Robinho rape conviction clouds return to Santos

Welcome back to another edition of the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, Robinho returns to Santos — and sparks fierce debate in Brazil, after the forward’s rape conviction in 2017. And Cruzeiro, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, are beginning to sink without a trace. Enjoy your read!

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Talent always gets another chance

Under normal circumstances, it would be a reason for celebration. Robinho, who got his start at Santos before taking on European football and breaking into the Brazil national team, has now returned once again to his boyhood club. He will surrender the large salary he was earning at Turkish side Istanbul Başakşehir FK, taking a minimum wage at Santos until the end of the year. However, the public discourse is not about a prodigal son’s return, focusing instead on events that occurred in Milan in 2013.

  • In October 2014, Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport published revelations of Robinho’s involvement in the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old Albanian woman at a Milanese nightclub, during his spell playing for AC Milan.

The case. Three years later, while Robinho was back in Brazil playing for Atlético-MG, the player was tried in absentia and was found guilty, with Italian courts sentencing him to nine years in prison. Due to Italy’s lengthy appeals process — not too dissimilar to what is seen in Brazil — the sentence is pending and the player is not a fugitive from justice.

The debate. Pundits and fans have rushed to condemn Santos for resigning Robinho, questioning the message transmitted by employing an individual convicted of rape, and lauding him as a hero. By and large, however, Santos supporters and the club itself have defended Robinho’s reputation, claiming his innocence and celebrating the return of a fans’ favorite.

Quandary. In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have assessed the ethical questions behind football clubs employing players who had been convicted of crimes. The example of the time was Bruno Fernandes, once the most talented goalkeeper in Brazil and national champion with Flamengo, who was sentenced to 22 years in jail for ordering the kidnapping, torture, and murder of his ex-girlfriend Eliza Samúdio. After six years behind bars, he was granted release due to the delays in his appeal process, and he has bounced around a number of small Brazilian football teams, in a series of controversial signings.

  • The Robinho situation is different, in that he has yet to serve any punishment for the crime, and the legal case is technically still ongoing. However, while playing for Istanbul Başakşehir, Robinho refused to travel with the team for continental matches away from home, reportedly for fear of being arrested.

No moral judgment. Indeed, by the letter of the law, Robinho remains at liberty until proven guilty by a final and unappealable decision. However, as with Bruno being repeatedly resigned by small-time Brazilian clubs, the problem here is that the ethical ramifications of signing Robinho have never been taken into account by Santos. As opposed to offering an opportunity to someone they believe to be innocent and is awaiting appeal, Robinho has been signed for purely business and footballing reasons.

Under the carpet. Speaking to newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Santos president Orlando Rollo said criticism of Robinho’s signing came from “jealous” fans of other clubs, and played down the player’s conviction. “Who are we to throw stones at Robinho? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said.

Talent gets a second chance. Brazilian football — along with many professional sports leagues around the world — is full of cases of players continuing lucrative careers despite criminal convictions. Indeed, if we go back to 1987, Santos’ current manager Cuca — then a player for Porto Alegre side Grêmio — was convicted of the rape of a 13-year-old girl during a pre-season tour of Switzerland. He never served time and went on to have an illustrious career in playing and management. Where there is talent, there will always be a club willing to give a second chance.

Cruzeiro hit an iceberg

In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have covered the plight of Belo Horizonte football club Cruzeiro, mired in corruption investigations, Fifa punishments, and eventually relegation at the end of 2019 — the first time the club has dropped below Brazil’s first division. But just when it seemed that Cruzeiro had sunk as far as they could go, the giants plumbed new depths.

Double relegation? Approaching the halfway point of the season in Brazil’s second division, Cruzeiro are currently 19th in the table, seeing their hopes of a quick bounce-back to the top flight slip away — and staring the terrifying threat of dropping down to the third division in the face. The club, with an estimated 8.4 million fans, has won only two of their last 11 matches, and they are now looking for their seventh manager in the space of 14 months after binning latest coach Ney Franco.

Fall from grace. Beyond being one of the Big Two clubs in Brazil’s second most-populous state of Minas Gerais, Cruzeiro are in this mess despite being one of the most victorious clubs of the 2010s. They were national champions in 2013 and 2014, and grabbed the Copa do Brasil trophy in 2017 and 2018.

Reap what you sow. The desperation of the situation was perhaps best summed up by Cruzeiro’s long-serving goalkeeper and captain Fábio, in a post-match interview off the back of another embarrassing home defeat. “We are reaping what we have sown. (…) There has been terrible administration [of the club] for a long time, the titles hide that. And now it’s blowing up on the people who are here at Cruzeiro. The others who made a lot of errors have all jumped ship and the responsibility was left to us. (…) We’re here, but everyone who made bad decisions in the past is watching at home.”

Relegation: a chance for rebirth? Unlike major European leagues, big teams in Brazil are no strangers to the dreadful fate of relegation. Of the current top flight, only Flamengo, Santos, and São Paulo have never once dropped below the top division, with the rest all having their spells in the second tier. 

  • With this, comes an often overlooked silver lining: big sides are put under less pressure in the second division, playing against weaker opponents and with less of a media spotlight. As such, they can go about rebuilding their squads, restructuring wage bills, and coming back stronger than before. 
  • However, with constant chopping and changing and no real stability at the top, Cruzeiro are not benefitting from the extra breathing room allowed by second-division football. The giant club is now facing another year outside of the top flight, which would extend even further if they are relegated for a second time.

What else you should know

  • Internationals. Brazil kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign with an easy 5-0 home win over Bolivia on Friday. The team are likely to face sterner competition tonight against Peru in Lima, but Tite’s men are fully expected to come away with two wins in two.
  • Corinthians. The women’s side of São Paulo giants Corinthians gained increased attention last week, after footage of a spectacular team goal they scored in mid-September went viral worldwide on social media. Maiara’s finish after a wonderfully flowing passing move was called “the best goal we’ve ever seen” by popular football Twitter account FootballJOE.
  • The Robson Case. In March 2019, Brazilian citizen Robson Oliveira was arrested in Russia for entering the country while in possession of controlled substances, reportedly requested by the family of Spartak Moscow footballer Fernando, who employed Mr. Oliveira at the time. The substance in question was methadone chlorhydrate — commonly used for the treatment of heroin addiction but also found in chronic pain medication. It is a banned substance in Russia and Mr. Oliveira has been in jail ever since. However, the case took on a new twist last week, when Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to speak with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in order to negotiate Mr. Oliveira’s return to Brazil. The case will be dealt with in full in future editions of the Brazil Sports newsletter.

Anti-Bolsonaro outburst sparks free speech debate in Brazilian sport

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, allegations of political censorship in Brazilian volleyball, as one athlete has the book thrown at her for criticizing President Bolsonaro. And, a legal victory for the families of the victims of a harrowing 2016 air disaster. That, and much more.

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Political censorship in volleyball?

The matter of athletes’ right to express political opinions has taken center stage in Brazil this week, after sports justice prosecutors issued a complaint against beach volleyball player Carol Solberg, who criticized Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro during a live TV interview in mid-September.

What happened? After winning a bronze medal in a beach volleyball event in Rio de Janeiro, Carol was interviewed live on television alongside her playing partner, Talita. At the end of the interview, she took the microphone and said: “just so I don’t forget, Bolsonaro out!”

Hot water. Immediately after the incident, the Brazilian Volleyball Confederation (CVB) renounced the player’s comments, saying they were “not in line with the ethical attitude athletes should adopt.” Furthermore, the CBV promised to “take all necessary measures so that incidents such as this, which denigrate the image of the sport, will not happen again.”

Carol’s explanation. “This ‘Bolsonaro Out!’ has been repressed here in my throat. To see this government acting in this form, with the Pantanal burning, 140,000 deaths, and the way we are facing this pandemic. This cry has been repressed, and I feel that as an athlete I am obligated to take a stand.”

An expensive comment. Beyond a telling off from her bosses, Carol Solberg could now face hefty punishment for expressing her political opinion. The disciplinary case against her in the Superior Sports Justice Court (STJD) could result in a fine of up to BRL 100,000 (USD 17,800) and a six-match ban.

  • Claims of political censorship from her defense have drawn attention to the case, however, illustrated by the fact that she will be represented by the president of the Brazilian Bar Association, Felipe Santa Cruz.

Double standards? Regardless of merit judgments on athletes expressing their political opinions, another reason this case has gained such magnitude is that Bolsonaro-supporting volleyball players have been able to express their support for the president without sanction.

In the 2018 Volleyball World Cup, Brazilian players Wallace and Mauricio Souza were pictured making positive gestures alluding to then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. The CBV did not initially come out against this political expression, and the association went as far as posting the picture on its official Instagram account. After complaints, the association declared it was “against discrimination, but in favor of free speech.” Neither player was punished.

Airline convicted for negligence four years after Chapecoense disaster

Almost four years after the horrific Chapecoense air disaster killed 71 people and rocked the world of football, a state court in Florida, U.S. ruled that now-defunct Bolivian charter airline LaMia must pay USD 844 million (BRL 4.77 billion) in compensation to the victims’ families.

The crash. On November 29, 2020, a plane carrying the delegation of Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed into a mountain upon approaching the Colombian city of Medellin, where the team was set to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana — the South American equivalent of the Europa League. A total of 71 people died in the tragedy, including the vast majority of the Chapecoense playing squad, as well as staff, journalists, and flight crew.

Gross negligence. In an attempt to improve profit margins, the LaMia flight was not filled with enough fuel to safely carry out the flight from Bolivia to Medellin. Rules stipulate that aircraft must have enough fuel to reach their destination, plus an extra reserve to reach emergency landing areas in the event of faults. Records showed that the flight had exactly the amount of fuel necessary to make its trip, meaning that even small delays or diversions would have caused fuel emergencies.

Back at home. There is a public-interest civil action currently pending in Brazil, in which federal prosecutors demand USD 300 million in damages for the victims’ families. The case, however, has stalled indefinitely.

Read more. On the one-year anniversary of the crash, we at The Brazilian Report went back over the tragedy, highlighting the accusations of foul play.

What else you should know

  • 2022 World Cup. Considerably behind schedule, this week South America will begin its qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. What is usually a marathon to qualify for international football’s top tournament will now be a dash. Over the next 18 months, South America’s ten competing nations will play 18 matches each, fighting out for four automatic qualification spots and one play-off berth for the country finishing in fifth place. Brazil face Bolivia at home on Friday, before traveling to Lima to take on Peru.
  • 2022 World Cup 2. Of course, the major focus of these opening matchdays will not be on the football. The start of qualifying in South America is already seven months late, but that is not to say that the Covid-19 situation is under control, especially in countries such as Brazil and Peru. Officials have assured club teams around the world that strict safety protocols will be in their place for their players, but a potential outbreak in any of the 10 teams — with squad members playing all over the world — could be catastrophic. Some 75 percent of players from South American squads play their club football outside the continent.
  • Twitch. Brazil star Neymar is the latest in a long line of professional footballers to start their own channels on videogame streaming platform Twitch. In a broadcast on Thursday night, the PSG forward played 90 minutes of first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, before playing half an hour of popular social deduction game Among Us. After this single broadcast, his channel already has over half a million followers.

On-again, off-again Brazilian football league during Covid-19

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, a tortuous tale of football, rivalry, Covid-19, and the court system. Flamengo eventually did play Palmeiras in the most controversial match of the year. Enjoy your read!

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Football in Covid-19 times: The game that never was … but then was

The headline fixture of this weekend’s Brazilian league saw champions Flamengo travel to São Paulo to take on Palmeiras. As the two richest clubs in the country, with the most expensive squads, the pair have developed a bitter rivalry in recent years. Sunday’s confrontation was no different, filled with back-biting, twists and turns, bizarre decisions, and drama — all of this before a ball was ever kicked.

Indeed, Palmeiras v. Flamengo looked unlikely to take place when a Rio de Janeiro labor court issued an order to postpone the game, as the away side had a total of 36 members of staff infected with the coronavirus — including an incredible 19 players.

The outbreak among Flamengo’s employees got completely out of hand as the team returned from their Copa Libertadores win against Barcelona in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Seven players had already tested positive before the game, leading to fears that the match would be postponed. The game went ahead, Flamengo won 2-1, and returned to Brazil with 36 positive cases of the coronavirus.

With only 13 first-team players fit for the match against Palmeiras, Flamengo successfully petitioned for the game to be called off. But at the 11th hour — or, more accurately, 20 minutes before kick-off — the decision was overturned and the game went ahead.

