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How football conquered Brazil

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Tim Vickery | 07:35 UK time, Monday, 18 May 2009

I've always had a soft spot for the military figure who, when advised to take cover, declined with the famous last words: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..." Thankfully, making predictions about football is not usually so hazardous, although it can make fools of the mighty.

One of Brazil's all-time great writers, Graciliano Ramos, distinguished himself with the forecast that in his country "football will not catch on, you can be sure of it."

He saw the game in Brazil as "a temporary enthusiasm capable of lasting a whole month. We have lots of our own sports," he continued. "Why should we want to go poking our nose into foreign things?"

Ramos was writing in 1921. Two years earlier Fluminense in Rio had opened by some way the biggest and most impressive stadium yet built in Brazil for the practice of football.

The Laranjeiras Stadium, which celebrated its 90th birthday last week, is still standing, though smaller that it once was and is used these days as a training ground. Back on 11 May 1919 when it was inaugurated, the stadium stood for everything that Graciliano Ramos repudiated.

Fluminense were an aristocratic club, formed by sons of the elite who had come into contact with football while studying in Europe. The players were mostly well-bred students of law and medicine. The very architecture of the stadium, with its English-style cricket pavilion, set the tone for the social milieu in which early Brazilian football was played.

Fluminense playing against Corinthians

The stadium was constructed in time to stage the 1919 South American Championships, nowadays known as the Copa America. Brazil won their first title, in the decisive game beating Uruguay 1-0 after extra time, with a goal from Artur Friedenreich.

The goalscorer was a nod to the future, and to a dynamic that Graciliano Ramos was unable to understand. "There is no worth in the argument that football is gaining ground in the major cities," he wrote. "Let's not get confused."

For him the cities were coastal and thus cosmopolitan and not really Brazilian. The real Brazil was in the harsh interior of the country, especially the impoverished north east.
But Brazil - and South America generally - was entering the age of the city.

Artur Friedenreich was the son of a German businessman and a local woman, the foreign and the Brazilian forming a new synthesis in an urban environment.

The emergence of Vasco da Gama forced home the point. The club of Rio's sizeable Portuguese community, Vasco won the city's championship with a team which included black and poor white players.

The elite clubs fought back, trying to maintain the game as their preserve. They formed a breakaway league, without Vasco. Then they let Vasco in but obliged the players to fill in forms before taking the field - a task beyond the majority of the Brazilian poor at that time - and then they excluded Vasco on the grounds that the club lacked its own stadium.

So the Portuguese community, with all its small businesses, clubbed together and Vasco were soon the proud owners of what at the time was the biggest stadium in the country.
It is still their home today - just a few miles across town from Laranjeiras, but in a very different neighbourhood.

These days Sao Januario is a crumbling and dangerous part of Rio. Back then it was the heartland of working class life. In the 1930s, Brazil's Mussolini-inspired government sponsored the writing of the song 'The Sao Januario Tram', a celebration of the virtuous worker happy with his lot in life - an image that the regime was spectacularly successful in divulging (this same regime also imprisoned Ramos for his Communist sympathies).

Vasco's Sao Januario stadium - with all that it represented as an affirmation of football as a sport open to the Brazilian working class - was inaugurated in 1927, just eight years after Fluminense opened their aristocratic palace.

This is a process which took place with astonishing speed - of football being introduced by the elite and then taken up by the mass of the population and transformed into a genuinely local cultural manifestation.

It also happened across the south of the continent - this internal colonisation took place even earlier in Argentina and Uruguay - and helps explain why South America established itself as one of football's spiritual homes.

It happened as the cities were expanding with immigrants pouring in from inside and out, from Europe and the Middle East as well as the countryside. And it happened as radio was coming into its own, broadcasting the sounds and the events of the city to the far-flung provinces.

Graciliano Ramos is best known for 'Vidas Secas' (Dry Lives), a tale of the hardships in Brazil's arid North East. The giant country is currently governed by a man who came from this very region. President Lula grew up poor in the north east, was one of the millions who moved south in search of a better life, and in the process became a fanatical supporter of Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

Organising football championships inside his trade union was an important part of his early political career. Try telling him that the game is nothing but a fad for foreigners!

