James YoungComment

WHEN WE WERE KINGS

James YoungComment

James Young delves into the archives to uncover tales from Brazilian football's yesteryear. 

"When Bonsucesso went down to ten men, I turned to a colleague sitting beside me and whispered: “Things just got a lot harder for Flamengo”….There was nothing small about Bonsucesso yesterday. They were, truly, a big club."

From “Bonsucesso Were A Big Club”, Manchete Esportiva, 20th October, 1956

Things were different in the days when the old pornographic angel (his words), Nelson Rodrigues, was at his peak. Juscilino Kubitschek was President of Brazil. Today’s national capital, Brasilia, wasn’t much more than a building site covered in rust red earth. Weirder still: Wales were about to play in the World Cup finals.

Rodrigues was most famous for his novels, short stories and plays. But he was also well known for his sports journalism, particularly for the Manchete Esportiva (Sporting Headline) paper.

His writing represents a lost world of Brazilian football. A time when Garrincha was king, the Maracanã could still hold 200,000, and the estaduais (and the Rio – São Paulo interstate tournament) were the only games in town. A dip back into the history books of the estaduais, for many already not much more than a dusty relic, reveals some strange tales indeed.

We might start with Bangu. Today, bottom of Group B of the Campeonato Carioca. Six games, six defeats. Little more than a parks team from a Rio suburb, for whom a few hundred men and a dog would represent a bumper haul at the box office. Probably the only interesting thing about Bangu is the quintessentially carioca name of their stadium, The Moça Bonita, or The Pretty Lady.  

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, however, things were different. Bangu were Carioca runners up in 1959, 1964, 1965 and 1967, and lifted the title in 1966, beating Flamengo 3-0 in the final. The team also boasted the artilheiro of the Carioca in these last two years, the great Paulo Borges. Despite all that, perhaps Bangu’s greatest accolade came more recently, in 2001, when the Rio state government granted the club the Medalha Tiradentes in recognition of the red and whites being the first Brazilian club to field black players.  

"Here’s the truth, friends: America are off to a flyer. They’ve already broken free of the pack. They’re alone on the mountain top. Today the headlines will scream: “America, leader by a distance.” Now, I know that a good start doesn’t mean everything. Remember Vasco last year….but America have a beautiful team, worthy of being champions of any league."

From “America Break Free”, Manchete Esportiva, 25th August, 1956

Still, at least Bangu remain in the Campeonato Carioca top flight. The same cannot be said for an even more storied Rio side, America. Although the club has won the Rio title seven times, the last was in 1960, and today they sit unproudly in the Carioca second division.

One of the club’s most memorable seasons ended, funnily enough, in defeat. That was 1955’s Three “Turn” Championship, another master class of Rio footballing organisation. The club, runners-up in 1954, defeated Fluminense in one “final” before going on to face Flamengo in another, best of three, decider. America lost the first game 1-0, won the second 5-1, and lost again in the last, 4-1. Third time unlucky.

That year saw the arrival of winger Darcy Silveira dos Santos from Olaria, better known as Canário, who would go on to become the first Brazilian to win the European Cup with Real Madrid, in 1960. Reflecting the club’s strength at the time, a poll in 1955 found that America were the fourth best supported club in Rio, behind Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco, but ahead of Botafogo.

America enjoyed a brief resurgence in 2009, at least in terms of media attention, when Romário arrived as player and director. O Baixinho led the club to the Carioca Serie B title that year, and even hired his Seleção partner in crime Bebeto as manager for a while. But the fun didn’t last long. America were relegated again soon after, and Romário is now a local politician. 

"Well, friends: today, my personality of the week is Yustrich, of America. I say “Yustrich, of America”, when really it should be “America, of Yustrich”...The Reds were losing 3-1, which, against Botafogo, is pretty much a done deal. Not quite: suddenly America bared their teeth and fought back for a draw. Almost a win. And the man behind this resurrection? Yustrich, of course"

Taken from “Personality of the Week: Yustrich”, Manchete Esportiva, 13th September, 1958

Rio is not the only state with ghosts of estaduais past. Up in Minas Gerais, another América, this time of Belo Horizonte, have their own sad story to tell. Coelho, or The Rabbit, can claim a spot in the record books – their ten Campeonato Mineiro titles between 1916 and 1925 is an estaduais record matched only by ABC, of Rio Grande do Norte.