Reap what you sow? Many have pointed out the irony that Flamengo has consistently been on the side of “playing through” the coronavirus pandemic. With the virus out of control and killing over 1,000 people a day in June, Flamengo lobbied the hardest for football to return. Disobeying social distancing restrictions put in place by the Rio de Janeiro government, the team trained in secret while all other clubs respected isolation rules.

On June 18, the club played a state championship match in an empty Maracanã stadium, with a Covid-19 field hospital set up in the car park outside. Flamengo won 3-0, and a coronavirus patient died in the adjacent hospital during the 90 minutes of play.

Getting their way with the resumption of football, Flamengo then turned their attention to getting fans back in stadiums, meeting with President Jair Bolsonaro and urging the government to allow 30 percent capacity at their home matches.

That Flamengo is now left without enough first-team players to field a full match squad due to Covid-19 infections has been seen by many pundits as a macabre form of poetic justice.

Not playing by the rules. Fueled by the sheer number of infections within the club, there have been accusations that Flamengo are not adhering to Covid-19 safety protocols. After the win in Ecuador, the club posted a photograph of their players on the flight home, with no-one wearing masks or obeying social distancing.

He said what? Flamengo president Rodolfo Landim played down the incident at first, saying that he also takes off his mask to take photographs. “When I go to take a picture, I take off my mask, I hold my breath, and I take the photo. That’s what everyone does.”

More than a slap on the wrist. Despite playing down the incident to the press, Mr. Landim promptly fired the employee who took the photograph, 26-year-old press advisor Matheus Grangeiro.

Common sense, or just desserts? It is clear that, with only 13 healthy players in their first-team squad, Flamengo certainly had an argument to have the game canceled on Sunday. They ended up having to call up youth players to fill up their substitute’s bench — and their defensive line — but that risked exposing them to what is clearly active transmission of the coronavirus within the club. However, as opposed to simply postponing the match, Palmeiras — along with a range of Brazilian pundits — called for the match to go ahead, forcing Flamengo to forfeit the game and award the healthy Palmeiras squad with the points.

Double standards. Health has to come first in Brazil’s return to football, yet there were strong suggestions that Flamengo were receiving special treatment by having their game postponed. Smaller clubs have been forced to play on through their own Covid-19 outbreaks, while only Flamengo’s case has received such a response from authorities. The court order to postpone the game was the result of a plea of the Rio de Janeiro football club’s union Sindiclubes, chaired by an employee of Flamengo. Unions have not spoken up in similar cases involving smaller clubs.

Deciding factor. In the end, it was pressure from Brazil’s other top-flight clubs that forced the game to go ahead. Alleging double standards, Palmeiras threatened that — were the game to go ahead — they would file a motion to the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) to have the 2020 national championship canceled. Their words were supported by executives of dozens of clubs, including some of Palmeiras’ most bitter rivals. In the end, their pressure worked.

And what about the game? In the end, the football was by far the least interesting or enthralling part of this story. Flamengo took the field with a rookie goalkeeper and defensive line made up of youth players, but Palmeiras’ uninspired football of late — and a wonderful midfield performance from Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta, one of Flamengo’s few uninfected senior players — kept the result at a 1-1 draw.

What else you should know

  • Stadium food. With empty grounds at Brazilian football — for the time being — top domestic beer brand Brahma has launched a curious initiative to try and recreate the matchday experience for fans stuck at home. Through a dedicated website, supporters will be able to order food deliveries from traditional bars outside their team’s stadiums, serving classic pre-football fare. In São Paulo, users can order the classic sanduíche de pernil, while fans in Minas Gerais can get a plate of feijão tropeiro sent to their house for half-time.
  • Formula 1. After TV giant Globo decided not to renew its contract to show Formula 1 from 2021 onward, broadcasting rights were bought up by intermediate company Rio Motorsports. The group will now negotiate with television stations to decide where next year’s Grand Prix will be transmitted. Meanwhile, Formula 1 announced that its F1TV streaming service is soon to be launched in Brazil.
  • UFC. Brazil’s Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa was dominated by middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 253 on Saturday night, leaving him with the first loss of his MMA career. Pundits and analysts were critical of Borrachinha’s approach to the fight, while at the same time gushing over the “masterclass” put on by champion Adesanya, of Nigeria.
Coronavirus Sports

Copa Libertadores: Brazilian teams are feared for the wrong reasons

Copa Libertadores — South America’s answer to the UEFA Champions League — is back today, after a six-month hiatus. This return has not been — and will not be — an easy feat, with clubs and federations riddled with economic problems only exacerbated by the pandemic, not to mention the health risks for teams traveling to and from areas where the coronavirus continues to spread.

To make the return possible, the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) has developed a sanitary protocol to create “mobile bubbles,” by isolating players and coaches as much as possible from outside risks. Over USD 94 million have been invested in order to pay for charter flights for teams, isolated hotel wings in cities hosting games, as well as PCR tests for players and coaching staffs.

Still, there is no way to ensure that Copa Libertadores 2020 will be a success — neither from a sanitary perspective or competition wise. We explain why:

No true ‘bubble’ for Libertadores teams

As much as Conmebol is making an effort to isolate teams, the mere fact that weekly international travel is required makes it a risk. There is nothing in South America remotely comparable to what the NBA did for its 2020 playoffs or UEFA did for the final stretch of the Champions League.

Moreover, there is no region-wide free-circulation agreement (the Andean Community zone includes only Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; while Mercosur is made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay). 

Meaning that, in many cases, passport controls are necessary — which is already a small poke at Conmebol’s “mobile bubble.”

The pandemic is not over

Since May, South America has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — six of the top 11 worst-hit countries are from the region. Curves are trending upwards in Argentina and Peru, with the latter posting the single highest Covid-19 death rate per 1 million people in the world. In Brazil, the spread might have slowed down in major centers, but remains uncontrolled in the interior of the country.

We also have the Venezuelan case, where the increasingly authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro has tampered with the data since the outbreak started.

Teams from multiple have shown concern about the competition. Executives at Paraguayan side Guaraní told editor Euan Marshall that they don’t feel safe. The team will travel to Argentina and Bolivia, and will host Brazilian side Palmeiras on September 23. Meanwhile, Argentina’s Defensa Y Justicia travels to Santos next month for a game. “Let’s cross our fingers for nothing to happen to us in Brazil,” said club president José Lemme.

Different reopening stages

South American teams’ football reopening has been uneven, which might also hurt the quality of play. 

In Paraguay, a country less affected by the pandemic when compared to the rest of South America, games resumed as early as July. 

Meanwhile, there is no return date to Argentina — where deaths have just topped the 10,000 mark. Training has been greenlit, but games haven’t taken place since March. And just two weeks ago, one of the strongest sides in South America, the Buenos Aires-based Boca Juniors, saw 22 athletes catch the coronavirus after the club’s “bubble” burst.

In Brazil, games resumed last month in a catastrophic fashion. Opening weekend saw outbreaks in five teams — with a game postponed after one first-division side had eight infected players among its starting 11. Things seem under control now, but Brazilian players are facing another problem: the calendar. 

In order to compensate for the stoppage, teams are playing two times a week, every week — and more limited squads are already showing signs of fatigue.


Video-assisted shambles in Brazilian football

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! This week, VAR troubles in the Brazilian league, with one player taking out his frustrations on a television screen. Plus, the Copa Libertadores returns: we explain the detailed safety protocols in place.

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Open VAR in Brazilian football

Opinions on VAR are like football teams: everybody has one. However, no-one has made his feelings clearer on the video assistant referee system than Botafogo’s Paraguayan goalkeeper Gatito Fernández, who — after seeing his side having two goals disallowed by VAR in a 2-0 home loss to Internacional — angrily knocked over the pitchside review booth with a kick square to the monitor.

Indeed, this past weekend had more VAR than football, with a special mention for the big Sunday afternoon kick-off between Santos and Flamengo, in which two goals for the home side were ruled out in a decision-making process that took a full 10 minutes.

“Of course I regret it,” Gatito said the following morning, as the dust settled. “But we cannot have completely unprepared professionals using this technology.”

Bad workman blames his tools. Beyond the VAR complaints seen all over world football — “it ruins the flow of the game!”, “football isn’t meant to be fair!”, “it’s biased against my club!” — there is an added element to the technology in football debate in Brazil, touched on by Gatito Fernández the day after his rage quit captured live on TV. The main criticism of the system in Brazil is that the referees are not sufficiently prepared to use it.

Skipping steps. Referees in Brazil are not professionals, meaning that for them, football is simply a gig on the side, supplementing their income from teaching gym, working the beat as a police officer, or — in the case of recently retired whistler Péricles Bassols — pulling teeth. As such, there is a call for Brazilian football to first improve the standard and training of its officials, before introducing technology. In the current state, it is akin to giving a souped-up motorcycle to someone who has barely learned how to ride a bike.

Countries approve protocol for Covid Libertadores

With the acquiescence of the governments of Argentina and Uruguay, the 2020 Copa Libertadores — South America’s biggest club football competition — is ready to return in two weeks’ time. After much discussion among all 10 member states of the South American football confederation Conmebol, the safety protocols to resume the tournament during the deadly Covid-19 pandemic have now been fully approved by all nations involved.

Special permission. The main stumbling block to the continuation of the Copa Libertadores was the ban on commercial flights between South American nations, instated to contain the spread of the coronavirus around the continent. Conmebol has received special permission from each individual government to fly away teams to their matches, and the organization will pay for all chartered trips.

Having their cake and eating it. With Latin America becoming the global epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were real doubts over whether the 2020 Copa Libertadores — which was postponed in its early stages — would ever be completed. Now, not only is the tournament to be resumed, but Conmebol has made no concrete changes to its format, with every proposed match — including two-legged knockout ties — scheduled to go ahead. Along with the already existing disruption to domestic leagues and World Cup qualifiers, insisting with a full Libertadores fixture list is set to leave the South American football calendar completely jam-packed right up until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Protocol. According to what was agreed by member nations, the remainder of the 2020 Copa Libertadores will work as follows:

  • Before away teams embark, they must have submitted results of PCR tests of the entire delegation 24 hours before traveling. Anyone with positive or inconclusive results will be barred.
  • When in foreign countries, teams must remain in their hotels, leaving only for a pre-scheduled training session, the match itself, and then the return to the airport.
  • Upon arrival in foreign airports, delegations will be taken through immigration separately from all regular passengers.
  • Upon entering team buses, a representative from Conmebol will “seal” the vehicle, not allowing anyone to enter or exit until arriving at the pre-agreed destination.
  • Hotel keys will be distributed on the bus, to avoid excessive gatherings in hotel lobbies and elevators.
  • Players will not be able to shower in stadium changing rooms, having to instead use hotel showers before arriving at the match.
  • After the game is finished, clubs have 24 hours to return to their home country. Visiting delegations are forbidden from remaining in foreign countries for over 72 hours.

What else you should know

  • F1 axed. While Covid-19 has led to the cancellation of the Brazilian GP later this year, fans of Formula 1 received another piece of troubling news as TV giant Globo announced it would no longer broadcast the F1 season on free-to-air television. This means that, in 2021, Formula 1 GPs will not be shown on national television for the first time in almost 50 years. The expectation is that this will lead to the F1 TV streaming service being expanded to Brazil.
  • Hyper Pharma Arena. Along with ‘deadline,’ ‘impeachment,’ and ‘home office,’ the Brazilian Portuguese lexicon has been expanded to include the English term ‘naming rights’ as a result of Corinthians’ six-year struggle to find a commercial partner to advertise on the name of their stadium, built for the 2014 World Cup. Pharmaceutical firm Hyper Pharma is hotly tipped to have made the winning bid, in a deal reportedly worth BRL 350 million (USD 63.9 million) over 20 years. 
  • Nike drops Neymar. Less than a week after he was pictured in tears after his Paris Saint-Germain side lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich, Brazilian star forward Neymar has been dropped from his sponsorship contract with Nike. Neymar has been paid to wear Nike equipment since he was just 13 years old, but will now have to find someone else to supply his boots. As pointed out by website MKT Esportivo, the apparel giant’s recent ad campaigns have not included the PSG icon, suggesting the move has been planned for some time.

Even in defeat, is Neymar the best in the world?

After a long Covid-19 hiatus, the Brazil Sports newsletter returns. With the European season brought to a close by the Champions League final, we look at chances Neymar has of being named World Player of the Year. Ronaldinho is set to return to Brazil after five months in custody in Paraguay, and the Brazilian FA pretends Covid-19 never happened with its bonkers football schedule for 2021. Enjoy your read!