Comments on today's piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag;

Q) How does the two leagues per season system work in Argentina? By that I mean, when does relegation and promotion issues matter? How are the positions calculated when deciding qualification for Copa Libertadores? What happens at the end of the first league, are there any issues decided?
Tam Millsip

A) The two separate championships follow the European season, so the first one, the Apertura (Opening) runs August-December, and the Clausura (Closing) is February-June. Promotion and relegation takes place at the end of the Clausura.

Relegation is worked out on an average of points over three years - six campaigns. The bottom two are straight down, the next two are in play offs with teams from the second division.

Qualification for the Libertadores has just been changed to end the absurd situation of the club winning the Apertura in, say, 2005 not playing the Libertadores until 2007, by which time the coach and most of the players will have changed.

Now it's done over the calendar year. The qualifying clubs for 2010, for example, will be this year's two champions, plus the next three teams with most points accumulated in the two campaigns.

Q) What's happened to Lulinha? There was apparent interest from Chelsea and he was supposed to be the next big thing from the Brazilian football factory. He's only 17, so do you think the man from Corinthians will be the next big player to reach the heights of Kaka and Ronaldinho?
Paddi McCollum-Nutbrown

A) Well he's 19 now and still no nearer the breakthrough. I'm just back from Corinthians match with Botafogo, and he couldn't even get on the bench.
For me, it's a classic case of too much too soon. He looked great at under-17 level, so back in 2007 he was thrown into a poor Corinthians side and billed as the saviour who would stop them getting relegated. Really unfair.

The link with Chelsea - I don't know how much truth was in it and I don't think it did him any good. There's still time for him to come again, but taking things one step at a time.


  • Comment number 1.

    Exeter City played a match against the Brazilian National team back in 1914,at the Fluminese stadium. Brazil won 2-0 ,but there is a rich history of British involvement in S.American football.

    Railway workers,sailors and school teachers all involved somewhere along the line,perhaps Tim you could do a small piece on it. I read recently that a Walter Tull a Spurs player was the first black/mixed race professional player to tour S.America back in 1901.Do you know anything about him Tim?

  • Comment number 2.

    Charles Miller has been called the "Father of Brazilian Football" and there is a piece on him in the bbc website archives...

    At a time when the very existance of Southampton FC is in serious doubt, perhaps Tim Vickery could raise awareness of Saints plight in Brazil.

    It's probably too late to organise a benefit match involving some of Brazil's finest, but if Saints are to survive or be re-born, then this line of history between the club and Brazilian football could be strengthened.

  • Comment number 3.

    Many British teams toured South America in the early 20th century, in 1904 Southampton F.C. beat Argentina 8-0 in Buenos Aires, several of the Argentine teams copied their kits from touring British sides.

    I think it's a real shame that British clubs wouldn't consider a tour of South America these days, a tour of Argentina or Brazil certainly wouldn't generate the same income as a tour of the middle east or east asia, but I'm sure any young players in the squad would learn a great deal by playing a high standard of football, witnessing the work ethic of their South American contemporaries and the passion of the supporters (assuming they turn up). I'd be far more likely to watch a British tem take on South American teams like Estudiantes, Santos, Peñarol, Colo-Colo, América de Cali etc than some Thai/Chinese team I've never even heard of, but I suppose its not the British TV audience their after is it?

  • Comment number 4.

    ^ 8-0 !!

    In the current climate, the Southampton first team would struggle to beat a team of waiters from the Argentinian restuarant in town.

  • Comment number 5.

    The connection between football clubs and their working class roots, sport born out of a wish to offer a brighter side to otherwise harsh lives, is something I hope that is never lost, at least in spirit.

    I recently went to Villa Park for the first time and (apologies to any Aston residents) the well established poverty and run down nature of the area really impressed upon me the idea that the clubs, like children in a family home, have outgown their nests and now find themselves looking somewhat out of place in the neighbourhood they reside. Multi million pound clubs with foreign investors at the helm and multi national squads on huge wages seem akin to a working class child who has worked hard at school, gone to Oxbridge and returned home, older, more mature and with a more cosmipolitan lifestyle and outlook on life.

