Crunch time for Ronaldo and Corinthians
More than eight years after combining to such good effect in South Korea and Japan, the 3 Rs of Brazil's last World Cup win are now all back at home playing for major clubs.
As discussed in this space last week, Ronaldinho has joined Flamengo. On Saturday, Rivaldo was snapped up by Sao Paulo. And, of course, there is Ronaldo at Corinthians.
Ronaldo is busy preparing for the final big challenge of his career. If all goes to plan, he will hang up his boots in December, at the scene of his greatest triumph, travelling to Japan to dispute another world title, this one of clubs rather than national teams.
It can only happen if Corinthians become South American champions by winning the Copa Libertadores in June. This, then, is a quest that could dominate Ronaldo's last year as a player. Alternatively, the dream could all be over by the middle of next week.
To reach the group stage of the Libertadores, Corinthians must get through a tricky qualifying round against Tolima of Colombia.
The sides meet in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. Next week's second leg is in the Colombian town of Ibague, the capital of the department of Tolima. It is a long trip to meet awkward opponents. Runners-up in the last Colombian championship, Tolima are a team who break at pace. And if Corinthians have Ronaldo, Tolima have a cutting edge of their own.
The Christian name of Wilder Medina hardly does him justice. He is one of football's late developers, having to shrug off a past of gang- and drug-related problems. Thirty next month, Medina made a big breakthrough last year, racking up the goals for Tolima. Slippery, good with both feet and capable of surprising the goalkeeper with his snap shooting from long range, Medina (pictured) is a real threat on his day.
Even if Medina hits form, Corinthians are firm favourites to win through, although early-season results can be strange, It will certainly be a nerve-wracking week for the Brazilian giants if the result goes against them on Wednesday. Failure to make the group phase of the Libertadores hardly bears thinking about it. It would be a blow to Ronaldo in his farewell year but a far bigger blow to the club.
Local rivalries do not just take place in domestic championships. In Paraguay, for example, fans of Olimpia ceaselessly taunt those of their historic rivals, Cerro Porteno. Olimpia have won the Libertadores three times. Cerro have taken part on 33 occasions without ever getting their hands on the cup. Campaign 34 is coming up this year - and to get it kick-started Cerro Porteno first have to overcome Venezuela's Deportivo Petare in the qualifying round. Nerves will be jangling in Asuncion over the next two weeks.
In Buenos Aires, San Lorenzo fans had to put up with years of baiting from their rivals over their lack of international titles. A decade ago, they managed a couple of wins in second-string competitions but the Libertadores still eludes them - to the delight of the other Buenos Aires giants, all of whom have claimed South America's premier club title.
It is a similar story in Sao Paulo, with the added spice that, unlike San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Corinthians are undoubtedly the biggest club, although the most supported team in South America's biggest city have never been champions of the continent.
Santos, those eternal upstarts from the nearby coast, have managed it. Sao Paulo FC have achieved the feat three times, too, more than any other Brazilian club. Traditional rivals Palmeiras have done it. But Corinthians never have - and until they put that right they will have to suffer the jibes from their local rivals.
Hopes were high that Ronaldo might carry them to victory last year but they went out on away goals to Flamengo in the second round - the same stage at which they fell in their two previous campaigns, 2003 and 2006. Both times they fell to Argentina's River Plate. The second of those defeats, which effectively ended the spell of Carlos Tevez with the club, was greeted by a riot as the frustration of the fans boiled over.
The two eliminations before that are probably even more painful for the club's supporters. In 1999, they lost on penalties to Palmeiras in the quarter-finals. A year later, they went out in the same way to the same opponents a round later - the closest they have come to grabbing the glory.
Ending the drought would be a fitting way for Ronaldo to round off his career. Corinthians, though, are going to have to do things the hard way.
Assuming they make it through the qualifying round, they will go into the most difficult group in this year's Libertadores. Guarani of Paraguay have little hope of progress but that certainly does not apply to Estudiantes, winners in 2009 and the reigning Argentine champions. And then there is another Brazilian heavyweight, Cruzeiro, Libertadores stalwarts who were beaten finalists in 2009. Only two teams go through to the knockout phase, so a big name is going to fall by the wayside.
For the moment, though, Corinthians would be foolish to let their thoughts stray beyond the immediate task of overcoming Tolima. They will have their mass support behind them but when they look at Tolima's frankly hideous red and yellow shirts, they will also see the green of Palmeiras, the white, blue and red of Sao Paulo, and the white and black of Santos. All three hope that Corinthians are defeated and Ronaldo's dream is ended almost before it has begun.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I noticed that Giuliano signed for FC Dnipro which seemed like quite a strange move. He was undoubtedly one of the hottest prospects in South America and could have signed for any number of top European sides. Why do you think he chose Dnipro? Could it be the money, football or the big Brazilian contingent in Ukraine? Like many other Brazilians in this league, I feel he may get stuck in a rut and not progress further up the ranks in Europe. What are your thoughts on the move?
A) He is one of my favourites, so I was a bit surprised and disappointed with the move. But it's not a case of choosing this club over other options in Spain, England or Italy. Dnipro came up with the money - and since Internacional make no secret of the fact that they plan to sell their potential stars, it was a done deal. One of the striking things about Giuliano is that he has made progress every year. If he can keep doing that, then I think he has the versatility and intelligence to prove himself with Dnipro and move on.
Q) As a Manchester United fan, I have been very interested to follow the progress of our young Brazilian players over the last couple of seasons. After the recent Tottenham game, many people have started to accept Rafael as our number one right-back. How are the twins viewed in Brazil? And what do you think of their chances of getting into the national team? Fabio was supposedly the better player before his move to Manchester but we haven't heard as much from him as I would have liked? What are your opinions?
A) Rafael is in the Brazil squad, although he faces a real battle to displace Daniel Alves. No doubt about it, when they went to Old Trafford, Fabio was much more highly rated. He captained Brazil Under-17s and scored reams of goals from left-back, while Rafael was more of a steady figure on the other flank. United took them early because they would not be taught to defend in Brazil, where full-backs are often attackers. It could well be the case that it has been harder for Fabio to adapt to the more conservative role of a full-back in England. With Brazil U17s, he was not so much playing at left-back as from left-back, popping up all over the place. Also, first-team opportunities have been harder for him because of the form and presence of Patrice Evra. Long term, it is going to be fascinating to see how Fabio reacts to losing his place in the family hierarchy.