04.12.2023 21:17 h

Bitter pill for Botafogo, Textor as Brazil title slips away

After 28 years, it looked like Botafogo's Brazilian league title drought was finally ending, thanks to a crackling start to the season and a huge cash infusion from US magnate turned football investor John Textor.

Then they lost their coach to Cristiano Ronaldo's Saudi club and spectacularly imploded in a string of key matches before letting a 13-point lead evaporate, leaving their long-suffering fans to suffer a little longer.

Considered one of Brazil's iconic clubs, Rio de Janeiro-based Botafogo, who won the league in 1968 and 1995, were mathematically eliminated from the 2023 title race on Sunday when they drew 0-0 at home against 14th-place Cruzeiro, falling five points behind leaders Palmeiras with one match remaining.

Now reduced to fifth place, Botafogo -- who led the league for 31 matches and looked invincible mid-season -- thus suffered the biggest reversal in the history of the "Brasileirao," Brazil's top-flight league.

The humiliating homestretch has been a far cry from the team's seemingly unstoppable start, when they brushed aside star-studded favorites like Flamengo and defending champions Palmeiras to storm to a record 13 wins in their first 15 matches.

Tapping a little-known but scrappy cast of players, Botafogo spent week after week making their fans dare to dream -- not to mention Textor, who acquired a 90-percent stake in the club last year.

The 58-year-old media and tech mogul, who also has large stakes in English club Crystal Palace, France's Lyon and Belgium's Molenbeek, has pledged to invest $77 million in improving Botafogo, who only returned to the top-flight league last season after being relegated in 2021.

Home to former greats Garrincha and Jairzinho, Botafogo were soon turning heads with a new generation of talent, including goalkeeper Lucas Perri, defender Adryelson, midfielder Eduardo and forward Tiquinho Soares.

"The players aren't living day-to-day, they're hungry for tomorrow, to win, to be first," said then-coach Luis Castro of Portugal.

A first fateful moment came in June, 12 matches into the 38-match season, when Castro was poached by Saudi side Al-Nassr.

Countryman Ronaldo reportedly called the coach personally to ask him to take the job.

Fellow Portuguese national Bruno Lage, formerly of Benfica and Wolverhampton, took over at Botafogo.

But Botafogo suffered a series of injuries, and struggled to adapt to Lage's style, a change from Castro's possessional play.

Their once-commanding lead dwindled.

Lage was sacked in early October, with Botafogo leading by seven points.

Seeking an in-house solution, Textor named assistant coach Lucio Flavio, a one-time Botafogo midfielder, to replace him. But the team's problems only got worse.

After they gave up the lead to Palmeiras in early November, Flavio, too, got the boot, replaced by veteran Brazilian coach Tiago Nunes.

But Nunes has managed just four points in as many matches.

Palmeiras meanwhile surged to a commanding lead.

With 69 points -- three clear of Atletico Mineiro and Flamengo -- and a huge goal difference in their favor, the Sao Paulo giants are all but guaranteed a second straight title when the league wraps up Wednesday.

For Botafogo, now out of the title race with 64 points, it was a November to forget.

On November 1, they led Palmeiras 3-1 at home, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, losing 4-3.

Textor fumed in an obscenity-laced interview after the match that a crucial red card issued to Adryelson in the 76th minute was the result of "corruption."

The tirade prompted Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues to sue him for slander.

Improbably, Botafogo repeated the exact same feat on November 9, giving up a 3-1 lead to lose 4-3 at home to Gremio, courtesy of a Luis Suarez hat trick.

They also gave up leads to suffer painful last-gasp draws against Bragantino (who equalized in the 96th minute), Santos (90th minute) and Coritiba (99th minute).

"No words I could say can possibly console our fans," Nunes said.

Their fairytale season now aborted, one Botafogo fan summed up the agony on X, formerly Twitter: "I've lost all feeling. I'm just a talking piece of meat."