    This anaology works well with football I believe because some clubs change, adapt with the times but also retain their identity and work hard at aknowledging that the current riches the game enjoys are built on decades of hard work, and generations of skill and achievement that was based on playing just for the sake of the game and the pride of being the best.

    Other clubs have embraced the riches and rewards the game today offers but perhaps in the process have somewhat detached themselves from the game and world they grew up in. As a result some clubs can seem like they have only existed in the age of TV and million pound wages, despite a founded date on their shirts or stadium that predates the invention of TV.

    I'm not an expert on Brazilian football history, what I know comes from Tim's excellent articles (this one one of the very best I have to say), but it seems that more and more it is coming to a crossroads that English football found itself many, many years ago. The game (in terms of infastructure and finance) is growing and with every passing generation of players in South America the game moves further and further from it's childhood home of poverty, the shanty towns and cultural identity and moves closer to the world of its 'more cultured' European counterpart leagues.

    The transition seems invitable and should not necesserily be seen as a bad thing, I love Premiership football and the game today that has (in my mind) many negative points but so many more positives. The crunch will be whether when Brazilian football comes of age on a global scale, will it leave home and become a different person or like a good child will it keep it's bedroom at home and visit regularly.

  • Comment number 6.

    Really good blog Tim, I was wondering whether you've been following the Argentine league recently and whether you have an opinion of Cappa's Huracan. The passing, movement and skill of the whole team is of a standard I haven't seen in a while in Argentina.

  • Comment number 7.

    Fantastic read, fascinating stuff. I'd be interested in hearing how the non-league/amateur situation is run in Brazil. Is there a local equivalent of our Sunday league system (I am assuming, it wouldn't be on a Sunday), does it bridge the gaps in Brazil's society on a weekly basis or do neighbourhoods only compete within their own communities?

  • Comment number 8.

    Love your column Tim, always a good interesting read, my question is just one of curiosity, in Brazil and Argentina and in their respective leagues, how many different nationalities play there that are not from South America? Also, what is the average footballers wage in them leagues?

  • Comment number 9.

    As a Vasco fan, and having lived in Rio for 13 years from 1985 to 1999, I'd not agree with the comment about Sao Januario being in a dangerous part of Rio. In relative terms it lies in one of the less dangerous areas of Rio. However, the truth is that Rio in general is now dangerous as the local politicians have sold their souls to the drug barons and the whole City is infested with favelas.
    It will be interesting to see how they intend to organise a World Cup there.

  • Comment number 10.

    There are very few Europeans playing in Brazil. In fact, I don't think there are any. Serbian midfielder Dejan Petkovic played for a range of clubs including Flamengo and Vasco.

    There are a few Argentine's, Colombians and other South American nationalities but Brazilian club's can only field three non-Brazilian players. The bulk of squads in Brazil consist widely of Brazilian players.

    I think the story is the same in Argentina.


  • Comment number 11.

    Tim, Have you ever mentioned in your blog that the football in Brazil is often often of quite a low standard. Sometimes the games are more like American football; the teams advance slowly through a series of free-kicks until they get within range for their shooting specialist. I've seen games where there are almost an average of 1 free-kick per minute - frankly aweful to watch.
    And as for discipline - sometimes all hell breaks out with manager/coaches running on the pitch and various assaults being committed.
    That said - Vasco v Flamengo in front of a full house at the Maracana is an experience that sticks in your memory. Truly amazing atmosphere.

  • Comment number 12.

    I loved this article Tim, really informative. I´ve always liked the traditional class divide between Brazilian city rivals - makes it easy to know who to support, the "time do povo" (Atletico Mineiro, Bahia or Santa Cruz for example) as opposed to the "time do elite" (Cruzeiro, Nautico, Fluminense, Sao Paulo etc), depending on your class allegiances...

    Not quite sure about post 11 though - I don´t think football in Brazil is of a low standard at all. Of course there are problems - the constant exporting of the best players, plus the current Brazilian epidemic of expecting a foul because a defender 20 yards away sneezed in your general direction, but still, I know in pretty much every game I know if I look hard enough there will be players of tremendous ability on display. This year for example, as well as the hyped return of Ronaldo, Adriano and Fred, there has also been the retention of a few who might otherwise not be here (Nilmar, Hernanes and D'Allesandro maybe), and one of the best crops of young players for quite a few years (Neymar and Taison spring to mind). Neymar is dazzling isn´t he - his sense of a pass for a 16 year old is astonishing, and puts him years ahead of the rather witless Kerrison and Cirro.