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Another score to settle for Neymar

Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain battled it out for the Champions League trophy on Sunday, but many had this game billed differently: for them, it was Robert Lewandowski v. Neymar, a straight showdown between two forwards for the title of The Best Fifa Men’s Player award, set to be announced later this year. As it happened, this meeting of the two leading candidates for football’s biggest individual honor ended with Neymar in tears.

Neither player made an unquestionable case for winning the award, but the 28-year-old Brazilian striker certainly hurt his own chances with a largely anonymous display, as the German champions ground out PSG with a commanding and assured 1-0 win. Now, Neymar reaches another fork in his professional career, which has been one of the most fascinating trajectories to follow in recent years.

What went wrong? Neymar was quiet in Sunday’s match, but credit for this must go to Bayern Munich, who rarely allowed PSG’s forwards a way into the game. Regardless of the circumstances or the opposition, however, the significance of an underwhelming display at this point in Neymar’s career cannot be understated.

Third time still unlucky. In three years at Paris Saint-Germain, the Champions League trophy has eluded Neymar. His first two seasons saw him sidelined with injury as his teammates were dumped out in the knockout rounds. This year, he was almost as absent once again as PSG failed to win the top prize.

What now? Fans and pundits may be quick to jump to the conclusion that Neymar has run his course at the Paris club, suggesting he now look for pastures new. However, an exit now seems unlikely. With two years left on his contract, he carries a market value of USD 151.5 million, and PSG’s Qatari owners are unlikely to let him go for anything less than the USD 262 million they paid for him back in 2017. And while he would walk into any side in world football, no club has the money to buy him, particularly with Covid-19 financial troubles set to lowball transfer fees for the time being.

  • What is much more likely is PSG changing to accommodate Neymar. As things stand, the team is increasingly reliant on the Brazilian forward and his French partner-in-crime Kylian Mbappé. Despite having talented players all over the pitch, when push comes to shove PSG simply look to launch the ball toward Neymar and Mbappé, hoping they can conjure up moments of match-winning brilliance.
  • Neymar needs more teammates at his high level. Perhaps, with doubts surrounding the future of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, the Argentinian could be persuaded to hop over the Pyrenees and join up with his old teammate.

But, is he the best? You won’t find many takers for this argument after such a lackluster showing in a Champions League final, but at this moment in world football, there no more talented and complete attacking player than the 28-year-old from São Paulo state. He might just deserve the top prize, Champions League or no.

Is that enough? For most players, winning Fifa’s highest individual honor serves as no consolation for losing the Champions League final with your team. But it might be just what Neymar is after. Throughout most of his career, Neymar maintained that his idol in the game was Robinho, a fellow product of the youth system at Brazilian club Santos, and whose talent and success Neymar has long surpassed. When leaving Brazil as a teenager, en route to Real Madrid, Robinho told the press that his ultimate goal was not winning the Champions League, or the World Cup, it was to be the best player in the world. Indeed, he managed neither, but this individual desire is something Neymar shares.

Despite three failed attempts at winning the Champions League with PSG, if this season gets Neymar his platinum-coated player of the year trophy, he might just look back at it as all being worthwhile in the end.

Ronaldinho could return to Brazil

After five months under arrest in Paraguay — first in a high-security prison and then under house arrest in a four-star hotel — former World Cup-winning forward Ronaldinho is expected to be granted the right to return to Brazil later today.

How did he get there? We covered the ins and outs of Ronaldinho’s legal woes in Paraguay in previous editions of this newsletter but, in summation, in March, the twice World Player of the Year was arrested alongside his brother Assis in Asunción, after being found in possession of fake Paraguayan passports.

The investigation. Almost half a year later, Paraguayan police are no closer to knowing why the brothers received the passports, or what they were to be used for. Ronaldinho and Assis — who doubles up as the former Barcelona player’s agent — claimed the documents were surprise gifts from their sponsors in Asunción, alleging they had no idea they were fraudulent, despite neither having applied for Paraguayan citizenship. One theory is that the brothers may have intended to use the passports to obtain an E-2 investor visa for the U.S, for which Paraguayan citizens are eligible, not Brazilians.

The deal. In order to return to Brazil and have the investigation dropped, Ronaldinho and his brother confessed to the crime of using fake documents, but not producing or commissioning them. They have agreed to pay a USD 200,000 fine in exchange for the right to leave Paraguay.

Once Ronaldinho and Assis are ‘out of the picture,’ Paraguayan prosecutors will turn their attentions to business owner Dalia López, accused by the brothers as being the mastermind of the fake passport scandal. Ms. Lopez is the owner of the NGO that brought Ronaldinho to Asunción in March, sponsoring the launch of his Spanish-language autobiography. Her firm is under investigation for money laundering, and Ms. López is currently on the run, with her lawyer claiming there is a “price on her head.”

Scheduling madness for Brazilian football in 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a major reshuffle in the 2020 Brazilian football season. The national championship, which usually runs from May to December, will now extend until February of next year. As a result, there was an expectation that 2021 would be a reduced-size ‘adjustment season,’ but the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) didn’t get the memo.

Full steam ahead. The CBF has announced a jam-packed schedule for 2021, with Brazil’s state and national championships going on as normal. Players will be given no preseason break, finishing this year’s national league and jumping straight back into state-championship play.

International duty. Major sides are set to suffer an additional disadvantage from this football timetable, as the 2021 Brazilian season will coincide with an equally frantic year of international football. Despite a Copa América and a slew of backdated World Cup qualifiers on the cards for next year, Brazilian football will not stop for anything. Therefore, players who represent their national teams could miss up to 18 games of the 2021 Brazilian championship — almost half the league season.

What else you should know

  • Record figures. In Brazil, the broadcasting rights for Sunday’s final belonged to Turner, a subsidiary of WarnerMedia, representing a break with the tradition of free-to-air behemoths TV Globo showing the Champions League final nationwide. Turner’s TNT channel recorded the highest viewing figures in the history of Brazilian pay-TV, while their official Facebook stream of the match hit the stunning milestone of 4.2 million concurrent viewers during the second half, a world record for a sporting event.
  • Serie A. The Brazilian championship rounds off its fifth matchday in midweek, since its hurried return from the Covid-19 pandemic stoppage. At this early stage, with eight sides still having a game in hand, southern club Internacional lead the way with four wins and one loss. Having played one fewer game, Vasco da Gama are unbeaten in second, while Jorge Sampaoli’s Atlético-MG have been the league’s most entertaining side so far — they sit in third.
  • Abuse in gymnastics. An internal audit at Esporte Clube Pinheiros, the sports club that invests the most in Olympic sports in Brazil, has unveiled a litany of racial and psychological abuse of its gymnasts committed by coaching staff. The reporting team at Esporte Espetacular got a hold of the report and showed numerous examples of abuse suffered by young gymnasts, aged up to 15 years old. Poorer athletes, who receive scholarships to represent the club, were threatened with having their funding cut off and “left to go hungry.” 
  • Beach bubble. The heads of Brazil’s beach volleyball championship have announced that 2020 competitions will go ahead next month, using the NBA’s ‘bubble league’ strategy to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 infections.
Coronavirus Sports

Brazilian football returns … with a fever

On the same weekend that Brazil reached the shameful milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths and 3 million cases, the country kicked off its 2020 national football championship, with 60 clubs in three divisions zipping all over the country to play in empty stadiums.

After the arrival of the coronavirus on Brazilian shores, the 2020 football season was always going to be problematic, with clubs’ revenue severely jeopardized by the four-month stoppage and the lack of paying customers at matches. But after just one weekend of fixtures, we have seen just how disorganized this year’s league will be, with only six out of ten top-flight games going ahead, and one match postponed 15 minutes before kick-off, after news that the home team had nine players infected with Covid-19.

Still, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is adamant that the competition will continue, with an additional 60 clubs returning to action in September as the fourth division begins. [restricted]

Taking players and coaching staff into account, the return of football means that well over 3,000 individuals are flying all over the country and mixing with other groups, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in Brazil, with no imminent signs of slowing down.

Despite the postponement of games and new cases among players, the CBF claims that its sanitary protocols are as safe as possible. “There is nothing that is risk-free. We have worked hard, exhaustively, in debates with more than 140 doctors, to set up a structure close to what we consider ideal. […] Games in which we had problems with dates or outsourced lab tests, of course, we suspended,” said CBF Secretary-General Walter Feldman, speaking to UOL. 

Five outbreaks on opening weekend

Brazilian football returns … with a fever
New pre-game preparation. Photo:

On Sunday afternoon, football club São Paulo visited the Center-West city of Goiânia to take on Goiás in their league opener. However, with the away side on the pitch and ready to play, the referee called the came off, as it had been revealed ten Goiás players had tested positive for Covid-19, including eight of the team’s starting 11.

The CBF, in turn, didn’t lift a finger, and Goiás had to obtain a court order in order to postpone the match. Having found out earlier that afternoon that its squad members had tested positive, Goiás scrambled around for youth players to be made available to play, just in case the game went ahead. Reserve goalkeeper Matheus was with his family enjoying a Father’s Day lunch in the countryside when he was called in to beef up Goiás’s matchday squad. He and several other youth players had not been tested for Covid-19.

National team right-back Daniel Alves, who plays for São Paulo, expressed his anger and dismay on social media. “I would like to say it is inadmissible what happened today. […] Life is the most important [value], so the rest makes no sense,” he said, in an Instagram post.

The São Paulo delegation flew home on a chartered plane, in order to diminish the risk of contagion. But such precautions are a luxury only some elite clubs can afford. According to Globoesporte reporter Pedro Alves, none of the ten third-division sides who played away from home this weekend received their Covid-19 test results before traveling, putting scores of people in danger.

The previous day, Goiás’s city rivals Vila Nova took a commercial flight to the city of Manaus for their first game of the third division season. Upon touching down in the Amazonas state capital, they received the news that two of their players had tested positive for coronavirus. Still, their match against Manaus FC went ahead, though one of the assistant referees had to be replaced at the last minute, after he had also tested positive for Covid-19.

Elsewhere in the third tier of Brazilian football, the match between Treze and Imperatriz was canceled after 12 of the away side’s 19-man squad tested positive. Again, they only received these results after embarking on an odyssey of buses and planes to reach the match. Their 23-hour long trip involved two flights and two coaches, despite the fact the clubs are based only 1,200 kilometers away from each other. Furthermore, at least a dozen of the traveling party were already infected with Covid-19.

The decision to cancel matches was reasonably arbitrary. Southern Brazilian sides Brusque and Ypiranga took the field despite both sides having infected players — one for the home side and five for the visitors. Brusque won 2-1.

In the second division, recently relegated club CSA had nine infected players but were forced to play their season opener against Guarani. They won 1-0.

On Tuesday morning, CSA announced that a total of 18 players had contracted Covid-19, and their match against Chapecoense on Wednesday has been postponed.

Despite this disarray, the CBF has deemed the first round of matches a success. “[Postponements] were particular cases out of 25 Brazilian championship games that went ahead this weekend. Overall it was positive,” said Secretary-General Mr. Feldman. Nevertheless, the football association was forced to make changes to its Covid-19 protocol going forward.

More testing

While European leagues have successfully returned by testing all squad members and implanting “bubbles” among their first-team staff, Brazilian clubs were only testing a portion of their players each time. As of next Friday, all registered footballers will be tested before every game. However, there are matches scheduled for this evening, Wednesday, and Thursday, which will follow the old protocol.

The CBF said it is committed to releasing the results as early as possible — at least 24 hours before kick-off for home teams, and 12 hours before travel for away sides. Tests, which were previously all carried out by the renowned Hospital Albert Einstein in São Paulo, may now be performed by local laboratories.

“The CBF reaffirms its commitment to hold the competitions scheduled on its calendar, always prioritizing the health of all those who are a part of football,” said the confederation, in an official statement.[/restricted]


Brazil’s greatest footballing tragedy a testament to structural racism

When one thinks of Brazil’s biggest sporting tragedies, the mind immediately wanders to the 2014 World Cup semifinals, when the national football team was destroyed by champions-in-waiting Germany, seven goals to one, in front of their home fans. However, the defeat pales in comparison to the significance of a loss suffered 70 years ago today, when Brazil saw the World Cup trophy slip through its fingers in front of almost 200,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro.

The “Maracanazo” of 1950 — when Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay and saw their tiny neighbors from the south crowned world champions at their expense — became a source of huge national shame, with the widespread excitement around the national football team giving way to defeatism and even self-hatred. In fact, the fallout even took on racial overtones, as the press and fans turned on Brazil’s three black players, creating certain prejudices that persist in the national game until today.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall

The importance of Brazil’s loss in the 1950 World Cup was magnified by the fact that the team were the absolute favorites to win the trophy. The traditional European footballing powers were still in a period of reconstruction after World War II, while reigning champions Italy had seen the spine of their team perish in the Superga air disaster of 1949. Brazil were hosting the tournament and they already seemed to have one hand on the cup.

