By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
For coach Joel Santana and the 20-odd million Brazilians that claim allegiance to the red and black shirt, 2012 has really not gone how it was supposed to for Flamengo. Having romped to last year's Campeonato Carioca, and with star striker Vagner Love drafted in to accompany superstar Ronaldinho as the team's figureheads, the state competition was supposed to be the first step to a glory-filled year.
The reality, however, failed to match up to hopes. Ronaldinho sunk almost without a trace in the Carioca, plagued by accusations of missed training sessions, late nights enjoying the Rio nightlife and a string of sub-par performances. Love was little better, netting nine goals to put himself amongst the top scorers of the tournament; but ultimately the ex-CSKA man could not do enough to lead his new team to the Carioca final. The results told the truth in the end. The Rubro-Negro could not even make the knock-out stages during the first phase, and an improved second half of the season only ended in Ronaldinho and Co. flopping to an ignominious semi-final exit at the hands of rivals Vasco.
The real star of the tournament and one of the most enduring characters left in Brazilian, indeed world football, is one Sebastian 'El Loco' Abreu, who now prepares to lead his Botafogo side in a two-legged decider against Fluminense.
A story for Locos | The lionhearted forward parades the Taca Rio after his double-sealed victory
In a football panorama dominated by anodyne, one-dimensional figures, the 35-year-old striker is a constant breath of fresh air. Abreu is eccentric almost to a fault, and capable of almost anything when the mood strikes him. His many quirks are now dressing room legend. In the Botafogo training complex as well as in the Engenhao, he makes a point of always showering in the same stall, and is always the last to take the field. And under the shirt of any club he appears for, he wears a special item of clothing: a vest sewn together from one of his father's old Uruguay shirts and a current Celeste kit, and adorned with photos of his children, the shield of first football love Nacional and his new amor Botafogo.
An astonishing total of 17 different clubs in seven countries and three continents across his career speaks of a man who could start a dispute in an empty room; but there is no doubt that, when happy, his presence on and off the football pitch is a joy to behold.
Just ask Botafogo fans, whom he has delighted over a two-year spell that in 'Loco' years represents one of his longest periods in any club. 11 strikes so far in the Carioca puts him behind only Alecsandro in the scoring charts, and maintains a record of over a goal every two games for the Fogao that is a tribute to his discipline and self-preservation in the twilight of his career. Abreu has been an inspirational captain for the Brazilians, and his impact on morale for the club as he turns up to training video camera in hand, just as he does for Uruguay, must be considered as vital in the recent success of both teams.
|"Messi? Uruguay have to eat him alive!"
- One of 'El Loco' many gems before taking on Argentina in the Copa America quarter
The two goals he netted in the final of the Taca Rio were classic Abreu. On hand to finish off two counter-attacks with a dismissive flick of the boot from close range, the Uruguayan's double led his team on the way to a 3-1 victory over Vasco and gave them the chance to lift the championship for the second time in 'El Loco's' short life in Rio. Abreu also netted 11 in that competition, four less than Love managed in his first spell at Flamengo, and if he can add to that total in the two remaining games the Fogao faithful could once more be chanting for their adopted hero as they mark their 20th state triumph.
The love affair between the Cariocas and Abreu shows no sign of cooling. The veteran was made an honorary citizen of the iconic city in 2011 in homage to his impact at Botafogo, and both player and club have expressed their desire to sign him up to a two-year contract extension which will take him well past his 37th birthday. And in the same week that Cristiano Ronaldo failed miserably to emulate 'El Loco's' patented Panenka penalty style against Athletic Bilbao, fans of Latin American football were unanimous in their explanation.
The Real Madrid man may be one of the best players in the world, a multimillionaire with a trophy cabinet the envy of almost any footballer. But, as a memorable Twitter hashtag pronounced after his Panenka fell flat, he will never have "The balls of Abreu".