    On this note, I´d love to hear your thoughts on this comment from a Traffic representative in Placar this month "It´s not difficult to earn about r$150,000 a month playing in Brazil. There are some players who make r$300,000 (about r$150,000). With the crisis in Europe, it´s not easy to find contracts like this in Europe." Interesting it sustainable? The dreadful Fluminense, for example, are paying epic salaries to Fred, Conca, Leandro Amaral, Thiago Neves and Parreira...on average gates of 13,000 (I´m guessing, but it can´t be much more can it..) and they´re not even in the Libertadores.

  • Comment number 13.

    Lovely article. I'm sending it on to my father who was brought up at Laranjeiras watching his Fluminense in the 30's and 40's. .
    Nelson Rodrigues, brazilian playwright and journalist, to me the best football writer ever, and his brother also journalist Mario Filho, both wrote about the Flamengo x Fluminense derbies which decided the 1919 Rio championship. Their articles probably written originally for daily newspaper O Globo, are reproduced in a book sponsored by Xerox about the history of the Fla-Flu.According to Nelson , then president of Brazil Epitacio Pessoa's first question after arriving for the final match was " Who is the Ball?". I asked my great uncle Cesar Bacchi who played and scored for Flu in the 1919 final, about the cannon shots mentioned by Nelson. He, a poor boy from the western state of Mato Grosso, said he only had eyes and years for the pretty upperclass girls celebrating in the arquibancadas. Great brazilian negro composer Alfredo Vianna, better known as Pixinguinha, wrote a classic instrumental 'choro' to celebrate the Brazilian victory over Uruguay you mention.It is called ' 1x0' and is still part of the standard choro repertory.

  • Comment number 14.

    It was General Patton who said "they couldn't hit a bull at this dist...."

    But love your blog on the Beeb.

  • Comment number 15.

    Excellent blog as usual Tim.

    Just a follow up to the 2nd question this week re:Lulinha. It seems every week there is a question regarding the "next big thing" coming out of Brazil. What do you the reasons for the sheer volume of players that tagged as the next big thing. I sometimes think that half of these players are found on Football Manager and people just assume they are the next big thing.

    On a slightly different note, has there been any more developments in the row over playing at high altitude particularly after Argentina's 6-1 defeat in La Paz?

    Once again great article.


  • Comment number 16.


    Sure, it is a good article; well written and with good research. You're definitely very good at your job.

    However, the more I read your column, the more I feel like I'm reading O Globo. South Americans do also live and play football outside Brazil.

    Even your article on San Martin a few weeks ago was more about the sticker album than Peruvian football and San Martin itself.

    I just think you're too talented to be so monothematic.

  • Comment number 17.

    9 I wish I could agree that the San Janu area is not dangerous - but I have too much experience of the place , personal and anecdotal, to come to any other conclusion.

    And 16 -sorry Juan, 2 Brazil columns in a row! Next week's will be different. Incidentally, the more in depth thing on Peruvian football I did while I was there - should be found in the current edition of World Soccer magazine.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great blog, and really interesting to get an insight into football outside of Europe. I was wondering like one of the other posters, is there a similar sunday league system for juniors like there is here, is there the right infastructure to set that up, or do players just get seen playing in the streets??

  • Comment number 19.

    Fluminense football club was founded by an Oscar Cox whose parents were British diplomats in July 1921.An early star striker was Henry Wellfare an English teacher.

    Most of these clubs started,as sports clubs,rowing cricket and tennis and eventualy football.All helped my British migration,and later migrants from Italy,France and Spain.

    Thiago Neves joined Saudi side Al Hilal,but I see his back on loan to former side,scored a hat trick in last season Copa Liberatores but was still on losing side. Surprised he was not snapped up by European club Hamburg and Man City were interested in him at one time.

  • Comment number 20.

    12 - It's not sustainable, most,if not all, Brazilian clubs are in debt. And I do believe that the standards are raising again, although I feel there are lot's of things that keeps keeping the game from being top-class.