Brazil strolled through the tournament, qualifying for the final stage and needing a simple draw in the final match against Uruguay to win their first-ever world championship. The certainty of victory was such that the press was already hailing Brazil world champions on the morning of the game, and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Ângelo Mendes de Moraes gave an extremely confident speech to the team before kick-off.

“You Brazilians, who I consider as winners of the tournament … Who in less than two hours will be acclaimed as champions by millions of your compatriots … You have no equal in this hemisphere, you are superior to any opponent, you who I already address as conquerors.”

The gods of football, however, had something else in mind. Though Brazil controlled the majority of the game, taking a 1-0 lead, they gradually started to relax and allowed openings for their Uruguayan visitors. With 66 minutes on the clock, the unthinkable happened: Uruguayan winger Alcides Ghiggia tore down the right flank and cut the ball across goal for center-forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino to shoot high into the net. 1-1.

The Maracanã stadium, with 200,000 supporters in attendance, went completely silent, so much so the cheers of the 11 Uruguayan players could be heard high up in the stands. With the scores level, Brazil would still be crowned champions, but the potential of failure fell on the stadium like a ton of bricks.

Brazil’s players suffered a collective collapse under the pressure, not too dissimilar from what was seen in the 7-1 drubbing against Germany in 2014. And on 79 minutes, it happened again. Ghiggia broke down the right side once again, and just as he was about to repeat the exact same play as the first goal, cutting it back to Schiaffino, he angled his body and shot for goal himself, and it crept into the near corner of the net. The last 11 minutes of play were met with a deafening silence.

football world up 1950
Scoreboard shows Uruguay winning 2-1 to a flabbergasted crowd. Photo: Public Archive

The fallout for Brazilian football

Brazilian journalist Paulo Perdigão, in his wonderfully obsessive book Anatomy of a Defeat in which he pieced together radio commentary to come up with a comprehensive autopsy of the 1950 loss to Uruguay, described the match as “a Greek tragedy in the Third World (…) it was a Waterloo in the tropics, and its history our Götterdämmerung”.

The optimism and pride that had radiated among Brazilians during the tournament had disappeared, and in its place came defeatism and self-hatred. Brazil looked up to the Uruguayan team — in particular their commanding captain Obdúlio Varela — as archetypal human beings: admirable men with integrity and mental strength, able to win under pressure and against all odds. Meanwhile, they saw their own team, and the Brazilian population as a whole, as no more than spineless dogs, forever bullied and bossed around, ultimately unable to rise to any challenge.

Brazilian fans laid the blame for the 1950 defeat on the doorsteps of three of their starting lineup. The first was Flamengo’s left-back Bigode. An accomplished defender, known for his strength and flying tackles, his reputation would change forever during the first half of the match against Uruguay. At the beginning of the game, he stayed close to right-winger Ghiggia, stepping on his toes and trying to unsettle the quick attacker. Concerned his teammate was being intimidated by his Brazilian marker, Uruguay captain Obdúlio Varela told Ghiggia off, demanding he stand up for himself.

From that moment, Ghiggia appeared to play with more confidence and the tactical battle between him and Bigode would prove critical to the outcome of the match. However, it was an incident some minutes later that would seal Bigode’s fate with the Brazilian public.

After reinstating Ghiggia’s confidence, Obdúlio Varela turned his attentions to Bigode. During open play, the Uruguayan violently grabbed Bigode by the neck and some accounts say he sneaked a sly punch on the Brazilian’s chin. Bigode, wary of punishment and putting his team in serious trouble by leaving them with 10 men, chose not to retaliate. To the 200,000 fans in the Maracanã, Bigode’s refusal to react came across as cowardice. He appeared as nothing more than a subservient dog kicked by his master, the imposing Varela. While Varela was revered for his authority and virility, it was in Bigode that the Brazilian saw himself – and for that they hated him.

The second culprit was Brazil’s goalkeeper, Moacir Barbosa. An excellent player in his time, Barbosa came into the final after a stellar World Cup. In Brazil’s draw against Switzerland he made a heroic last-minute save, touching a shot from Hans-Peter Friedländer on to the post to save them from defeat. In the following match against Yugoslavia, he made a number of critical interventions, allowing Brazil to progress to the final stage.

It was beyond doubt, however, that Barbosa was partially at fault for Uruguay’s winning goal on July 16, 1950. Having expected Ghiggia to cross the ball to Schiaffino, his positioning was poor and gave the Uruguayan winger reason to believe he could score by himself. Barbosa was caught off guard by Ghiggia’s shot on goal and though he managed to get down to meet the ball, he could only fumble it into his own net.

Considering he was one of Brazil’s greatest goalkeepers and an idol at his club side Vasco da Gama, Barbosa was perhaps treated the harshest out of the Maracanazo’s “guilty trio,” as his career became defined by his second-half performance in that fateful match. In 1994, he told reporters: “the maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years. I’ve been paying 44 years for a crime I didn’t commit.”

The third of the accused was not blamed right away, but while journalists and fans went after Bigode and Barbosa, the players and coach blamed center-back Juvenal. He was Bigode’s defensive partner at Flamengo, and his crime in 1950 was poor covering and defensive positioning. Bigode, his teammate for club and country, was brutally clear about who was at fault: “We lost the match because Juvenal screwed up. At the second goal he should have been covering me but he just stood still, doing who knows what.”

There were rumours that Juvenal’s preparation for the match had been less than satisfactory, having had a fight with coach Flávio Costa the night before. The story goes that Juvenal had asked to leave the team hotel the day before the game to visit his sick mother, but instead went out drinking, was caught, and brought back to the hotel still inebriated. It is speculated that he was confronted by Costa and the two argued, ending with the coach striking his defender across the face. Costa acknowledged the incident at the time, quoted as saying he “punished Juvenal, like a father would to his son,” but denied it years later. Brazil’s only other center-back was injured, so, disagreement or not, Flávio Costa was forced to play Juvenal against Uruguay.

In the decades after the Maracanazo, players on both sides would organize reunions where they would reminisce about the match. Juvenal was one of the few who refused any invitations, unable to forgive being thrown under the bus by his team-mates.

Out of the three accused, Barbosa was the only one ever to play for Brazil again, playing once against Ecuador in 1953. Bigode and Juvenal, regulars before 1950, would never get anywhere near the national side.

One important fact connects Bigode, , and Juvenal: they were the 1950 Brazil team’s three black players. As one of the last countries to outlaw slavery in 1888, Brazilian society in the 1940s and 1950s was still heavily divided and racist sentiments remained prevalent. Many of the same people that gave birth to Brazil’s “stray dog complex” with their self-hatred and feelings of inferiority believed that their defeat came as a result of Brazil’s deep racial mixture, claiming the Brazilian had turned into some sort of impure sub-race.

This was made all the more vicious by the fact Bigode, Barbosa, and Juvenal were defenders, positions of confidence. Over the years, Brazil has been blessed with tons of wonderful black and multiracial players, but less so in defensive positions, and almost never as goalkeepers. The progression of this racist idea was that black players might well be technically gifted and creative, but they could not be trusted.

It is ironic, then, that the player Brazil’s “stray dogs” looked up to after 1950, the mentally strong and commanding Obdúlio Varela, was himself multiracial. His father was a white Spanish immigrant and his mother, Juana, was a black laundry worker.

Excerpts of this article were adapted from A to Zico: an Encyclopedia of Brazilian Football, co-authored by Euan Marshall and Mauricio Savarese.


When Brazil played in North Korea … sort of

From atop the Arch of Triumph, a monument of much pride for North Korea, one of the officials who guided me around my ten-day stay in the most closed-off country in the world directed my attention to the grand stadium directly in front, for two reasons:

“In this stadium, our Eternal President made his first speech after liberating the Korean people from Japanese imperialists. Oh, and it was also there that Brazil played against our national football team. You must have heard about that match. It was very good. I was there.”

It was September 2017. I had entered North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with government permission for a visit that would result in a series of articles and my third book, The Hermit Kingdom. Among the conditions to receive a visa for North Korea was agreeing to the permanent surveillance of three guides and relinquishing any control over my choice of hotel, dates of stay, and my itinerary. Everything was orchestrated so that I would only see and register exactly what the North Korean regime allowed me to see.[restricted]

Put simply, the plan was to show all of the positives of the country so that I could relay this to the ‘outside world.’ 

This state propaganda tour included a trip to the Arch of Triumph and the 50,000-seater Kim Il-sung Stadium, the second-largest arena in capital city Pyongyang. It was there that, at least according to North Koreans, the national football team played Brazil in a 2009 friendly match, in preparation for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In what was considered a major coup for the government, they had managed to attract the legendary Brazilian national side to Pyongyang — or, at least, so they thought.

Football in North Korea

Built in 1926, the Kim Il-sung Stadium hosted North Korea’s major football matches up until the 1950s, until it was destroyed by U.S. bombs in the Korean War. But, as the arena was a symbol of the “revolution,” it was completely rebuilt after the war and reopened in 1969, under the name Moranbong Stadium. After another renovation in 1982, making the facilities more modern, it was renamed the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, stage of the supposed historic match between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Brazil. 

The day before my visit to the Arch of Triumph, the stadium hosted a key Asian Cup qualifying match between North Korea and Lebanon, which ended in a 2-2 draw. I was able to watch the game on North Korean state television, which had not broadcasted the match live. The cameras showed an impeccable green pitch and stands packed with red-shirted fans. The home support was very disciplined, not carrying any flags or banners, and they did not leave their seats at any point, nor did they jeer the opponents.

The only noise from the crowd were loud and united shouts of “ooh!” every time the home side constructed a threatening attack, and applause for impressive plays or North Korean goals. When Lebanon had the ball, the stadium descended into complete silence. I had asked to watch the game live, in the stadium, but my guides said it was impossible, as it wasn’t on my schedule.

And it was here, in the Kim Il-sung Stadium, that North Korea played the fabled friendly against Brazil. But it wasn’t quite the Brazilian national team — North Korea’s opponents on that day were actually Atlético Sorocaba, a small pro side playing in the second division São Paulo state championships.

The arrival of ‘Brazil’

sorocaba in pyongyang
Atlético Sorocaba players in Pyongyang. Photo: Author provided/Waldir Cipriani

This odd sporting event in the world’s most closed-off country was actually orchestrated by Sun Myung Moon, the Korean religious leader best known as Reverend Moon, who founded the Church of Unification in the 1950s. The church was particularly prominent in Brazil, especially in the 1990s, when Reverend Moon bought more than 80,000 hectares of land in the interior of Mato Grosso do Sul state, taking hundreds of followers with him. He then expanded his business, buying car factories, broadcasters, and investing significant sums of money into two football teams: Clube Esportivo Nova Esperança (CENE, from the reverend’s ranch in Mato Grosso do Sul), and Atlético Sorocaba.

Flown over to Pyongyang, Atlético Sorocaba’s delegation went through the same situation I did eight years later. Upon arrival, all players and staff had their phones and passports confiscated, before being whisked off to a monument in tribute of Kim Il-Sung, where a club representative left flowers, and players paid homage. In the days that followed, every move that the delegation made was under the watchful eye of government-appointed bodyguards, and they visited many of the same sites I would be taken to in 2017.

With the country having failed to qualify for a World Cup in 44 years, the North Korean fans were ecstatic to see their country’s first match against Brazil — expecting to see the five-time world champions, home of legends such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pelé. Amid the buzz, 80,000 fans squeezed into the stadium, with another 30,000 milling around outside, watching the match on a large screen, none the wiser that their opponents were a tiny club team who weren’t even big enough to play in Brazil’s national league.

The big match

brazil north korea line ups
“Brazil” and North Korea lineups. Photo: Author provided/Waldir Cipriani

The Brazilian players, speaking about the match afterward, were surprised by the behavior of the fans — the same shouts of “ooh!” when the home side attacked, and the complete silence whenever “Brazil” had possession. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and upon returning to Sorocaba, the players and staff claimed they avoided winning out of fear of punishment from the North Korean regime.

“It was a difficult game. Our delegation was only 30 people, it was just us against an entire country, and we had no idea what was going on, or what could happen. The atmosphere in the game was tense,” said Atlético Sorocaba’s starting goalkeeper, Klayton Scudeler. “But when you get on the pitch, you forget it, you want to win. I think the result was good for both sides.

