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Champions Cruzeiro are a shining light in Brazil's bleak football year

"Don't expect to walk into a bar in Belo Horizonte and hear Cruzeiro fans chanting the name of [Ricardo Goulart], the star of this year's Brazilian championship. And it will be hard to find kids shouting his name when they dribble round their opponents in schoolyard kickabouts," began a story on a major Brazilian football site after Belo Horizonte club Cruzeiro had clinched the Brazilian league title for the second consecutive year on Sunday, beating Goias in front of 57,000 people at a rain lashed Mineirao stadium.

While congratulating both Cruzeiro and Goulart as worthy champions, the article went on to argue that "in these talent-starved times, [neither] inspire more demanding observers."

Given the current well-documented woes of the Brazilian domestic game (a seemingly never-ending financial crisis, the talent drain abroad, often shoddy play, low attendances and complacent, parochial-minded executives -- to name just a few), pointing out that winning an undernourished Brasileirao does not mean Cruzeiro are ready to take on the cream of the global game is a fair, if perhaps peevish, observation.

The author of the piece may missed a trick, however, in singling out Goulart's lack of star power as a flaw, either of the player or his club. The 23-year-old, who was recently called up to the Brazil squad, is a good but hardly outstanding forward -- an energetic, direct runner with a neat touch and eye for goal. Certainly no European giant is planning to splurge the kind of money on Goulart that took Neymar to Barcelona or Lucas Moura to PSG. But at least in part, that is the secret of Cruzeiro's success. The club has a squad full of Goularts, and no one in the blue and white half of Belo Horizonte is complaining.

Indeed, the real magic of this Cruzeiro side is that it has no stars. The current league champions, led by astute coach Marcelo Oliveira, are an unprepossessing, unshowy bunch, making them stand out more than a little in a country in which a culture of footballing egos and individualism -- from Garrincha to Neymar and everyone in between -- is surpassed only by the need to win.

Just days before Cruzeiro clinched their title, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, coach of Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo, was talking about the club's need to sign "an idol" to capture the imagination of the fans.

Nor do the differences in footballing intensity in febrile Rio and decidedly more placid Belo Horizonte entirely explain such a difference in outlook -- earlier this season Santos repatriated Robinho at remarkable expense, while Sao Paulo assembled an impressively gaudy squad that included Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Alexandre Pato and Paulo Henrique Ganso. Yet as Cruzeiro popped the title champagne on Sunday, Sao Paulo could congratulate themselves only on snagging a Copa Libertadores place for next season, while Flamengo and Santos wallowed in mid-table obscurity.

As though to further prove the point, Cruzeiro's biggest name signing of the year, former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Brazil behemoth Julio Baptista, has contributed only sporadically to the team's achievements -- bagging just four goals in league play.

Instead, Cruzeiro's success has been built on unheralded signings and youth team products. Goulart has proved an admirable partner for the team's most valuable player, fellow Selecao call-up Everton Ribeiro, a skillful, pacey dribbler with an occasional taste for the spectacular, who was part of Marcelo Oliveira's free-scoring Coritiba side in 2011 and 2012. The home-grown talent includes 21-year-old Lucas Silva -- in whom Real Madrid are rumoured to be interested -- a hardworking, satisfyingly mobile defensive midfielder who snaps into the tackle and rarely wastes possession, and promising right-back Mayke.

As well as sensible recruitment, a number of intangible factors have given Cruzeiro an edge over the opposition. One of these is continuity. In the country of manic footballing passions the slightly more cool-headed man can be king, as the saying almost goes, and in football terms there is nowhere more impatient than Brazil, where a recent Mexican study showed the average coach keeps his job for just 15 games.

Cruzeiro have reaped the benefits of having the same manager in place for two years, and maintaining mostly the same squad. "Not for 20 years have repeating Brazilian champions kept eight players from one year to the next -- since the Palmeiras of Rivaldo, Zinho, Edmundo and Evair in 1994. In a country where clubs change their squads like people change clothes, believing in building a settled team makes all the difference," wrote respected Brazilian sportswriter Paulo Vinicius Coelho in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper this week.

Perhaps just as important has been the fast-paced, attacking approach to the game instilled by Oliveira, which stands in sharp contrast to workmanlike recent champions such as Corinthians in 2011 -- a team as modern and progressive as a Galapagos Island tortoise. Playing their home games at the Mineirao stadium where Germany dismantled not only Brazil's World Cup dreams but also a large part of the country's footballing self-belief, and in a league where the need for results often smothers aesthetic pleasures, Cruzeiro attack and defend with pace, verve and in numbers.

While the team are a long way from Jogi Low's blueprint, over the past two years Cruzeiro's policy of reducing space and moving the ball quickly from boot to boot has meant they have been light years ahead of their peers.

"Though we shouldn't lose perspective, Cruzeiro are exceptional for the technical level of football in Brazil. Their opponents are inconsistent and possess countless serious deficiencies," wrote former Cruzeiro idol, and one of the stars of the 1970 World Cup, Tostao, last week.

In an odd way, Cruzeiro's collectivism is shared by Brazil's dark prince of pragmatism, Dunga, and his steely and decidedly unpretty Selecao 2.0. While Dunga is no modernist, the pace and movement of false nine Diego Tardelli, the idol of Cruzeiro's city rivals Atletico Mineiro, has given the national team considerably more zip than the stolid fare served up at the World Cup. Just as obvious in the new Brazil has been a realism that stands in stark contrast to the hyperbole and histrionics on view this summer. "We're not the best anymore," growled the Brazil coach at his first news conference. "We have to recapture that with hard work and humility."

In most ways thoughtful, softly spoken coach Oliveira could hardly be more different to the often frenzied Dunga. Yet in a recent chat at Cruzeiro's training ground, he stressed to me his beliefs in almost similar values, explaining how important it was that his players realised how lucky they were to be playing football at a professional, well-organised club like Cruzeiro, and his admiration for how the modern game had been moved forward by teams like Spain, Barcelona and now Germany.

"It doesn't do to imagine what would happen if Cruzeiro came up against teams like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich," wrote influential Brazilian sportswriter Juca Kfouri in the Folha de Sao Paulo on Monday. "But after what the team from Minas Gerais did in the second half against Gremio last week (when Cruzeiro claimed a vital 2-1 away victory after trailing at half-time) ... there's one thing we can be sure of -- Cruzeiro wouldn't be thrashed."

Given the events of July 8, and the tawdriness of much of the footballing landscape that surrounds them, that, combined with Cruzeiro's values of collectivism and attractive, attacking play, might just be something that Brazilian football can build on. In an often dispiriting year for the game here, Cruzeiro, who tonight go in search of the double against Belo Horizonte rivals Atletico in the final of the Copa do Brasil, provide more than a few reasons to be cheerful.