Why Brazil Friendlies Threaten Cruzeiro's Title Challenge

Christopher AtkinsContributor ISeptember 19, 2014

FILE - In this March 20, 2014 file photo, Everton Ribeiro of Brazil's Cruzeiro, left, celebrates his goal with teammate Egidio, against Uruguay’s Defensor during a Copa Libertadores soccer game in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The Brazilian league starts this weekend with Cruzeiro trying to defend its title in a championship already marked by court disputes prompted by a controversial finish last year. A day before kickoff, there are ongoing lawsuits by two clubs claiming they also deserve to play in the first division this year. (AP Photo/Bruno Magalhaes, File)
Bruno Magalhaes/Associated Press

A week is a long time in football. Having survived the loss of four key players to international duty with minimal damage, Cruzeiro's 2-0 defeat to Sao Paulo last weekend appeared to throw the Brasileirao title race wide open once more. With their long-standing lead cut to just four points, doubts began to emerge over A Raposa's ability to retain the league title which they won with such ease last season.

By mid-week, though, the balance of power had already taken a major swing back in their direction. Having beaten Atletico-PR 2-0 on Wednesday night, Cruzeirenses were left delighted when their main rivals fell to an unexpected 3-1 defeat to relegation-threatened Coritiba.

It is their consistency against all comers that has seen Cruzeiro establish themselves comfortably as Brazil's best side over the past two years, with unparalleled depth to their squad. However, their ascent to the top is not without its challenges, and the attention their players are now attracting from national team selectors is becoming a major issue.

In coach Dunga's latest squad announced this week for fixtures with Argentina and Japan, forwards Everton Ribeiro and Ricardo Goulart were both once more called for duty with the Selecao. Trips to Beijing and Singapore are the consequence, with a further two league matches set to be affected.

Goulart was top-scorer in the Brasileirao prior to the last international break
Goulart was top-scorer in the Brasileirao prior to the last international breakWashington Alves/Getty Images

With their title challenge coming under pressure from a rejuvenated Sao Paulo, to lose two key attacking players once more will hit the Minas Gerais side hard—even if their Brazil under-21 duo of Lucas Silva and Alisson have been excused from international duty this time around.

It is the absence of Sao Paulo players that is causing much consternation among fans of Cruzeiro. Much press attention is given to the Paulista side's magic attacking quartet of Kaka, Ganso, Alexandre Pato and Alan Kardec, yet none have been selected for either squad of Dunga's reign thus far. To make matters worse, Sao Paulo will face an Atletico Mineiro side deprived of forward Diego Tardelli.

Perhaps understandably given the increase in nerves caused by defeat in the top-of-the-table clash last week, Cruzeiro fans have reacted to the perceived favouritism being shown to their rivals.

As Globo Esporte reported this week (Portuguese), social media was flooded with complaints over the disparity in treatment of the two sides. Many were surprised that Brazil-based players had been included in the selection given that the league is approaching such an important stage of the campaign. The national association risks impacting the outcome of its biggest competition.

What the contention does do is bring focus back to the terrible calendar of the Brazilian season which sees sides well below full strength on a regular basis, as they seek to balance the workload that multiple competitions impose.

Players union Common Sense FC, led by former-Arsenal midfielder Gilberto Silva among others, carried out protests against the calendar and other concerns earlier this year as the 2002 World Cup winner himself described in The Guardian.

It is this congested nature of the playing calendar, which has to fit in state and national championships, as well as a national cup competition, which also sees league fixtures take place on weekends that have been assigned to FIFA international dates.

Until that situation changes, Brazil's football authorities will continually leave themselves open to allegations of favouritism in their selections unless they were to take what would be a hugely unpopular stance of overlooking locally based players.

Cruzeiro fans are the ones with complaints at the moment, which would only amplify were they to now lose the title race. However, it could easily be another club or multiple clubs given the plans for next season.

The CBF have taken the decision, as reported by UOL Esporte (Portuguese), to continue the league throughout next summer's Copa America, which would potentially leave clubs without stars for a month in the middle of the league season.

It is an avoidable situation which will consistently devalue the Brazilian league in the eyes of fans, sponsors and international media until it is resolved. Should Cruzeiro's form take a nosedive when their stars are away, next season's calendar may suddenly be the focus of greatly increased attention.