As the iconic and newly renovated Maracana Stadium opens its doors as part of Brazil’s preparations to host next year’s World Cup, Kate Partridge looks at the impact Brazilian players have had on the Russian top flight this season and picks the top five Selecao of the far north…
1. Vagner Love – CSKA
To Russia with Love. Again. Widely considered to be the best foreigner to have played in Russia, Vagner Silva de Souza returned to Moscow during the winter break for a third stint with CSKA – an association that dates back almost a decade. Despite his five-foot-seven-and-a-half-inch stature, the colourfully dreadlocked striker is a giant among the Armymen. Now 28, he scored the goal that sealed CSKA’s 3-1 UEFA Cup final triumph over Sporting in 2005, as well as helping lift their last Russian top-flight trophy the following year. Overall, he has netted 82 goals in 165 appearances for CSKA, including three since his return. With three games to go – against Lokomotiv (A), Kuban (H) and Rostov (A) – the talismanic figure could inspire the league leading side to clinch their first championship crown in seven years.
2. Hulk – Zenit St. Petersburg
Givanildo Vieira de Souza is the man with the incredible nickname and incredible €40-million price tag, after scoring an average of more than a goal a game in four years at Porto. In a turbulent first season at Zenit, which has seen him the subject of a “fake bomb” and falling out with coach Luciano Spalletti, the muscular forward scored a timely first hat-trick in Zenit’s 4-0 thrashing of ten-man Alania – and appropriately ripped off his shirt to celebrate. With three games to go, the victory kept the twice-defending champions within three points of leaders CSKA. The 26-year-old left footer might be leaving St. Petersburg this summer – but it could be with a champion’s medal. Hulk has also won 20 international caps and played at the London Olympics, so may feature at next year’s World Cup.
3. Wanderson – Krasnodar
Twenty-seven-year-old Francisco Wanderson do Carmo Carneiro is currently the top scorer in the Russian Premier League with 13 goals, none of them penalties. The attacking midfielder-turned-striker with the undistinguished past and nifty hairdos has a habit of popping up to net useful goals, particularly his hat-trick against third-placed Anzhi, to help Krasnodar go within three points of a Europa League spot. The unpredictable team from Russia’s football mad southern city were established five years ago by billionaire grocer Sergey Galitsky. They sold their top scorer Yura Movsisyan to Spartak in the winter transfer window, but they don’t seem to be missing him. FC Krasnodar rarely produce a dull game – and Wanderson epitomises their ability to surprise.
4. Joao Carlos – Anzhi Makhachkala
Of the four Brazilians at Anzhi, Willian grabbed the most headlines this season with his €34-million January move from Shakhtar Donetsk. Ironically, after tallying one goal and one assist so far, his advent heralded a mini slump. Yet Guus Hiddink’s side are still third, all set for another season in the Europa League, and owe some of this to 31-year-old defender, Joao Carlos. Before the winter break, Anzhi had lost only twice – at CSKA and Rubin – and were title contenders. The central defender also scored twice: the equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Zenit, and in the 5-2 win over Krasnodar.
5. Danilo Neco – Alania Vladikavkaz
Alania are having a torrid season. Bottom of the table, eight points from safety with three games to go, and now led by their distinguished president Valery Gazzaev after he sacked and replaced his own son Vladimir as coach. However, the one-time Russian champions have one shining light in 27-year-old Danilo Neco. The diminutive Brazilian has managed to score nine goals this campaign, notably a brace in Alania’s 5-0 stunning of Terek – one of only three victories all season. Unfortunately, his efforts will probably not be enough to stop his yo-yoing side from returning to the second tier. Yet he might be around to help them return to the top flight after rumours he wants to take Russian citizenship.