    Example, my team(Atletico Mineiro) recently dismissed a top-manager(Leao) because he didn't win the Campeonato Mineiro(state championship, small competition) against a stronger opponent(Cruzeiro). This passionate view of the game is one that keeps the game from developing. No matter how much money you throw at the team or in the game, if you don't have the right foundations there won't be any improvement, and perhaps that's why Sao Paulo won the last three brazilian championships, they are one of the few that is on the right way.

  • Comment number 21.

    19 - Thiago Neves did sign for Hamburg, but couldn't crack in the first-team, felt that he was overlooked and... signed for a saudi club in the next transfer window. That showed how unprofessional Thiago Neves can be.

  • Comment number 22.

    best column in some time, mr. vickery. these kind of historical peices make it much more interesting...thank you...

  • Comment number 23.

    Good read again Tim;

    I just had a recent visit to Cape Town where they have done some amazing works ahead of the world cup, do you think the Brasil government are waiting to see if they are going to get the Olympic games before they start to attempt the reforms in Rio?

    I am struggling to imagine they can get the roads, trains, street lighting and general well being to the same standard as to what they have done in Cape Town. But if they can get close to what they have done there, Rio will be all the better for it, its badly needed.

    This time this unorganised chaos of a government have the entire world watching and I can't wait to see what they will come up with.

  • Comment number 24.

    The history of Brazilian football is fascinating. If people wanted to read more I can highly recommend Alex Bellos' book 'Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life'.

    Speaking of books on South American football... aren't you tempted, Tim? Put me down for the pre-order.

    All the best,


  • Comment number 25.

    9 - Re the San Janu area - I have no personal experience of it but was warned off attending a game up there by some (over cautious?)Tourist Info people. However on my return I spoke with Mr V on his BBC phone-in and he concurred with the advice.

  • Comment number 26.

    I couldnt have received a better gift on my 43rd birthday Mr. Vichery, and I thank you for that. I was born in Porto Alegre, but became a true Carioca after moving to Rio in 67. I have spent most o my life at Maracanã and Laranjeiras supporting Fluminense. I have been enjoying this passion since I was six years old and have passed it on to my sons and daughter. My first time at Maracanã was on July 21st 1973, when Fluminense was celebrating its 21st birthday and beating Boatafogo in a great exhibition by Manfrini. It is so unique to see such a good piece on Fluminense written in English. Also, it shocks me to see Fluminense and Graciliano put side-by-side on the same page and shows how much you know about Brazilian football and literature. Graça is by far my favorite Brazilian writer and the death of Baleia one of the most touching excerpts of literature. Many years after reading it for the first time, I can still weep into tears when I try to picture that poor street dog dying after being shot by her owner. Laranjeiras and its architecture have been a part of my life (Fluminense played the first game of the 1992 Copa do Brasil final there against Internacional that, to my recollection, was the last relevant game we played there). I have been to many parks around this planet, but that place is the one where I feel home (Fulham stadium somehow reminds of Laranjeiras and its English-style cricket pavilion). It is now old and not comfortable at all, but yet it makes my heart move faster when I go through the tunnel and walk into the stands. So good to see some history of my club and good recollection of the early part of the 20th century, when we were for sure the wealthiest and most feared football association in the country.

    12. Excellent perception of Brazilian football. Just didnt understand the 'dreadful' qualifier for a club that has been investing big time money and made a memorable Libertadores last year and won Copa do Brasil the year before (after reaching the semi-finals 3 years in a row). Just have in mind that we have 30 state championships (facing vasco, botafogo and flamengo), 2 Brazilian championships (it is a joke that our 1970 title is not counted), 1 Copa do Brasil, 1 Taça Olímpica and have provided our national team with our fine players over the years.

    9. I am sorry to disagree. I go to São Januário all the time (we have played all the 2005 Copa do Brasil games there including the final game against Paulista) and it is very, extremely, insanely dangerous. I do agree with any affirmation that Rio is a dangerous town, but denying the violent setting that surrounds São Januário can put your life at risk. Just try to walk around that neighborhood searching for a cab at 11:30 pm It is creepy. Only a crazy football fan would do that

    11. Are you sure you were referring to Brazilian professional football when you wrote that? Try to watch Cruzeiro and São Paulo in the Libertadores quarter finals tomorrow. Then lets compare what you see with any top game in any European league.

