Soccer

Hulk smashes Atletico Mineiro’s 50-year wait for Brazilian league title

Half a century of waiting came to an end on Thursday. It was in 1971 that Brazil launched its first genuine national league competition, with the inaugural title won by Atletico Mineiro from the city of Belo Horizonte. The team in black-and-white stripes appeared to be doomed to have their only league title in the black-and-white era. They had some wonderful sides afterwards, and provided many of the players in Brazil’s memorable 1982 World Cup team. But the second title never came — until now.

The 2021 Atletico side were away at Bahia, who are fighting hard against relegation. Early in the second half, Atletico suddenly found themselves two goals down. In the space of five magical minutes they scored three times.

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It was a sweet way to clinch the title. But it was less dramatic than it seems. The trophy was in the bag anyway. There are still two rounds to go. They could only be caught by Flamengo, who are somewhat demoralised after losing Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final. The league has been Atletico’s to lose for several weeks. Fearing a jinx, the supporters were reluctant to celebrate too soon — until last Sunday. At home to Fluminense, Atletico were a goal down, but ended up winning 2-1, with both goals coming from the undoubted player of the season, veteran striker Hulk.

After playing just two games with Vitoria of Salvador back in 2004, Hulk slipped away to Japan as an unknown — but one who would go on to forge a global reputation with his exploits in the Far East, then in Portugal and Russia before moving to China, and finally heading back home earlier this year.

For years he was in the Brazil squad, and for years he was criticised. Finally, he has been able to show his stuff to the footballing public in the land of his birth. Many have argued for his recall to the national team, and, at the age of 35, he came off the bench for a few minutes in a recent World Cup qualifier against Peru.

He is the top scorer in the Brazilian league and, time and time again, he has stepped up decisively when it mattered most. Last year, Atletico were in the fight for the league title but came up short. Then coached by the explosive Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, they clearly lacked a centre-forward. That has not been a problem this time round. Traditionally starting on the right of the attack and cutting in on to his stronger left foot, Hulk moved up top. And then he also dropped a little deeper when Atletico signed another homecoming veteran, the former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea striker Diego Costa. Current boss Cuca can count on plenty of firepower.

Another vital acquisition is the Argentine playmaker Nacho Fernandez, signed from River Plate. Brazil’s season is gruelling, with too many games and plenty of travelling. By the end of the campaign it appeared to have taken its toll on Fernandez, who was struggling physically. But earlier in the season, when Atletico were sailing to the top of the table, the link-up between Fernandez and Hulk was the best thing on offer in the entire championship. MIdfielder Matias Zaracho was another signing from Argentina, and his dynamism and versatility have proved extremely important to the cause. When the two sides met in the quarter finals of the Copa Libertadores, Atletico eliminated River Plate 4-0 on aggregate. Zaracho scored twice and Fernandez once. Three of the goals came from Argentines, and with Hulk adding the other, all of them came from recent re-enforcements.

Atletico bowed out of the Libertadores in the next round, unbeaten in the competition but eliminated on away goals by eventual champions Palmeiras. A second Libertadores title, after the first triumph in 2013, will have to wait. But domestically there is no doubt about it. Atletico have broken the monopoly of Flamengo and Palmeiras, the new super-clubs who have dominated the major titles in the last three years. The boys from Belo Horizonte are hot favourites to complete a domestic double; later this month they meet Athletico Paranaense in the two-legged final of the highly prized Brazilian Cup.

Brazil now has three super-clubs, a trio who have broken away from the pack and been able to invest in a squad of sufficient strength to aim high. But there is still a question mark hanging over Atletico MIneiro. Is their spending sustainable?

Flamengo have an unrivalled nationwide fanbase, which over the course of patient years they have learned to transform into money. Palmeiras have wealthy sponsors and the most successful of the crop of recently built Brazilian stadiums. Atletico have ambitions, including plans for a new stadium of their own. But are they reaching too high?

There is a stark warning from across town. Atletico’s local rivals are Cruzeiro, who won the league in 2013 and 2014, and the cup in 2017 and 2018. But that all seems like a long time ago. Overspending was part of a general malaise of bad management that hurtled the club into crisis. Cruzeiro will now be preparing for their third year in the second division.

For the time being, though, Atletico fans have earned the right to gloat a little, to look down on their now lowly rivals from a great height — that of a club which has put an end to a wait of 50 years and can once more proclaim itself the champions of Brazil.




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