The manager of the Brazilian side, Edu Marangon, explained how the home fans may have been tricked into thinking they were playing the Brazilian national side. “The scoreboard had us down as Brazil. Atlético Sorocaba’s colors are red and yellow, but as North Korea play in red, we wore a yellow strip, and they thought we were the Brazilian national team,” he said, in an interview with news website UOL. The locals were so convinced that a crowd followed the Atlético Sorocaba team bus to the stadium, greeting the middling São Paulo side with chants of “Brazil! Brazil!”

There was some suspicion that this whole “mix up” was premeditated by the North Korean government. The following year, in South Africa, the real Brazilian national team faced North Korea in their opening group match of the World Cup. Brazil won 2-1, a result celebrated by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his advisors.

Atlético Sorocaba’s Asian odyssey didn’t end there, however, and the club ended up making another four trips to North Korea, before the team folded in 2016, four years after Reverend Moon’s death, which spelled the end of his sizable investments in the provincial side.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Sports

Brazilian clubs pushing for risky return to football

On June 18, Rio de Janeiro clubs Flamengo and Bangu played the first football match in Brazil since March, when tournaments stopped as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Inside the city’s Maracanã stadium, there was no crowd to be seen. Meanwhile, in the ground’s car park, a coronavirus field hospital is filled with Covid-19 patients — one of whom reportedly died during the game. 

While major European leagues have returned to complete their 2019-2020 seasons after a flattening of their respective coronavirus curves, Brazil is attempting to resume football while case numbers are still rising. Between June 14 and 20, the country had the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, with more than 29,000 new infections on average each day.[restricted]

Flamengo — Brazilian and South American champions — are leading the efforts to get back on the pitch. The club president recently met with President Jair Bolsonaro, who is staunchly against social isolation policies and has long advocated for the return of football.

The Rio de Janeiro state championship was postponed once again soon after the Flamengo v. Bangu clash. Other major clubs in the city refused to return to action while the pandemic remained out of control.

Flamengo’s eagerness to resume play is driven by economic interests. The wealthiest football club in the country has massive revenue and expenditures and miss out on profit while they are not playing. Consulting firm Sports Value projects losses of around BRL 2 billion (USD 387 million) for the 20 biggest clubs in Brazil as a result of coronavirus stoppages. The biggest impact comes from the loss of gate receipts and TV broadcasting rights.

“There is a brutal reduction in revenue, and expenditure is not keeping pace. That is why the trend is that 2020 will be a year of deep deficits, clubs will end the year with huge losses,” analyzes Amir Somoggi, a partner of Sports Value.

Flamengo was the first Brazilian club to return to training, on May 20, despite not having legal authorization. In a country where testing levels are low, the club carried out its own coronavirus screening on players and coaches.

With the endorsement from the federal government, several other clubs returned to practice. However, rules in Brazil differ from state to state. On Monday, São Paulo club Corinthians announced that their own mass testing operation had found 21 positive results among 28 players. In 191 tests, including staff members, the club found that 55 people have had or still have the novel coronavirus.

But Corinthians and Flamengo’s financial power, with the ability to test their squads, is not the norm in Brazilian football. And the disparity impacts the situation in many ways.

Football clubs in crisis

Major clubs will suffer much larger losses, but it is the smaller sides that are put at severe risk due to the coronavirus stoppage. 

Brazilian football is deeply unequal in financial terms. The following chart shows the revenue of 16 biggest teams in Brazilian football, as well as the winners of the second and third division in 2019 — the gap in revenue is gigantic, even within the top division.

Who wants to play?

In lower divisions, the reality of professional football is drastically different. Only a small percentage of clubs actually play in the national league setup, with the rest competing only in state championships, which take place at the beginning of the year. By June, they are often out of work until the following January.

The National Federation of Professional Football Athletes surveyed the opinion of Brazilian players regarding the return to football. The percentage of those who are in favor of playing increases as average wages decrease. The data indicates that those who earn less money are keener to get back to playing, presumably due to their need for income.

The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has announced a BRL 100 million interest-free loan to first division clubs, with BRL 15 million to be distributed among second division sides. The funds come from advanced payments of broadcasting rights — as such, third and fourth division clubs are not involved in the program, as they do not have television contracts.

These teams are in a group of 140 clubs who will have to share a BRL 19 million donation provided by the CBF. On average, each will receive just BRL 135 thousand. According to Mr. Somoggi, it is not enough or even close to what Brazil’s football association could provide.

“I don’t see anything important happening. CBF has BRL 700 million in cash and considered the possibility of helping football, but there are so many obstacles that the clubs will start to declare bankruptcy. Noroeste, a club from Bauru, for example, has already gone bankrupt due to not receiving support. There is no state championship, no support, no return, no ability to generate revenue, so they closed their doors,” says Mr. Somoggi.[/restricted]


Listen to our special podcast series on the 1970 World Cup

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s triumph at the 1970 World Cup, The Brazilian Report has put together a special three-part podcast series on the historic tournament. In each episode, with the help of experts Tim Vickery and Andrew Downie, editor Euan Marshall takes us through different aspects of the Mexico World Cup, going on and off the pitch to analyze the competition’s historic significance for Brazil and the rest of the world.

In episode 1, we tell the story of João Saldanha, Brazil’s coach before the tournament and a card-carrying communist under a brutal military dictatorship. Rumor has it that Saldanha was sacked for his political beliefs, but we analyze the facts behind his turbulent time in charge of the national team. Then, we look at how the military did influence Brazil’s World Cup win, and it might not be where you expect.

In episode 2, we explore an often overlooked facet of the 1970 World Cup. Pelé was the hero of the tournament and winning the trophy cemented his place as the greatest player ever to play the game. However, just months before the cup, Brazilians were debating whether the King of Football was even good enough to make it into the national team squad.

In episode 3, we turn our attention to the grand finale between Brazil and Italy, and take apart some long-held misconceptions about the two teams, and the decisive match itself. Then, to round off the series, we look at the legacy of the 1970 World Cup, framing its importance to the history of the sport in Brazil and worldwide.

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The political role of Brazil’s football ultras

Political tensions in Brazil were taken up a notch on Sunday, as protesters for and against the Bolsonaro government clashed on the streets of São Paulo. On one side, there were demonstrators in support of the current administration, who have flouted social isolation measures on a weekly basis to demand the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. This time, however, they were confronted by an anti-fascist march “in favor of democracy,” headed by organized groups of supporters of São Paulo’s biggest football clubs, representing a show of unity between factions that are traditionally fierce rivals.

The protest was organized on social media by anti-fascist supporters clubs and collectives belonging to the city’s four biggest football teams: Corinthians, Palmeiras, São Paulo, and Santos. [restricted]While not officially endorsed by the largest organized supporters groups in the city, members of the Corinthians-supporting Gaviões da Fiel, Palmeiras’ Mancha Alviverde, São Paulo’s Independente, and Santos’ Torcida Jovem were seen among the crowd of thousands gathered on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista.

As the protest converged with pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators, the anti-fascist group was pushed back by the military police’s riot squad, using flash bombs and tear gas.

Football rivals joining forces for democracy

Not only was Sunday’s protest significant as the first time anti-Bolsonaro demonstrators have taken to the street during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also represented a historic show of solidarity between warring fan groups, more accustomed to facing off against one another in running street battles.

Speaking to newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, one Palmeiras supporter present at the protest stated that “political ideology comes above any football club.”

Veteran sports journalist Juca Kfouri explains that the protesters comprised anti-fascist wings of existing supporters organizations, which have been around for some time. “But it holds an incredible symbolic weight, seeing bitter rivals like Corinthians and Palmeiras joining together,” he tells The Brazilian Report. “It’s like [former center-right President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso standing alongside [radical left-wing politician] Guilherme Boulos.” 

Coincidentally, both ex-president Cardoso and Mr. Boulos are co-signatories of the broad opposition movement #Juntos (“Together”).

Torcidas organizadas

The presence of football fan groups in political movements is hardly a novelty in world history, and indeed many of Brazil’s largest organized supporters groups — known as torcidas organizadas — were born out of a political cause.

The Gaviões da Fiel, the largest organizada of São Paulo’s most popular club Corinthians, was founded in 1969, during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Fans mounted an insurrection against club president Wadih Helu, who was a state lawmaker for the military regime’s ruling political party.

The main function of these supporters groups comes during the football season, with torcidas organizadas being largely responsible for the chants, banners, and overall atmosphere Brazilian football is famous for.

Outside of the stadium, many of these groups engage in charity fundraisers, supporting vulnerable communities. The Palmeiras-supporting Mancha Alviverde, for instance, recently delivered 100 tons of food and medical supplies to indigenous communities in the north of São Paulo, which have suffered from a recent spike in Covid-19 cases.

anti-fascism football brazil
Anti-fascist demonstrator. Photo: Pam Santos/FP

Bad reputation

Nevertheless, the overarching image of organized fan groups in Brazil is one of crime and violence. Rival supporters have engaged in countless running battles in recent decades, leading local law enforcement to ban all away fans from derby matches in the city. 

Meanwhile, Brazil’s largest supporters groups are rumored to have links with organized crime gangs, particularly in São Paulo. In 2016, a peace treaty agreed among the city’s four largest ultras groups was believed to have been brokered by the notorious First Command of the Capital (PCC) criminal gang, in a bid to take the police spotlight away from their illegal activities.

However, as Juca Kfouri points out, the violent elements within these fan groups “represent the minority of the minority.”

Indeed, studies on organized supporters groups suggest that much of the violence comes in response to the treatment of law enforcement, which is notoriously heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with football fans. “When you treat people like animals, you can expect an animalistic reaction,” says Mr. Kfouri.

The old hostilities between torcidas organizadas and the police were renewed on Sunday, but footage of the protests show riot squads instigating much of the violence. One video, circulating on social media, shows the military police firing tear gas bombs toward the anti-fascist football fans, before one officer appears to exclaim, “is there a more beautiful sight than this?”

football Empty tear gas canisters used on anti-fascist demonstrators in São Paulo. Photo: Pam Santos/FP
Empty tear gas canisters used on anti-fascist demonstrators in São Paulo. Photo: Pam Santos/FP

“It’s curious to see people getting upset over the violence of the torcidas organizadas, but not at the behavior of the police,” says Mr. Kfouri.

Indeed, Sunday was not the first time fans of Corinthians and Palmeiras joined together for a political cause. On October 13, 1945, the bitter rivals, both with working-class backgrounds, took to the pitch for a friendly match to raise funds for the nascent Brazilian Communist Party, which became known as “the Red Derby.” Coming months after the Fall of Berlin and the end of World War II, the two teams took to the field carrying the flag of the Soviet Union. Palmeiras won the game 3-1.

Politicized football fans in Chile

Football supporters groups also played an active role in last year’s wave of protests in Chile. With confrontations between police and protesters resulting in the death of 34 people at the hands of law enforcement, the country was in turmoil — yet the football season trudged along, much to the disgust of players and fans alike.

In November, supporters of Chile’s biggest football club Colo-Colo invaded the pitch during a match between Unión La Calera and Deportivo Iquique, forcing the game to be abandoned. This scene was repeated several times, with the involvement of a number of rival clubs, and the Chilean Professional Football Association reluctantly ended the 2019 championship, declaring Colo-Colo’s rivals Universidad Católica as the winners. 

Whenever taking the field to interrupt matches, fans around the country rallied behind the same chant: “calles con sangre, canchas sin fútbol” — blood on the street, no football on the pitch.[/restricted]


The inescapable importance of futsal

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. With the death of Brazil’s “father of futsal,” we look at the history of the sport and its massive influence on football as a whole. Also, with football fans in Brazil suffering extreme withdrawal symptoms, broadcasters are showing classic title wins of the country’s biggest clubs. Enjoy your read!

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The legacy of futsal in Brazil, for better or for worse

Last week, journalist Newton Zarani died at the age of 93, after suffering a stroke. Despite being one of Brazil’s leading football journalists during the 1950s and 1960s, he is best known for his work in futsal, helping to create the Rio de Janeiro Futsal Federation in 1954, the first such organization of the sport in the country.

Futsal? Created in the first half of the 20th century, futsal became a growing option for children and adults alike as Brazil’s large cities became more and more cramped, and full-size pitches became more scarce. Played on hard indoor sports courts, futsal differs from association football in that the ball is smaller and heavier, with the sport meant to be played on the ground and favoring short passes and dribbles.

Ballroom football. The name futsal is an abbreviation of futebol de salão, which literally translates as “ballroom football.” According to the late Newton Zarani, “it was classy football, with neat touches, pretty dribbles, and no heavy fouls,” hence the name.

