Flamengo lifted by unlikely heroes

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Just a few months after deep personal problems forced him to quit Italian soccer -- and hint at giving up the game altogether -- Adriano was the star man as Rio de Janeiro powerhouse Flamengo won the Brazilian Championship for the sixth time on Sunday.

At times, the hulking striker looked like an adult who had wandered on to take part in a kids' game. A decent cross from the byline always gave him a chance to score with a header, and his left foot is a weapon capable of both astonishing strength and surprising subtlety. He finished the tournament tied for the scoring title. But like any striker, he needs a supply line.

Adriano's debut match in the tournament at the end of May drew a crowd of more than 68,000 to Rio's giant Maracanã stadium -- an increase of 50,000 from Flamengo's previous home game. "The emperor has returned," they chanted, celebrating the comeback of a local boy who came up through the club's ranks before leaving to make his name in Italy in 2001.

What no one seemed to remember -- or perhaps they conveniently forgot -- was that in Adriano's first spell with Flamengo, many of the supporters hated him. "Put him up for sale" was the chant aimed in his direction almost a decade ago.

To the impartial eye, it was clear even then that the teenage Adriano was a player of enormous potential. Émerson Leão, national-team coach at the time, certainly thought so. He handed the 17-year-old a senior international debut in a World Cup qualifier against Colombia in November 2000. A few months later in Ecuador, for the South American Under-20 Championships, the young striker was already looking like a fearsome prospect. But in the red-and-black shirt of Flamengo, he was hardly ever given a decent cross to attack.

This year, though, he has been able to feast on the excellent service from the right flank of fullback Leonardo Moura. And the '09 model Adriano is a much more complete player than the teenage prodigy, far more proficient at combining with his teammates on the ground through the middle of the field. And here, on his return to Rio, Adriano was lucky enough to link up with the most unlikely hero of the '09 Brazilian Championship: a 37-year-old from Serbia named Dejan Petkovic.

That final game on Sunday -- in which Flamengo had to beat Grêmio to clinch the title -- wasn't going Petkovic's way. He was struggling in the heat, nothing was coming off for him and, with 20 minutes to go and the score tied 1-1, he was about to be replaced. The substitute was on the sidelines, the number board had been lifted and at the next break in play, Petkovic would leave the field.

But then Flamengo won a corner, and taking them is a Petkovic specialty. He's very capable of scoring directly off a corner kick. So he stayed on, curled the ball in from the left, and center back Ronaldo Angelim glanced home the goal that won the title. Triumph snatched from the jaws of disappointment -- a fitting way for Petkovic to end his season.

The veteran playmaker was once on the books of Real Madrid, though he was denied an opportunity and eventually loaned out to Sevilla and Racing Santander. He also played in Italy for lower-division Venezia. But he wasn't able to make his mark on top-level European football, and has spent most of the last decade bouncing around Brazil.

Petkovic has played for seven different Brazilian clubs, and created a strong association with Flamengo at the turn of the decade. A year ago, though, after leaving Atlético Mineiro, his career seemed all but over. Indeed, when Flamengo brought him back in the middle of this year, he wasn't expected to make much of a contribution. Rather, his playing contract was seen as part of deal in which the small fortune Flamengo still owed him from his previous spell would be renegotiated.

Instead, off the bench at first, as he gradually got himself into shape, Petkovic became the most influential player in the entire championship. He and Adriano had played together back in '00. Now, they struck up an instant rapport of complementary talents. Operating from the left of midfield, rotating positions intelligently with support striker Zé Roberto, Petkovic started carving defenses open on a weekly basis, with Adriano frequently applying the finishing touch. Flamengo, buried in 14th place after 21 of the 38 rounds, stormed through its final 17 games, winning 12 and losing only once to end up atop the heap.

Clearly, in order for this to happen, there was collaboration from the teams above. Towards the end of the championship, first place was like a hot potato, constantly changing hands as the top teams were unable to withstand the pressure. Flamengo's winning total of 67 points was by far the lowest (including in percentage terms because there were more games in the first three years) since the current league format was introduced in '03.

It would be nice to see this as evidence of the strength of the Brazilian Série A. In fact, in individual terms, the outlook isn't disheartening. With Brazil's currency so strong, big-name players are being attracted back from Europe, and the tournament can always be counted on to throw up some interesting revelations. But from a collective point of view, the standard of play was very disappointing.

Corinthians and Ronaldo won the Brazilian Cup in midseason, thus qualifying for next year's Copa Libertadores, and subsequently appeared to go on holiday. Palmeiras seemed to have the thing sewn up: "Big Green" led for half the campaign, hired Muricy Ramalho (the coach who led São Paulo to the title the previous three straight years) and brought back striker Vágner Love from Europe. And then the team collapsed. In the last few weeks, it looked like a caricature of a Ramalho side, totally dependent on set pieces and unable to string three passes together.

São Paulo could occasionally manage four passes -- but coach Ricardo Gomes' promise to get the team playing a more attractive game never materialized. That wouldn't have mattered had the Tricolor Paulista's defense not fallen apart in the season's home stretch. And until that decisive header from Ronaldo Angelim, the title was just 20 minutes away from going to an Internacional side that performed below potential almost throughout the campaign.

Flamengo's form over the last couple of months makes it a worthy champion. But had any of the top teams been playing well, the Rio club wouldn't have been able to make up lost ground. Fair enough, there aren't many Adrianos doing the rounds. But in the decisive stages, none of the competition could call on a Petkovic, an attacking midfielder whose strength lies in reading the match and improving the collective game of the team with the intelligence and precision of his passing.

And if a 37-year-old who, even in his prime, couldn't quite make it in Europe can be so influential, that should be food for thought for Brazilian soccer.