Last Wednesday night, 3-0 down from the first leg, Vasco da Gama fielded a reserve side for their Brazilian Cup quarterfinal tie against Sao Paulo.
Supporters of rival Rio de Janeiro clubs enjoyed themselves. There was a joke going round. "Vasco's game tonight is going to be cancelled," I was informed by a fan of Fluminense. "They won't be able to put a side out. How can they field a reserve team when they don't even have a first team?"
The joke has lost a bit of its traction in the last couple of weeks. Had the league championship started five rounds ago, then Vasco would be top of the table. Instead, though, it started 28 rounds ago, back in May -- and so all Vasco's recent revival has done is to change their relegation from a seeming certainty to just a strong possibility.
Four teams go down to the second division. For much of the campaign Vasco have been on the bottom of the table. They were still there just 3 rounds ago, having scored a measly 12 goals in 25 matches, with an eight-point gap to close before they could even think of first division survival. The current situation is slightly less alarming. They have now climbed off the bottom and there's only a five-point gap to make up. It is not great, but it is much better than it was.
Vasco are one of the big, traditional names of Brazilian football. But in recent times archaic management has turned them into something of a yo-yo club. Last league champions 15 years ago, they were relegated in both 2008 and 2013, coming straight back up both times. Many big clubs have benefited from a season in the second division, using it to pick up momentum. Indeed, Vasco came close to winning the league once more in 2011. Once that side was broken up, though, they struggled. And the fear of going down once more is that this time it might function as a type of quicksand -- because if the big club fails to bounce back at the first attempt, then the process is more a long-term risk than a short-term stimulus.
This year the club's autocratic, controversial president Eurico Miranda declared that the priority was winning the Rio State Championship, the local competition played in the first few months of the year. The team achieved this objective, but it was a hollow triumph. The competition is so outdated and discredited that the two leading rivals, Flamengo and Fluminense, have declared war on it, and will only field youth teams in future editions.
As soon as the national league kicked off, it became apparent that the team was nowhere near good enough for the higher level of competition. Vasco have floundered for months, desperately signing a succession of new players in an attempt to dig themselves out of a hole. But it is only under Jorginho, their third coach of the campaign, that things have started to look up. The 1994 World Cup winning right-back took one look at the league table and understood that desperate times call for desperate measures. He has fielded attacking sides because the club cannot afford to pick up their points one at a time. They need to win matches and take home all three points. Fortune has favoured the bold, and suddenly Vasco are in with a chance.
The picture will be clearer after the next two matches. On Sunday morning, Vasco travel south to the state of Santa Catarina to take on Avai, a team on the fringe of the relegation zone. And then they are at home to another team from the same state, Chapecoense, who are in the bottom four. These games, then, are against direct rivals in the race to avoid relegation. Win them both and Vasco da Gama will be well on the way to a miracle.