Youth players. The original benefit of futsal, allowing people to play where full-sized grass pitches were unavailable, became even more pressing in the 21st century. Urban violence became a constant fear for residents of big cities, and closed housing complexes and membership clubs became extremely prevalent. As a result, kids learning football would often get their start in escolinhas — “little schools” — which practiced futsal as a less-physical alternative to football, later feeding into proper 11-a-side association play.

Bad habits. Brazilian footballers are haunted by the stereotype of going down too easily in the tackle and looking for free-kicks whenever possible. While this is a trait shown by players all over the world — not just Brazil — there is a certain prevalence of “foul-seeking” in Brazilian play. The popularity of futsal as an initiation sport to football could go some way to explain that. Based on dribbles and reduced contact, futsal will penalize a large portion of contact that is acceptable in association football. Largely, if a player goes down under a tackle, he/she will be given a free-kick. This ended up translating into the professional game.

Exceptions. An overwhelming majority of Brazilian footballers got their start playing futsal in escolinhas, helping to shape the quite distinct characteristics of typical 21st-century Brazilian footballers. However, a few youngsters who grew up on street football and 11-a-side amateur football still make it through the ranks.

  • The best example is Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, who developed his skills playing amateur football in the north zone of São Paulo. Competing against people of all ages in often violent and overly physical matches, players who come through these leagues are visibly different footballers. With the literal need to develop self-defense, Gabriel Jesus displays an incredible command of his weight. Despite his slight physique, he can push much larger players off the ball and escape losing out in physical battles, a technique seen in amateur and street football all over Brazil.

Reliving historic titles in Brazil

gabriel barbosa libertadores
Gabriel Barbosa celebrates the Copa Libertadores title. Photo: Alexandre Vidal/CRF

After showing reruns of famous victories of the Brazilian national team, TV broadcasters are now airing momentous title-winning matches of some of the country’s biggest club sides every Sunday afternoon, in the traditional 4 pm kick-off slot.

Withdrawal. The thirst for a return to football is such that Brazil’s sports pages have included in-depth coverage of the German Bundesliga — which returned this past weekend — as well as mentions of the South Korean K-League. While reliving international glories was well received, it doesn’t quite scratch the itch of the Brazilian football fan, who places much more importance on club competitions.

Reliving the title. On Sunday afternoon in São Paulo, fireworks were heard in a number of the city’s neighborhoods as Paolo Guerrero scored the winning goal for Corinthians to defeat Chelsea in the 2012 Club World Cup. In Rio, there were similar reports as TV Globo showed Flamengo’s dramatic last-minute winner against River Plate in last year’s Copa Libertadores final.

Size of a continent. Thanks to the size of Brazil, each region is very particular about its football consumption. In the south-east state of Minas Gerais, showing Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo on local TV would attract little to no viewers, so TV Globo instead chose to broadcast Atlético-MG’s 2013 Copa Libertadores triumph over Paraguayan side Olimpia.

Here were some of Sunday’s offerings, broadcast around Brazil:

  • Corinthians 1-0 Chelsea, 2012 Club World Cup final. Tite’s imperious Corinthians side marched all the way to the Copa Libertadores title and then to world glory by sticking to a strict, well-drilled gameplan, based on the entire team defending diligently whenever they lost possession. The victory against Chelsea was something of an anomaly, as the English side had been surprise winners of the Champions League earlier that year. The title-winning side had been transformed completely and they would not have been considered among the top ten European clubs of the time. It is likely to be the last time a South American nation outplayed European opponents at the Club World Cup.
  • Flamengo 2-1 River Plate, 2019 Copa Libertadores final. Without hyperbole, last year’s Flamengo side is the best team to come out of South America in a couple of decades. Managed by Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus and bolstered by the wonderful talents of Gabriel Barbosa, Bruno Henrique, Gerson, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, they blew away all comers last year, winning the Brazilian and South American championships. Interestingly enough, however, the Libertadores final against River Plate was one of Flamengo’s poorest performances under Jorge Jesus. One-nil down and struggling with a handful of minutes left on the clock, a fairytale brace from Gabriel Barbosa won the trophy for the rightful owners.
  • Atlético-MG 2-0 Olimpia, 2013 Copa Libertadores final. On paper, this Atlético-MG team was never going to work out. With players such as an aging Ronaldinho, Everton flop Jô, Diego Tardelli, Luan, and Guilherme among their ranks, it was said that this would be a good group of players to organize a barbecue, but not to win continental silverware. Led by ultra-attacking coach Cuca, Atlético-MG embarked on one of the most thrilling title runs in living memory, flying by the seat of their pants, grabbing last-minute winners, heroic turnarounds and nail-biting penalty saves.

Cash-strapped Brazilian players want to get back on the pitch

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. Football players have come out in favor of bringing back the sport during the pandemic, but mostly for financial reasons. Also, two ex-footballers fight about politics, reminding us how rare it is to see any form of political activism in Brazilian football. Enjoy your read!

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Brazilian athletes want to get back to work

As leagues in Europe discuss a potential return for football, it would appear Brazil is far from being able to bring back the beautiful game, as its Covid-19 curve continues to rise. While this hasn’t stopped some state associations and the federal government trying to schedule a return to play as soon as possible, there is far too much uncertainty among fans and players regarding how football can safely be played during the pandemic.

Message from the players. From the players’ point of view, however, the bottom line is that they want to get back on the pitch. In a video released by players’ union Fenapaf, 16 top-flight footballers delivered a message stating they are in favor of returning, but only if they can guarantee their own safety. Beyond their professionalism and “love for the game,” the statement touched on the important point that for many of Brazil’s players, the will to return to playing is a financial necessity. “Most of us only work three months a year, 95 percent earn less than twice the minimum wage,” said the players.

The hidden majority. The vast majority of footballers in Brazil play for clubs outside the national league structure, meaning they only play official games between February and April. As a result, these players have been left without a year’s income already.

  • This is backed up by a recent study carried out by the São Paulo footballers’ union. Out of the 511 men’s and women’s players consulted, almost two-thirds said they were in favor of bringing back regular football — however, over half of these respondents said they “would rather not return, but [they] need the financial return.”

Boots on the pitch, food on the table. The desire to return appears to be inversely proportional to players’ salaries, as, among the top division of football in São Paulo, just 55.12 percent said they were in favor of playing again, against 72.18 percent in the second and third divisions.

Rudimentary safety measures. The biggest concern of all players is how their safety will be guaranteed in a potential return to football. Some suggestions have been made, beyond the no-brainer of playing matches behind closed doors. Players could be forced to wear masks during the game, be forbidden from hugging team-mates during goal celebrations, and Fifa has allowed the use of five substituted per match to cut down physical exertion. 

  • In Brazil, there is also a discussion over a rudimentary coronavirus exam before players are allowed to take the field. Club doctors would measure the body temperature of players and administer what is being called “the coffee test,” having each member of the team smell a cup of coffee, and if they can’t pick up the scent, they would be barred from playing.

Coronavirus in clubs. A number of Brazilian clubs have registered cases of Covid-19 among their ranks. Thirty-eight members of staff at champions Flamengo have tested positive, including three players. Grêmio forward Diego Souza has also contracted the virus, along with two other members of staff at the club.

Bolsonaro and political footballers

A recent political (or non-political?) discussion between two ex-footballers has sparked some reflection on exactly which role sportsmen and women should or should not have in public discourse.

Raí speaks out. The discord began when São Paulo director of football, former World Cup-winner Raí, spoke out against the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Speaking to daily sports show Globo Esporte, Raí called the president “irresponsible” and called for his impeachment in light of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Stick to football.” Some days later, fellow ex-São Paulo player Caio Ribeiro commented on Raí’s words on a cable TV roundtable show, saying that the speech was out of place, and that the director of football should stick to purely sporting matters.

  • “I didn’t like Raí’s speech, because he talked very little about sport and very much about politics. Though he may say it’s his personal opinion, he is an important figure in São Paulo and his declarations rub off on the institution. I think he should talk about sports.” 

An exception, not the rule. The history of Brazilian football has always been closely tied to politics, especially from its foundation all the way up to the 1980s. However, there have been precious few examples of political activism from within football, meaning that any small instance of political discourse coming from a player’s mouth automatically takes on larger dimensions.

Corinthians Democracy. The most famous example of Brazilian players engaging in politics was the Corinthians Democracy in the early 1980s. As the military dictatorship’s grip on the country began to slip, there was a growing clamor among the population for direct elections and a return to democracy. At this time, led by Raí’s late brother, the midfield maestro Sócrates, São Paulo club Corinthians developed a way to show the public the benefits of democracy, implanting a radical political system within their team. For all club decisions — this encapsulated everything, from tactical choices, when the team would gather before a game, or whether their bus could stop for pee breaks — Corinthians took it to a vote. Players, coaches, and all staff members each had an equal say. 

That’s about it… The fact that the Corinthians Democracy is so celebrated and widely known is an illustration of just how few examples there are of political activism within Brazilian football.

Coronavirus Sports

A premature return for Brazilian football?

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! With the Covid-19 pandemic reaching a critical stage in Brazil, government discussions over bringing back football have been criticized and seen as hasty. Also, we look back on the life of Ayrton Senna, Brazil’s Formula 1 hero. Enjoy your read!

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Only fools rush in as Brazil plans hasty return to football

On Saturday, the 2020 Brazilian championship season was set to kick-off, with reigning champions Flamengo starting the season at home against Atlético-MG. Of course, no football was played this weekend, and the Covid-19 pandemic has cast doubt over the chances of the 2020 national championship taking place at all. However, with the support of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, recent talks suggest that Brazil could be the first South American nation to see a return to football. Whether that is a smart move is another discussion.

Covid-19. Brazil has now recorded over 100,000 cases of the coronavirus and 7,000 deaths — and one-third of these totals were registered over the last seven days. The situation is becoming desperate in many parts of the country, with local health systems collapsing left, right, and center. So, why on earth would a return to football even be discussed?

States under pressure. The national championship is certainly the biggest money-spinner in Brazilian football and is by far the most important domestic tournament, but the rush to get back to playing is not linked to the national league. The most pressing matter are Brazil’s state championships, held all over the country in the beginning of the year. While largely outdated and no longer regarded as major trophies, these competitions are absolutely vital for the survival of state football federations and medium to small-scale clubs.

Unfinished business. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Brazil’s state championships were already well underway, with most of the leading tournaments approaching their final stages. The knockout stages are the most lucrative games of the competition, and the associations and clubs are largely desperate to finish them. It is no coincidence that representatives of the Rio de Janeiro football federation were at the table for discussions with President Bolsonaro.

Is it possible? The spread of the virus has affected some parts more than others, meaning that a single nationwide return to football would be impractical. However, even in the least affected parts of the country, the government’s proposed return date of May 17 would be simply impossible.

Playing to the gallery? For President Jair Bolsonaro, football fans are a useful — if heterogenous and undefined — demographic for his electoral support. Akin to the leaders of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Mr. Bolsonaro has made it a habit of attending matches and gaining the plaudits — and jeers — of the fans in attendance. Advocating for the return of football could be a way of pleasing the fans who are also in favor of scrapping social isolation measures.

Ayrton Senna, 26 years on

ayrton senna
Ayrton Senna in 1989

Twenty-six years ago on Friday, three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna crashed his car into a concrete barrier during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Suffering massive head injuries, he died three hours later. The death of Ayrton Senna was one of the most tragic moments in Brazilian sport, and his memory will live on for many generations to come.

Formula 1 in Brazil. In the late 1980s and early 1990s in Brazil, Formula 1 was right up there alongside football in terms of popularity, thanks largely to Senna and his countryman contemporary Nelson Piquet. Football also had a lot to do with the sport’s rise to prominence. Brazil had not won the football World Cup since 1970, leading glory-hungry sports fans to turn elsewhere to get their kicks. With Senna and Piquet, they had it all: excitement, skill, rivalry, and — most importantly for the Brazilian audience — a chance of winning.

Glory. Ayrton Senna won his first world championship in 1988, the same year he joined the McLaren team, racing alongside his team-mate —and soon-to-be-rival — two-time world champion Alain Prost. With eight wins and 13 pole positions, Senna broke records to take the 1988 crown. When Prost left McLaren in 1989, Senna became the team’s number-one driver and took two championships on the trot, making him the youngest driver to win three Formula 1 world championships.

Death. The weekend of the 1996 San Marino Grand Prix saw an above-average number of crashes. During a Friday practice session, fellow Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello suffered a crash which very nearly cost him his life. Then, in qualifying, novice Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a crash, which cast doubt over whether the drivers would even race on Sunday. Reportedly, after Senna’s death, race stewards found a rolled-up Austrian flag inside his car, which he had planned to unfurl after winning the race, in honor of Ratzenberger.

