This Sunday, Vasco da Gama will take to the field against Bangu wearing more than just a new strip. Juán Arango has the story.
Last Thursday, Brazilian side Vasco Da Gama presented their third jersey to commemorate that team that did not win the title, but nevertheless deserve to be remembered alongside the club's greatest sides. They built a legacy and were part of a much greater movement. The 1924 Vasco team arguably laid the foundations for Brazil to become the footballing power that it is today.
The Old Republic was on its last legs as a military revolt in São Paulo caused upheaval throughout the country. It would only be a matter of time until the military as well as some political outsiders would bring in Getúlio Vargas; enforcing the concept of populism on the masses and a region that had the potential to prosper while the rest of the world was being dragged into conflict yet again.
At the beginning of the 1920’s, football had already been a part of Brazil's fabric for two generations, and in several circles it had already surpassed rowing as the national sport, helping to solidify a more 'Brazilian' identity. Some of the rowing clubs in Brazil decided to add football to the list of sports that they offered. One in particular was Vasco, a long-established rowing institution that soon made the jump to football and in nine short years would battle the best that Río de Janeiro had to offer. As the decade began, Vasco were already one of the big powers when it came to rowing, but were still upstarts on the football pitch. However, this soon changed.
After earning their promotion to the Carioca top flight in 1922, they did the unthinkable, at least for a rowing club. They would fight for the Carioca championship with a group of players that were undesirable simply due to the color of their skin as well as their social status. On top of the battle for civil rights and equality, the 1920’s saw a movement towards professionalism also emerging and the cruzmaltinos (the ones with the Cross of Malta) were the team that carried the flag for these respective causes.
Vasco’s team of Nelson, Leitão, Mingote, Nicolino, Claudionor, Artur, Pascoal, Torterolli, Arlindo, Cecy, and Negrito barreled through the first half of the season but were surrounded by a storm of controversy as their “Olympic ideals” were constantly called into question. Most of these players came from black or mestizo backgrounds. That alone was ample cause for the elite clubs of Río as well as São Paulo to look dimply upon them. Their level of play on the pitch was one that would lead to Vasco’s biggest fight yet.
During this time, the Carioca championship (along with many other sporting tournaments) was populated by educated young aristocrats, who embodied the values of the “Olympic movement”. Amateurism was a sacred vow that top athletes in Brazil were strictly bound to. These values, a product of wealth and privilege, were instruments used to demarcate the boundaries within and between social classes.
“Kicking a ball is an act of emancipation”- Anatol Rosenfeld regarding the push towards professionalization of football and social inclusion.
On July 23rd 1923, the second Classico dos Milhões was played at Fluminense’s old stadium in the upscale neighborhood of Laranjeiras. Their form and unique ideology made Vasco the bad guys, figuratively and literally the men in black. They had the most devastating attacking duo in Río with Cecy and Negrito, players with tremendous skill as well as uncanny goalscoring instincts. Another feared characteristic possessed by Vasco was their penchant for victories from losing positions. Combine this with the aforementioned acceptance of players from all social classes, and the prospect of a Vasco victory was a distinctly unpalatable one for Rio's other giants: Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and América.
Vasco’s second loss of the season was a controversial 3-2 at the hands of Flamengo, with a report from the Uruguayan daily El Imparcial stating that among the 35,000 fans present at the stadium there were Fluminense, Botafogo, and América fans uniting in support of the defeated outfit. In contrast, the Brazilian press omitted to mention a supposed goal for Vasco that was disallowed by the referee in the final seconds. There are several first-hand accounts of this from fans who were at the stadium.
After parading through the first half of the 1923 season, Vasco would win the title with relative ease and in the process provide people within Carioca football with the notion that football could go beyond the Olympic values and have some sort of financial value to it as well. It was not a victory for the lower class, but a triumph of technique and of the street over the style applied by the football intelligentsia of the day. But this was just the beginning.
Such was the disdain from other teams that they were determined to have Vasco removed from the newly-founded AMEA championship if they did not upgrade their facilities, as well as agree to remove twelve 'undesirable' players. But newly elected club president Jose Augusto Prestes, chose to make a stand that he knew would change the fate of his team. His Resposta Histórica to the Big Four clubs was an entirely unprecedented stand against racism, 'A Reposta Histórica.'
In his letter to AMEA (Metropolitan Sports Athletic Association) president Dr. Arnaldo Guinle, Prestes mentions that the conditions put in place by the clubs put Vasco as a distinct disadvantage. He also calls out the AMEA members on one of their conditions.
“These twelve young players, mostly Brazilian, that are beginning their careers to be part of a public spectacle that could dishonor them will not be practiced here in their home nor in the pavilion that they, with so much bravery, covered of glories. Thus we have to communicate to You that we now cease to be a part of the AMEA.
The country’s highest authority on the matter, the CBD (Brazilian Sports Confederation) decided that the AMEA was the official league in Río for the 1924 season. That year Fluminense would win the title while Vasco would repeat, although they played against much diluted competition.
It was not until 1933 that the first professional Brazilian league to include blacks and mulattos was formed despite being considered a “pirate league” by the CBD for its first year of existence. In 1937, all the teams in Brazil became professional, and just a year later the national team would have its best finish ever in the World Cup in third place behind Hungary and champs Italy.
Vasco’s stand would eventually see Leônidas become the second player to be recognized on the international stage. The Golden Show winner in the 1938 World Cup made him that man that took over that mantle from the player proclaimed by the Parisian media as the “King of Football”, Arthur Friedenreich just a decade earlier. What was most ironic was that Friedenreich was a green-eyed mulatto of German descent, whose mother was the daughter of freed slaves as well as the hero of the 1922 Copa América against the mighty Uruguay.
Vasco's legacy was brought back to life by a jersey that doesn’t only symbolize that struggle, it has it written all over- literally. Brazilian company Penalty made this kit in order to maintain that legacy alive as well as to take a stand against racism. It was one of the big instances at a racism symposium at which club president and Brazilian legend Roberto Dinamité was present.
This pseudo-retro version of the 1924 kit has the traditional Cross of Malta in the shifted towards the middle while the symbol of a black and white hand with the words “Respect” and “Equality” underneath. The white collar has the phrase “Democracy and Inclusion” written in a very elegant black lettering. This symbol of the rich past of Vasco will be worn by the club in their next home match against Bangu in round six of the Cariocão.
Juán can be found on Twitter @Simply_Juan, and his website, Simply Fútbol.