For the first half of the last century the only clássico that counted in Belo Horizonte was Atlético v América, with today’s Mineiran kingpins (currently a dubious enough crown), Cruzeiro, mere upstarts. That was before América inexplicably shut down their youth department in 1960, allowing a handful of promising youngsters, including the legendary Tostão, to be snapped up by Time Celeste.

The shift in power coincided with the opening of the Gigante da Pampulha, or Mineirão, shared by Atlético and Cruzeiro, and the big two hardly looked back. América, shacked up in the far humbler surrounds of the Independência stadium in Belo Horizonte, would never truly compete on an equal footing with their city rivals again, though ironically enough, with the Mineirão closed for Mundial rebuilding works, both the capital’s big boys are currently casting covetous eyes on the stadium of their downtrodden neighbours.

"A long time ago, I headed up to Rua Bariri to see Fluminense play. I confess – I’ll always consider Olaria as distant, as remote, as Constantinople, Istanbul, or Vigário Geral."

From “The Convenience of Cowardice”, Manchete Esportiva, 24th December 1955.

América at least made it back to Serie A in 2011, though, generally outmatched, they lasted only a year. Still, there are worse fates than Serie B. A trip to the nordeste, more specifically Pernambuco, proves that. While these days Santa Cruz pull in the biggest crowds in the country, and Náutico and Sport gear themselves up for Serie A campaigns, it was not always thus.

Tramways, a club from the Recife neighbourhood of Torre, set up and rather unoriginally named by a group of local railway workers, were unbeaten winners of the Campeonato Pernambucano in 1936 and 1937. The club fought out local derbies (the Clássico Bairrense) of dubious ferocity against neighbours Torre, themselves winners of the Pernambucano in 1926, 1929, and 1930. Neither club exists today.     

"For many, the battle of America v Flamengo was a monstrous absurdity. How can you explain a 4-1 defeat by a team who you had beaten 5-1 just a few days before? But in reality, the mystery appears greater than it truly is. The 5-1 explains the 4-1, and vice versa"

From “The Divine Thrashing”, Manchete Esportiva, 7th April 1956.

Any round up of Brazilian football that does not include São Paulo tends to arouse a fearful howling along Avenida Dos Immigrantes, a risk this writer is both unwilling and afraid to take. A tip of the glass, then, to Campeonato Paulista flyweights Inter de Limeira and Ituano.

Today, to the unsuspecting casual observer, mere punching bags for Corinthians, São Paulo and the rest of the Paulistão big dogs. To the student of the footballing obscure with far too much time on his hands, surprise winners of Brazil’s biggest state championship in 1986 and 2002, respectively.

Ituano’s triumph is heavily asterisked, as the bigger clubs were off playing in a Rio-São Paulo competition that year, but Inter de Limeira deserve special mention. In 1986, after beating Santos in the semis, they went on to defeat Palmeiras in the final, in front of almost 70,000 at the Morumbi, so becoming the first ever Paulistão champions from the interior of the state in the process.

There is, in the end, nothing particularly sinister any of this. As with football everywhere, the rich grow richer and the poor hang on for a while before falling through the cracks. Most of the teams on this list, with the possible exception of the two Americas, never really had the fan base to compete in the modern, commercial era. Still, with the exceptions of poor old Tramways and Torre, and despite the knowledge that their glory days will in all likelihood remain in dust shrouded obscurity until long after the Judgment Trump, our ghosts of footballing purgatory play on, however fruitlessly. Mr. Rodrigues, whether in or out of his cups, would no doubt approve of such wayward obstinacy.   

Pedant’s Note: The Carioca America, apparently, prefer the English, non-accented spelling of their name, whereas the more flamboyant Mineiro América prefer the rakish élan of an acute over the e. 

To read more from James, visit The Dirty Tackle and I See A Darkness. Follow him on Twitter @seeadarkness

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