On its final lap. While still gaining plenty of attention from television broadcasters, Formula 1 as a sport is severely dwindling in Brazil. Since Felipe Massa packed it in in 2017, Brazil has had no representatives in Formula 1, which hadn’t happened since 1969. At this rate, races are unlikely to be broadcast on television in five years’ time.

Nostalgia. On Sunday, however, millions are expected to tune in as TV Globo broadcasts a full-length re-run of the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, regarded as Senna’s most spectacular win. In the driving rain of São Paulo, Senna’s gearbox failed during the race, leaving him without his third, fourth, and fifth gears. As a result, he had to negotiate his way through the last seven laps using only sixth gear, meaning that all slow corners held a huge risk of stalling his engine. Physically destroyed by keeping his car on the track, Senna had to be lifted out of his vehicle after crossing the finish line and was transported to the podium by medical staff.


Rituals, superstitions, and Brazilian football

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, with relegated Cruzeiro getting into debt with a priest, we look back at the history of superstition and faith in football, featuring a curious tale about a toad. Also, São Paulo’s Pacaembu stadium turns 80 years old, and we pay tribute to a true temple of football, and an architectural gem. Enjoy your read!

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Priests and toads: superstition in Brazilian football

In their unsuccessful fight against relegation in 2019, Belo Horizonte club Cruzeiro hired the services of Reginaldo Muller Pádua, a pai-de-santo. In the Afro-Brazilian religions Umbanda and Candomblé, a pai-de-santo is a priest figure who is in charge of contacting spiritual deities known as orishas, and administering blessings and counsel.

After employing Mr. Pádua, Cruzeiro beat São Paulo 1-0 and the pai-de-santo received the first installment of the BRL 10,000 fee agreed upon with the club. Cruzeiro then went on to have their best run of the season, going eight games unbeaten and, for the first time in 2019, it appeared they might just escape relegation.

However, after paying Mr. Pádua 60 percent of the agreed value, Cruzeiro were defeated by bottom-of-the-table CSA, and relegation looked near impossible to avoid. The club stopped paying their pai-de-santo and never did manage to recover. When the Brazilian championship starts up again, Cruzeiro will be playing in the second division for the first time in their 99-year history.

And they still have to pay their priest.

Though talk of rituals and spirits might sound somewhat unorthodox for a European or American audience, Brazilian football actually has a long and rich history of superstition — which only adds to the mystique of the sport.

For one of the most famous — and almost certainly confabulated — tales of curses and superstition in Brazilian football, we have to go back to the 1930s and Arubinha’s Toad.

In 1937, reigning Rio de Janeiro state champions Vasco da Gama were set to play away from home against the lowly Andaraí, from the north of the city. On their way to the match, one of the cars transporting Vasco’s delegation was involved in a car crash, delaying the team’s arrival for several hours. Andaraí were left waiting in the rain, and despite having the right to be awarded the points, the club agreed to play the game as normal, only asking that Vasco — the best team in the state at the time — did not take advantage of their goodwill.

Despite benefitting from this act of good sportsmanship, Vasco’s players showed no restraint whatsoever and destroyed Andaraí on the pitch, with the game finishing 12-0. Incensed, one of the defeated players, Arubinha, knelt on the touchline and prayed to the heavens, cursing Vasco to go for 12 years without winning a single trophy: one year for each goal. 

Legend has it that Arubinha completed the jinx by burying a toad underneath the pitch at Vasco’s São Januário stadium.

Vasco paid little notice to the threat until they began losing championship after championship. Their paranoia was pushed so far that the club actually dug up their pitch, looking for Arubinha’s toad, but there was nothing to be found.

In 1945, nine years after the fateful 12-0 against Andaraí, Vasco sought out Arubinha, begging him to dig up his toad and lift the curse. He claimed he had never actually gotten around to burying an amphibian under the São Januário turf, and promised that Vasco’s hoodoo had been lifted. Sure enough, a matter of months later, Vasco lifted the Rio de Janeiro state championship trophy once more.

80 years of the Pacaembu

Pacaembu today. Photo: Prefsp via Fotos Publicas
Pacaembu today. Photo: Prefsp via Fotos Publicas

On April 27, 1940, the São Paulo municipal government inaugurated the Pacaembu stadium. The largest stadium in Latin America at the time, its doors were opened by President Getúlio Vargas and the construction symbolized the country’s plan to build a strong nation through sporting prowess. 

Modeled on the Olympiastadion in Berlin, the Pacaembu stadium was an Art Deco masterpiece, with an imposing, dramatic façade, sweeping horseshoe terraces, and an acoustical shell at one end for musical performances.

It hosted matches at the 1950 World Cup and went on to become one of the most iconic symbols of football around Brazil, principally in São Paulo.

Today, 80 years on from its opening, the Pacaembu is being used for a different function. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the pitch has been transferred into a field hospital, underlining the importance of the stadium not just as a football venue, but as a piece of the city’s heritage.

This link is reinforced at every football match staged there, as the stadium announcer begins every event with an emotional welcome to “my, your, and our Pacaembu.”

And seeing a game at the Pacaembu is a unique experience. In many ways, the stadium is much the same as the one that hosted matches at the 1950 World Cup and then renovated in the 1960s, removing the acoustic shell and replacing it with a steep standalone terrace fondly nicknamed the Toboggan, from which stadium-goers can enjoy a superb view of the pitch, the stadium, and the surrounding city.

Last year, as part of the local government’s divestment project, the Pacaembu stadium was finally sold to the private sector. By law, it is no longer “mine, yours, or ours,” instead belonging to faceless consortium Allegra. The plan — before the coronavirus outbreak saw it requisitioned once more by the local government and turned into a hospital — was to renovate all of the old terraces and knock down the Toboggan, making way for a shopping center.

Perhaps now, with the people of São Paulo remembering just how dear the stadium is to their hearts, the consortium may have a change of heart. 

Coronavirus Sports

How much will Covid-19 cost Brazilian football?

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. Continuing the theme of looking back at historic moments in Brazilian football, I write a love letter to my favorite match of all time. Elsewhere, the billionaire hit facing the country’s football clubs, forced to down tools amid the Covid-19 pandemic. If you have any Enjoy your read!

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BRL 1.1 billion: the Covid-19 bill for Brazilian football

In recent weeks, we have discussed the financial chaos set to ensue among Brazil’s professional football sides as a result of the Covid-19 stoppage. With the exact ramifications still unclear, sports financing consultancy Sports Value has predicted that the interruption of matches will result in a combined hit of BRL 1.1 billion to the revenue of the country’s 100 largest clubs.

Crunching the numbers. The most obvious loss will come in gate receipts. With no matches taking place, there is no way to sell tickets. Even once football resumes, there is every likelihood that matches will be played behind closed doors for some time. As a result, season ticket programs will also suffer — a crucial source of income for elite clubs in the 2010s.

  • Elsewhere, broadcasters and sponsors are beginning to walk away from the game, as we reported in recent weeks. Furthermore, this BRL 1.1 billion figure doesn’t even factor in the loss of revenue from player transfers, with many clubs only managing to stay afloat by selling footballers to Europe and Asia.

No-one is safe. There was a belief that some sides — such as Flamengo, Palmeiras, and Corinthians — would be able to weather the storm thanks to their increased cash flow. However, national champions Flamengo recently took out a BRL 50 million loan from Santander bank, justifying it as a “safety mattress,” due to delays in payments from sponsors. If Flamengo has to resort to that scale of lending, imagine the rest.

The Match of the Century

1970 World Cup
Teams from England and Brazil line up prior to their World Cup match in the Jalisco Stadium in Mexico, June 7, 1970. (AP Photo)

Part of the job of sports journalists and writers concerns what we call narrative, taking a match beyond the pitch, court, or ring and placing it into another context. At times, these connections can come across as forced. A weeknight league match doesn’t always encapsulate a historic battle between two schools of tactical thought; an Olympic basketball game between the U.S. and China isn’t necessarily a proxy struggle for global supremacy.

Last Tuesday, Brazilian TV channel SporTV showed a full-length re-run of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup group match against England, the match that was billed “The Game of the Century.” This, unlike many others that came before and after, deserved its title as one of the most momentous, narrative-soaked encounters the sport has ever seen.

The context. Going into the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, the last three trophies had been won by Brazil (1958, 1962) and England (1966). Despite a performance called “shameful” by journalists back home four years previously, Brazil went into the competition fancying their chances of glory. England, the reigning champions, were the favorites. The surprise of being drawn together in the group stage — alongside the hotly tipped Czechoslovakia and Romania — only increased the anticipation ahead of this first-round clash of titans.

Tactical battle. At this point in the history of football, Brazil and England were the two most important nations in the tactical development of the sport. The former had pioneered the four-man defense and dazzled the world with its futebol-arte in 1958 and 1962. England, meanwhile, took the idea of a four-man defense and went one further, abolishing the idea of traditional wingers and winning the 1966 World Cup using a revolutionary 4-3-3 system.

Politics. Away from football, 1970 was a crucial point for both Brazil and the United Kingdom. With the decolonization of Africa, the British Empire had all but come to an end. In Brazil, the military dictatorship eyed the World Cup as a way to launch the regime’s soft power, sparing no expense in the team’s preparation and employing NASA training techniques to ensure the squad was in tip-top condition.

Bad blood. Brazil and England were at each other’s throats in the months leading up to the game. In a BBC debate between Sir Alf Ramsey and then-Brazil coach João Saldanha, England’s boss accused Brazilian football of being overly violent, to which Saldanha claimed that Ramsey’s team didn’t play by the rules, insinuating that they had only won the 1966 World Cup with help from referees.

“England always plays by the rules!”

“Since when?”

“Since we invented the game!”

The superiority stemming from the “ownership” of football as a sport was evident in the 1970 England team, but their grip on the game was about to slip through their fingers.

The game. Brazil v. England turned out to be the tightest and most tense match of the entire tournament. England remained defensive, keeping plenty of bodies behind the ball and launching it up the field as quick as possible once in possession. Brazil dominated, but could not find a way through, sorely missing the vision and passing range of midfielder Gérson, who had picked up an injury in Brazil’s opener against Czechoslovakia. Contrary to popular belief, at the time of the 1970 World Cup, it was Gérson — not Pelé — who was considered the star of the Brazil team. His absence was evident throughout the match.

The goal. For such a closely fought 90 minutes — which included a legendary save from England’s goalkeeper Gordon Banks — it was fitting that the only goal would be one of such singular quality. In the 59th minute, Tostão picked up the ball on the left side of the penalty area, jostling and juggling his way past three defenders, putting the ball through Bobby Moore’s legs in the process. Far from goal and with his back turned to the penalty box, Tostão scooped out a sweeping cross that landed perfectly at the feet of Pelé, in what was arguably the only 30 centimeters of space in a packed goal area. Instinctively and without looking, Pelé rolled the ball to the right to the onrushing Jairzinho, who brought it forward and pumped the ball into the England net, with a shot resembling a blast from a shotgun.

Brazil has scored many beautiful goals at the World Cup, including others in 1970. For my money, however, none is more awe-inspiring than Jairzinho’s winner against England.

Eduardo Galeano, in his legendary book “Football in Sun and Shadow,” described the goal as England’s “steel citadel being melted by the hot breeze blowing from the south.”

The photo. As if in mutual joy at the spectacular show of football they had just put on for the Mexican crowd, the two sets of players buried the hatchet after the full-time whistle. As reporters flooded onto the pitch, Pelé swapped shirts with England captain Bobby Moore, who had lifted the World Cup just four years ago. The two shared an embrace, immortalized in a photograph taken by the Daily Mirror’s John Varley.

pele bobby moore
Pelé (left) and Bobby Moore. Photo: John Varley
  • The moment encapsulated everything about the match, which in itself encapsulated contemporary football. It was respect, adoration, camaraderie, and a passing of the baton. The Match of the Century.

Nostalgia on TV reignites old Brazil debate

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! This week, with Brazilian TV showing reruns of classic matches, an interesting debate on style v. results has been reignited, using the 1982 World Cup as a backdrop. Meanwhile, we have the latest on Ronaldinho, out of jail, but still in Paraguay. Happy reading!

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Nostalgia on TV reignites old Brazil debate

It may shock Brazilians to know that outside of its borders, the most famous and adored Brazilian World Cup side by some distance is Telê Santana’s 1982 team. Equally, it may shock foreigners to know that in Brazil, the 1982 side is often ignored, cast aside in favor of the teams of 1970, 1994, or 2002.

