São Paulo: Embracing the Past While Setting Their Sights on the Future

By: Greg Oldfield special to the Florida Cup

Twenty-five years ago, São Paulo were the best team on the planet.

Tricolor, coached by Telê Santana, defeated some of the biggest names in world football to claim back-to-back Intercontinental Cups. In 1992, São Paulo defeated a Barcelona team coached by Johan Cruyff that included Hristo Stoichkov, Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, and Andoni Zubizaretta, all international stars at the peak of their careers. Rai scored two goals, the second a perfectly curled free-kick into the top corner. The following year, in 1993, São Paulo defeated AC Milan 3-2 on a late goal by Müller. AC Milan, coached by Fabio Capello, had Italian stars Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and Roberto Donadoni as well as France’s Marcel Desailly and Jean-Pierre Papin. But Santana’s side, led by Palhinha, Cafu, Leonardo, Toninho Cerezo, and Dorival Junior embraced their underdog role and won not only for their city and their country, but also their continent, who were often overlooked by the media in the annual competition despite winning just as many of the head-to-head contests.

Sao Paulo will visit Orlando to play in the Florida Cup for the second time. They previously participated in the 2017 competition, defeating Corinthians in the final on penalty kicks after the two sides remained scoreless in regulation.

São Paulo’s 2018 season began with disappointing results. Barely escaping relegation the previous season in the Serié A, São Paulo finished top of their group in the Campeonato Paulista, but lost to rival Corinthians 5-4 in penalties in the semifinals. The club reached the Fourth Round of the Copa do Brasil, crashing out Atlético Paranaense, and in the Copa Sudamericana, São Paulo were eliminated in the second round by Argentina’s Colón, again on penalties.

Dorival Junior was fired in March after the team’s 2-0 loss to Palmeiras in the Paulista and replaced by Diego Aguirre. With Aguirre, the club earned a few positive results in the Cup competitions before elimination, but built momentum at the start of the Serié A season. São Paulo won six games, drew five, and their only loss came against Palmeiras. By the World Cup break, the team were in second place and continued their strong performances once the season resumed. By August 4th, São Paulo were top of the table, ahead of all their rivals. But the club lost steam late, managing only two wins and many draws and fell to 5th place at the end of the season. Aguirre was fired in November after a 1-1 draw against ten-man Corinthians saw the club slip further back from leaders Palmeiras. Andres Jardine was hired on an interim basis to finish the season but was named full-time manager in December. With their top-six finish, São Paulo qualified for the playoff round in the Copa Libertadores.

São Paulo are led by the Nenê and Diego Souza. Both players are in their thirties and played a significant number of games in 2018, but Nenê brings experience and skill while Souza brings goals. And with the December signing of Pablo from Atlético Paranaense, Souza and Pablo are two of the leading attackers in the Serié A, each scoring twelve goals last season. Jao Rojas, acquired last June, will provide additional experience to the attack along with Santiago Tréllez.

In the midfield, Éverton, who joined from Flamengo mid-season, brings pace and creativity along with Helinho while Hudson and Liziero provide stability. Bruno Alves and Robert Arboleda bring leadership to the central defense. Reinaldo will be joined by youngsters Igor Vinicius and Léo Pelé on the wings. Rodrigo Caio’s situation is up in the air after his transfer to Barcelona fell through. The defender, still under contract with São Paulo, could remain with the club. Jean took over the goalkeeping duties late in the season from the departed Sidão, but he will have competition from Lucas Perri and new-signing Thiago Volpi.

São Paulo will open their season in the Campeonato Paulista in late January followed by the Copa Libertadores playoff in February against Talleres from Argentina. The winner will join Group A, which contains defending champions River Plate, Internacional, and Alianza Lima.

São Paulo will play Eintracht Frankfurt on January 10th at Al Lang Stadium then Ajax on January 12th at Orlando City Stadium.

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