piffero (pictured below). Since taking over, he has transformed Inter into a managerial meat-grinder, going through coaches quicker than Spinal Tap went through drummers.
Putting Piffero’s poor recruitment choices aside, the simple fact Internacional had four different coaches this season was enough to cast the squad into a perpetual state of confusion. Constant changes to training methods and tactical orientation took their toll on the group and only served to push them closer and closer to the bottom of the table.
Argel Fucks’s ultra-conservative approach to the game, while hardly revolutionary or attractive, would likely have seen Internacional trudge along to a mid-table finish. He made things uncomplicated for a young and relatively inexperienced squad, a group of players who looked lost under Falcão, Roth and Lisca.
That said, Internacional’s players also deserve their share of the blame. Of the big sides who have been relegated in Brazil over the past 15 years, Inter have the most talented squad by some distance.
Rodrigo Dourado, William and Valdivia are among Brazil’s most promising players at under 23 level. All three would walk into almost any starting 11 in the country, perhaps even that of national champions Palmeiras.
Twenty-three-year-old forward Vitinho, on loan from CSKA Moscow, is, on his day, unplayable at Brazilian domestic level. Left-footed Uruguayan forward Nico López cost Internacional $11 million in July after he was one of the standout players in this year’s Copa Libertadores. He has scored only once in 14 appearances for Inter.
Beyond the young talents, they also have some experience with Alex, Ceará, Paulão, Anderson and Seijas. The coaching changes certainly had a negative effect on the players, but even poorly managed, a squad with this much talent should never be relegated.
Goalkeeper Danilo Fernandes, Internacional’s undisputed player of the season who stepped in when Brazil ‘keeper Alisson signed for Roma in May, was particularly critical of his own team’s performances. After losing away to Corinthians in Lisca’s debut, Danilo complained that Internacional were “playing like a youth team”, railing against his team-mates’ lack of competitiveness. “We’re reaping what we’ve sown”, he lamented.
How many of these talented players will stick around to play in the second division next year remains to be seen.
Continue reading Part Two: Inter Shrugged