Over the past decade, the consistent inconstancy of Rio de JaneiroÃ¢ÂÂs big four Ã¢ÂÂ Flamengo, Vasco, Fluminense and Botafogo Ã¢ÂÂ has allowed some of the minnows to enter the spotlight in the race for the charming TaÃÂ§a Guanabara, the first phase of the Rio de Janeiro state championship. (The second is the Copa Rio, to be held in March; winners then play for the big trophy.)
Cabofriense, Madureira and Friburguense, plus a handful of other teams you probably have never heard of, have been shoving at least one of the giants out of the dispute since 1996.
The ultimate underdog accomplishment happened in 2005, when a showdown between mighties Volta Redonda and Americano at Maracana decided the tournament.
But this year the real powerhouses were awake to prevent embarrassments. Smooth campaigns, with several goleadas Ã¢ÂÂ Portuguese for scores higher than 3-0, were recorded by all the top dogs. Now, Botafogo and Fluminense, on Saturday, and Flamengo and Vasco, on Sunday, will clash for a ticket to the final of the TaÃÂ§a Guanabara, to be played on February 24 at Maracana.
In the first match, our money (if we had some) would go for Fluminense. This year, the team from Laranjeiras stole the top forwards from their rivals Ã¢ÂÂ Leandro Amaral from Vasco and Dodo from Botafogo Ã¢ÂÂ and signed striker Washington (who was starring at JapanÃ¢ÂÂs Red Diamonds).
The trio has already been called Ã¢ÂÂThe Three TenorsÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ in a fitter version, of course. In addition, Botafogo, who always starts well, tends to chicken out at the last minute.
The second clash is more balanced. RomarioÃ¢ÂÂs departure has brought turmoil at Vasco Ã¢ÂÂ the last team to clinch their berth at the semis, but in Morais they have a dangerous playmaker.
Plus, thereÃ¢ÂÂs a good chance that Edmundo will make his debut with the Vasco shirt if itÃ¢ÂÂs good or bad, weÃ¢ÂÂll only know on Sunday. Flamengo comes from a fantastic 2007, and is stronger as a team, which makes the squad from miracle worker Joel Santana the safer bet.
One thing is sure, though: Maracana will be jam-packed for both games. As in the good old days, when the likes of Volta Redonda and Cabofriense were just feeble punchbags...