    Thiago Neves was unprofessional in his latest career move. But it strikes my imagination how can someone leave TN warming the bench to start with mediocre players like the ones that are today starting for Hamburg (no names. Just watch a game and you will know what I am talking about). There is no defense in todays football for unprofessional behavior, and in that sense TN and Adriano are setting an awful standard. But leaving that aside, this guy can play ball and can score four goals in a Libertadores final. TN came very close to becoming the most important player in the history of a 107-year old football association, leaving behind people like Rivelino, Castilho, Tele Santana, Edinho, Ricardo Gomes, Branco and Romerito. If he wants, he has the skills to become one of the greatest of his generation and definitely play in Europe, as his body and physical conditions are perfect for the European leagues. Just need to change a little bit his behavior

  • Comment number 27.

    Hey, Tim,
    I love reading your blog and listening to you at the phone-in programme on bbc radio.
    As you can see, I'm a Vasco fan and I usually go to matches in our home stadium, São Januário. I couldn't resist but make some comments on your post. Here they go:
    -You said that São Januário was the biggest stadium in Brazil, but it was, actually, the biggest staduim in Latin America at that time; Unfortunately, due to lack of investment and some disastrous presidents, it's become an old and common stadium, useful, though.
    -The second point concerns the area: I'm not insane to disagree with you when it comes to safety and development of that specific part of town, but that area isn't so dangerous as you pictured it: the whole stadium is in a working-class area, except for one side that faces a poor neighbourhood. It can be dangerous, of course, but just like any other part in this decadent city.
    Congratulations on your column and on your phone-in participation: I really appreciate them.

  • Comment number 28.

    Hello number 26, apologies, dreadful was too strong - just have never been a great Flu fan - wonderful history and tradition (and I liked the Nelson Rodrigues flags in the Libertadores last year) I know, but in recent years I´ve felt the club was even more of a shambolic "short termist" management mess than other Rio clubs, and the fans fickle in the extreme - I remember the 90,000 in the Libertadores final and the five or so thousand that turned up for the next home game....AND there was the Renato Gaucho I always feel a strange resentment towards teams that get into the Libertadores by winning four or five games in the Brazilian Cup (especially when you play Figurense in the final)...though maybe thats because I´m Santa Cruz and have had to live with Sport thinking they´re Sao Paulo, Barcelona and Man United all rolled into one for the last few months....still I´ll be watching with interest tomorrow night...and there was the Renato Gaucho factor...did I mention that already?

  • Comment number 29.

    Sao Januario looks a wonderful stadium to visit, the main entrance overlooking the main road looks like a wonderful victorian building whilst it is one of the ONLY grounds in world football where the dugouts are BEHIND the goals!

    Wonderfully unique and like Laranjeiras wonderfully characteristic.

    I have never been to Rio but would love to visit those two grounds.

  • Comment number 30.

    Just finished watching the last ever UEFA Cup final Shakhtar Donetsk vs Werder Bremen,it was a case of the Boys from Brazil all three goals scored by Brazilians.

    Shakhtar's Luiz Adriano and Jadson,Naldo from Werder Bremen.But Werder were missing their influential midfielder Diego.

    1972 Spurs won the inaugral UEFA Cup not a Brazilian in sight.

  • Comment number 31.

    In a previous article you have referred to a "Coaches Conference" being held annually in Brazil. In one article you referred to comments made by Carlos Alberto Perreira and Jose Murinho being unable to attend but sending his views / paper for discussion.

    Where and when is that conference held? Is it open to the public? If so how can one gain attendence or get access to the material that is discussed?

  • Comment number 32.

    Just watched the UEFA cup final and its fair to say that the Brazilian influence in the Shaktar team was the match winning difference. I was just wondering how these moves to Eastern Europe are viewed in South America? For me the apparent lack of strength in the domestic league and the slightly colder weather than back home suggest it has alot to do with money for either player or club, or both. But is that the case because I know little about both parts of the world? I would also be interested to know the standing of such players in their homeland, are they big name players?


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