  • The deciding factor in Brazil is clear: the country won the World Cup in 1970, 1994, and 2002, while in 1982, they were eliminated at the second group stage. Therefore, there can be no comparison for Brazilians. The disappointment of defeat clouds any debate over the magic and importance of the 1982 side, heralded by non-Brazilians as one of the most exciting football teams of all-time ever.
  • As we mentioned last week, Brazilian sports channels are filling up space on their schedules by airing reruns of classic matches. And it is in this context that the 1982 side is beginning to have something of a renaissance, with an entire generation of fans seeing Zico, Socrates, and co. for the very first time.

How good were they? Over the years, I have watched Brazil’s five 1982 World Cup matches a number of times. The midfield quartet of Cerezo, Falcão, Socrates, and Zico is perhaps unmatched in world football history. The way they exchange positions instinctively and appear to waltz past opposition defenses is just as thrilling now as I imagine it was at the time.

The magic. Brazil’s group games flew by like extended highlight reels. The Soviet Union and Scotland both managed to take the lead, before being overwhelmed in second-half flurries. Zico, Socrates, and Eder combined to score an impressive average of three goals a game.

  • Yet, as good as they were in possession, there was always a certain defensive vulnerability about Brazil in 1982. The Seleção’s marauding fullback pairing of Leandro and Junior were feared in attack but hardly watertight in defense. The flexibility of the team’s shape came with trade-offs: coach Telê Santana employed a rudimentary man-marking system for whenever Brazil lost the ball, and it meant that one mistake, or a piece of individual skill from the opposition, could see their entire defense cut open.

The Tragedy of Sarriá. Needing only a draw against Italy to progress to the semi-finals, Brazil were — at the time, inexplicably — defeated 3-2 by Italy and thus sent home. The pain of this defeat was immeasurable, and its fallout prompted a change in philosophy for the national team. Despite having received all of the plaudits for playing such attractive and involving football, Brazil were eliminated early, by an Italian team that was unfairly seen as weak.

  • The conclusion back home was simple: the captivating, “organized mess” of Brazil 1982 may have been pretty on the eye, but it was not enough to win trophies. Brazil went back to the drawing board and tore up all of the 1982 blueprints, the embarrassing defeat would usher in decades of defensive and cynical Brazilian football, with the final result taking precedent above all else, above form, finesse, and fame.

Ronaldinho leaves jail and goes under house arrest

Ronaldinho after being arrested by Paraguayan authorities

After a month behind bars for carrying a fake Paraguayan passport, former Brazil star Ronaldinho and his brother Assis have been released from a maximum-security jail in Asunción, and are now officially under house arrest. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the pair will remain under lockdown in the luxurious Palmaroga hotel, close to the Asunción bay.

The case. As we explained some weeks back, Ronaldinho and his brother were taken into custody after Paraguayan police found them in possession of fake passports, which suggested the pair were naturalized citizens of Paraguay. Despite pleading ignorance — saying he thought the passports were a “gift” — Ronaldinho and his brother were sentenced to remain in jail until their trial.

  • After many appeals, Paraguayan courts finally allowed the pair to leave jail, accepting bail of USD 1.6 million as a guarantee they would not leave the country. Surrounded by members of law enforcement wearing protective masks, a grinning Ronaldinho was filmed walking free from an Asunción police station, on his way to the hotel. There was even time to sign a quick autograph before he was ushered away. Ronaldinho will now remain in house arrest until his trial, which is expected to take place in September.

Hard life. Ronaldinho, Assis, their lawyer, and a personal assistant are now the only guests at the luxury hotel. As opposed to a jail cell, the former World Player of the Year will now be able to enjoy a king-size bed, a 55-inch 4K television, and a jacuzzi. There’s also a rooftop pool, and a fully equipped gym to help Ronaldinho stay in shape.

But … As a result of Covid-19-imposed social isolation measures, Ronaldinho’s lifestyle is potentially more restricted now that it was in jail. Members of law enforcement are deployed outside of his suite 24-7 and the World Cup-winner cannot receive any visits, due to the ban on public gatherings. 

Furthermore, with most of the hotel’s staff furloughed, enjoying the four-star amenities may not be so straightforward for Ronaldinho. All facilities outside of his personal suite require sanitization before and after use, and he will need to phone ahead if he wants to use the gym or swimming pool. Perhaps the football tournaments in prison weren’t that bad, after all.


Brazilian football faces crisis as sponsors cut and run

Hello, and welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. Isolation continues, and new developments with sponsors and broadcasters but the survival of a number of Brazilian football clubs at even more risk. Plus, with sports channels replaying classic matches to fill airtime, we take our own trip down memory lane and recount the tale of the 1970 World Cup Final.

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Can Brazilian football survive the Covid-19 pandemic?

We mentioned in recent weeks that only a handful of Brazilian clubs had the cashflow necessary to weather the Covid-19 storm and the loss of revenue it will cause. The outlook has gotten even worse, however, with news that sponsors and broadcasters are planning on pulling funding.

TV money. Brazilian broadcasting giant TV Globo has announced it has indefinitely suspended payments of broadcasting rights money for the country’s state championships, which have been interrupted and may go unfinished. Even for Brazil’s biggest sides, TV money represents a massive proportion of overall revenue, particularly at a time when gate receipts are nonexistent. For smaller sides, it is practically their only source of income.

TV money 2. Beyond Globo, competitor Turner has sent a letter out to the eight clubs with which it has individual broadcasting agreements for the Brazilian championship, stating that negotiations will get underway to terminate these contracts. In 2019, Turner broadcast matches from the national championship on its digital channels Esporte Interativo, TNT, and Space. Reportedly, however, the American company is no longer satisfied with its viewing figures and revenue.

Cut and run. Beyond broadcasting rights, football clubs in Brazil rely on the support of myriad sponsors, each paying for a little scrape on teams’ increasingly overcrowded jerseys, and often doing so in short-term contracts. For the vast majority of these companies, the only way they will see a return from these investments is from exposure on television. Without games, there is no reason for them to pump money into sponsorships.

Crying over spilled oil. A report from newspaper Estadão shows that olive oil company Azeite Royal is planning to ditch its sponsorship contracts of Rio de Janeiro’s big four sides, while Corinthians and Santos have also lost investment from firms affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amazon. The coronavirus outbreak may also have nixed a potentially huge sponsorship deal between e-commerce giant Amazon and Brazilian champions Flamengo. Globoesporte reported in March that the two parties were close to signing a BRL 40 million a year deal for Amazon to become Flamengo’s main shirt sponsor, but talks have stalled due to the Covid-19 stoppage.

There is some optimism that the deal may go through at some point, however, potentially for a lower value. Amazon had already entered into a partnership with Flamengo to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary series on the club’s run to the final of 2019’s Club World Cup, where they lost out to Liverpool.

Help from the FA? As pointed out above, the small and medium-sized clubs will be the biggest casualties from the Covid-19 fallout, and there has been a call for Brazil’s football association, the CBF, to step in and bail them out. Amir Somoggi, director of marketing company Sports Value, points out that the CBF has an estimated BRL 700 million in its coffers, which it could “distribute intelligently among the clubs.” 

Reliving the 1970 final

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Mexico 1970 - Final - Brazil v Italy - Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
Brazil’s Carlos Alberto slams home his side’s fourth goal

With Covid-19 robbing us of live football, Brazil’s sports channels have opted to show re-runs of historic games, be they domestic or international. In the same vein, we look back at the 1970 World Cup Final, Brazil’s most celebrated triumph that turns 50 years old in June.

The 1970 World Cup Final was an almighty clash of two opposing footballing philosophies. Brazil’s futebol arte faced an Italy side slowly re-emerging from their ultra-defensive catenaccio period. It was fluidity against rigidity; freedom against discipline. Throughout the tournament, Italy rotated their two playmakers, with Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera often playing one half each; Brazil played all four of theirs at once. In 21st-century football, where the best teams share many of the same tactical principles, it is doubtful we will ever again see such a contrast in style at the game’s highest level.

Brazil started strongly, with Pelé opening the scoring after 18 minutes with an impressive header. From the left-hand side, Rivellino lobbed a high cross to Italy’s far post. Pelé managed to gain half a yard of separation from his marker, Internazionale’s commanding defender Tarcisio Burgnich, leaped into the air and met the ball with a perfectly directed header. “Burgnich returned to the ground, subject to the inexorable laws of gravity. Pelé didn’t,” wrote Italian sociologist Nando dalla Chiesa. “Pelé obeyed his own laws of nature and stayed there, suspended in the air.”

In the 20 minutes that followed Brazil’s opening goal, Italy enjoyed their only spell of pressure in the final. Centre-forward Roberto Boninsegna managed to score an equalizer, capitalizing on some slack play in the Brazilian defense, rounding goalkeeper Félix and putting the ball into the net. Unnerved, Brazil roared back and controlled the remainder of the match. By the half-time whistle, Brazil’s superior physical condition began to tell. Italy, days after their grueling semi-final against West Germany, slowed down.

One could argue that the 1970 World Cup Final was won on Brazil’s right flank. Having scored in every match of the tournament, Jairzinho was identified as the biggest threat to the Italy defense. His penetrating diagonal runs had proved difficult for defenses to deal with, so Italy’s coach Ferruccio Valcareggi duly assigned left-back Giacinto Facchetti to man-mark Jairzinho, following wherever the Brazilian winger may roam. This, in turn, caused a whole new problem for Italy: Carlos Alberto.

A knock-on advantage of Jairzinho’s forward runs was that Brazil’s right-back, team captain Carlos Alberto, had his own space to push up into. Usually, the defender was reluctant to attack too much, concerned about leaving the opposition’s left-winger with too much room to counterattack. This was not the case against Italy, the only team Brazil faced in 1970 that played without a left-winger. Carlos Alberto was therefore free to attack at will, time and time again he helped construct Brazilian attacks and establish his side’s dominance in the match.

Brazil deservedly regained their lead on 66 minutes when Gérson beat Italy goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi with a vicious left-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area. Five minutes later, it was 3-1. With the accuracy of a championship golfer, Gérson dropped a soaring 50-yard free-kick on the forehead of Pelé, who cushioned the ball into the path of Jairzinho. Italian defenders began to close in on the winger, but Jairzinho bundled the ball into the net for his seventh and final goal at the 1970 World Cup. 

After Jairzinho’s goal and with the Italians running on empty, the result of the World Cup Final had been put beyond doubt. Despite a long and physically taxing tournament, Brazil had no interest in running down the clock. They kept coming forward, ostensibly enjoying themselves too much to retreat and waste time. They celebrated their triumph through their football, passing the ball around effortlessly. Four minutes from full-time, thanks to Brazil’s insistence, the supporters in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca and everyone watching around the world were treated to futebol arte’s all-time greatest moment.

The heavy-legged Italians stagger down Brazil’s left-wing in a hopeless attempt to pull a goal back. Tostão, tracking back to defend, robs the ball back inside Brazil’s half and strokes it to Piazza in the center of defense. After a neat exchange of one-touch passes, Clodoaldo gets his foot on the ball in midfield. As a gang of Italians closes in, Clodoaldo, with his socks around his ankles, pulls off the most audacious piece of skill in the entire tournament. With only a handful of touches, the defensive midfielder darts and weaves around four opposition players in the space of four seconds. The crowd are on their feet, Clodoaldo has opened up the pitch for another Brazilian attack. It is at this moment that captain Carlos Alberto thinks back to the pre-match team-talk and a piece of advice he received from coach Zagallo.

“He told us that Italy would leave their right flank completely open if Jairzinho, Pelé, and Tostão moved to the left all at once,” Carlos Alberto recounted, decades later. “After Clodoaldo dribbled the Italians, I started moving forward, slowly.”

Clodoaldo passes left to Rivellino, who takes a single touch of control before playing a long pass down the touchline to Jairzinho. The right-winger had been followed all the way across the pitch by his marker Facchetti. The way is now clear for Carlos Alberto.

“When Rivellino made that pass, I could clearly see Italy move their defenders to the left. It was the only time it happened over the 90 minutes.”

Jairzinho darts infield onto his right foot and just as he beats Facchetti, Carlos Alberto goes full-throttle.

“I started running as fast as I could.”

Pelé has already noticed Carlos Alberto’s gut-busting run before he receives Jairzinho’s pass. With the ball at his feet, the No 10 waits, does some complex physics calculations in his head and plays a perfectly weighted pass to his right for Carlos Alberto to arrive and smash into the net without breaking stride.

Celebrated Italian film director and passionate football fan Pier Paolo Pasolini would analyze the match the following year as part of a longer study about the “language of football,” stating that “in Mexico, the aestheticizing Italian prose was beaten by Brazilian poetry.”

— Written with Mauricio Savarese