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Soccer-Palmeiras mark centenary amid relegation fears

Reuters

By Andrew Downie

SAO PAULO, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Palmeiras celebrated their centenary on Tuesday but it was a bitter-sweet occasion for one of Brazil's most successful clubs with seemingly endless turmoil off the field adding to relegation fears for a third time in 12 years.

The club, formed on Aug. 26, 1914 by Italian immigrants in Sao Paulo, have won almost every title up for grabs, including eight Brazilian league flags, more than any other team.

But as the championship approaches its halfway point Palmeiras sit fifth from bottom, only edging out the relegation places on Saturday after Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca picked up three points for the first time since taking over eight league games ago.

"We're a little more relaxed thanks to the victory," defender Tobio said after a 1-0 win over Coritiba. "It was a victory that we had hoped for and we needed it to boost our confidence. It allows us to work this week in a more tranquil atmosphere."

The atmosphere around Palmeiras has rarely been tranquil in recent years, in spite of their grand history.

The club - which changed its name from Palestra Italia in 1942 as anti-Axis feeling grew in Brazil - became known as the Academy for producing large numbers of talented young players in the 1960s and 1970s.

They were also strong in the 1990s, when investment from Italy's Parmalat group boosted their coffers. Players like Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cesar Sampaio and Zinho won them back to back league titles in 1993 and 1994 and then with Alex, Marcos and Edmundo in the squad Luiz Felipe Scolari took them to the Brazilian Cup and Libertadores titles in 1998 and 1999.

But Palmeiras' fortunes waned in the new millennium, suffering relegation in 2002 and again in 2012 and although they bounced straight back on both occasions they have rarely looked healthy.

They have struggled this season since losing manager Gilson Kleina and top striker Alan Kardec in the third week of the campaign. Gareca was hired from abroad, becoming just the second Argentine coach in almost a decade to lead a Brazilian Serie A team, but he has so far failed to turn the season around.

"It is very worrying and it won't end soon," Mauro Beting, author of a book on the club's centenary, told Reuters at a signing event attended by hundreds of fans on Monday. "There's no money, no team and no leadership."

"We didn't expect that our present would be about our past but we have to celebrate it and at the same time keep the flame alight for the future," he added.

Fans are praying for new signings to ease their woes and reports say the club is negotiating with former Barcelona star Ronaldinho.

NEW STADIUM

An arguably more important development will come with the inauguration of an impressive 45,000-seat stadium before the year is out.

The Allianz Parque is the 14th new arena to be built in Brazil over the last 18 months (12 for the World Cup plus Gremio's new stadium in Porto Alegre) and fans hope it will offer a fresh start.

But like Beting, few are optimistic the glory days will return any time soon.

The boardroom remains riven with infighting that makes mockery of the club's motto, "Vincit qui se vincit", or "He conquers, who conquers himself."

Crowds are low - averaging less than 13,000 so far this season - and some fans have had enough.

"So many of the directors just suck the life out the club, they are like politicians who are only in it for their own gain," said Carlos Eduardo Poccia, a 34-year old salesman who attended a commemorative event in the Sao Paulo city centre on Saturday.

"I think the only answer is to panic them. Get in there, take over the club by force and elect someone who is qualified. It needs to be disinfected. We need a root-and-branch overhaul." (Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Justin Palmer)

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