This is the first in a series called ‘The Minnows’. I will bring you the stories and histories of some of Brazil’s lesser-known clubs, as well as my match day experience at the ground.
A Fading Star
On the 24th of October 1963 Santos travelled to the Pacaembu stadium in São Paulo to take part in a game in the state championship, at the time the highest level of Brazilian domestic football. Santos, with Pelé leading the line, were expected to win comfortably but a wonderful performance and brace of goals from emerging attacker Ivair handed a 3-2 victory to that day’s opponents Associação Portuguesa de Desportos. After the game Pelé went to the young star and said, “You really are good, the best on the pitch. If I am the king, now you are the prince”. The nickname stuck and Ivair went through the rest of his career known as o Principe.
He went on to score over 100 goals for Portuguesa, known to their supporters as a Lusa, during one of the most successful periods in the club’s history. This team finished in the top-five of the state championship in five of the next six years with an explosive front five known as the ataque iê iê iê who were eulogised in the press for playing the sort of football-art which defined the era.
A Lusa would go on to claim the Campeonato Paulista title in 1973 against Pelé’s Santos, in front of 116,156 people in São Paulo’s Morumbi stadium, four years after Ivair had left for Corinthians. This was the club’s third state title having also claimed back-to-back triumphs in 1935 and ’36.
Associação Portuguesa de Desportos, to give them their full title, have also won the Torneio Rio-São Paulo twice, the Copa São Paulo in 1991 and 2002, and the Brasileiro Série B as recently as 2011, with a team nicknamed BarçaLusa, scoring a league record 82 goals in the process.
Portuguesa are the city of São Paulo’s fourth biggest club after Palmeiras, Corinthians and São Paulo, and after their Série B triumph managed two seasons in the top-flight before being relegated in 2013, just one point behind Flamengo. Strangely, during their time in the top flight of the national league, they were relegated from the top division of the São Paulo state championship. This was a sign of things to come.
The relegation from Série A of the national league was an extremely controversial one. On the 7th December 2013 Portuguesa fielded a player, Héverton, who was ineligible to play owing to a suspension. At the end of the season the Brazilian Supreme Court for Sports decided that it would deduct four points from Portuguesa, taking them from 12th to 17th place in the league and into the relegation zone, thus saving hugely powerful Rio club Flamengo, who boast 30 million fans across Brazil.
This would not have been so strange had it not been combined with the fact that on the 8th December André Santos, he of Arsenal failure fame, played for Flamengo whilst also suspended. His suspension had been reported that week by several major sports news sites and papers but after he played there was no acknowledgement from either the footballing authorities or the mainstream football media that he had broken the rules. There are rumours that Flamengo paid Portuguesa to take the fall on their behalf, something that does not seem all that far-fetched given Brazilian football’s history of endemic corruption.
Since the combined relegations from Série A of the Brasileirão and Série A1 of the Paulistão the club has been in deep decline. They managed one season back in the top flight of the state league in 2015, after winning the second division in 2014, but were relegated again immediately and this season finished 13th in the second tier.
In the national championship they have been similarly poor, finishing bottom of Série B in their first season after relegation from Série A. In 2015 they narrowly missed out on promotion back to Série B but this year they have struggled and are in a desperate battle not to be relegated to Série D, the lowest tier of Brazil’s national football league system.
It is a sorry state of affairs for a club that has produced the likes of Ivair, Djalma Santos, and more recently Zé Roberto, who went on the play for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and who is still going strong in the top division with Palmeiras at the ripe old age of 42. In the late 90s a Lusa were even managed by Zagallo, the great World Cup winning player and coach of the national team.
It is a true fall from grace for a club that was once trading punches with the real heavyweights of Brazilian football.
We arrive at the Estádio Canindé, where Portuguesa play their home games, about 40 minutes before the 7pm Saturday kick-off and buy our tickets for the princely sum of 10 Reals each (about £2.50). The stadium is situated within the Associação Portuguesa de Desportos complex, a family sports club comprising a swimming pool and various other facilities, the norm for smaller Brazilian football sides.
We try to enter, only to be told by a stern looking policeman that the terraces aren’t open yet. OK, a bit strange, but we look around for something to do to pass the time and stumble upon some delightful soup and bolinho de bacalhau, a traditional Portuguese ball of fried fish, being served by a family who appear to have Lusa blood running through their veins. There are about 50 people milling about, far fewer than you would expect outside a ground that holds 28,000 people under half an hour before the start of a match.
We eat and go in to be met by a vast swathe of empty space with a few red and green shirts of the hardy home fans dotted across the impressive concrete bowl. The game is against Mogi Mirim, a team from the interior of São Paulo state who are mid-table in group B of Série C. Portuguesa are in the bottom two after four successive defeats, the last of them to relegation rival Macaé, and the atmosphere before kick-off is one of palpable tension.
The Brazilian anthem is played over the loud speaker and is shown about as much respect as is customary at Brazilian league games, with fans chatting away or singing club songs instead. When the game begins it is to the sort of groan of reluctant encouragement that can only be heard at the grounds of teams whose fans are truly suffering.
It is a nervy first half, but Portuguesa are on the offensive, they have no choice, only a win will do to relieve the growing pressure. There are, however, very few sniffs of goal, the best chances coming for Mogi Mirim after some horrible defensive errors from the home side, a strong signal of why they find themselves in their current malaise.
An excitable elderly man stood a few yards in front of us, who has without doubt seen finer times at his beloved club, spends the entire first half screaming about the past glories and current trouble of a Lusa at anyone who will listen.
Portuguesa just about hang on and the teams go in scoreless at the break. During the interval the rubro-verde’s manager brings on well-built centre forward Bruno Duarte for attacking midfielder Valdeci, the plan seems to be back to basics, but it’s sure as hell effective.
Portuguesa pile on the pressure with long balls over the top and 20 minutes into the second period it pays off. A cross from winger Daniel Ferreira is deflected back to him and he takes the opportunity to shoot. The ball looks destined for the net but the Mogi Mirim centre-half reaches out an arm and blocks it. The crowd’s screams of ‘penâlti’ and ‘cartão vermelho’ rise high into the floodlit São Paulo night. The ref obligingly points to the spot and dishes out the inevitable red.
Bruno Mineiro places the ball and takes a run up from well outside the area, looking for all the world as if he is going send the ball flying over the stand. He stalls at the last second and coolly dinks a Panenka right down the middle of the goal and into the back of the net. The crowd behind the goal join the players in jubilant celebration.
Finally those fans gather enough strength for a song to break out, the first since the fifth minute. A few ultras lead a chant of ‘I came here to suffer; if we win I’ll celebrate, but mostly I want to drink beer’.
Portuguesa spend the rest of the game frantically hanging on against Mogi Mirim’s ten men, finger nails of the manager and fans being chewed to the flesh beneath. A woman behind us offers a cry of ‘Jesus Cristinho’ as a ball flies past the Lusa upright. The attendance of 1,035 is announced over the intercom to ironic cheers.
About five minutes from time the people in the stands start to whistle and shout, imploring the ref to bring the game to a close and hand them a vital three points. One more ‘filho da puta’ – ‘blow the whistle’, and he finally does. The response is an explosion of relief from the few intrepid souls still gathered on the concrete terraces.
As we walk out some of the fans start hurling abuse at the hierarchy and a woman points to a particular reporter associated with a Lusa and shouts, ‘he is one of the cancers of this club, it is no wonder we are here with people like him’. The atmosphere is as poisonous as you would expect at a club of this stature in a position like this.
The victory lifts them out of the relegation places for the time being but there are still seven games, and a lot more pain, left in the season. Hopefully this win can be the confidence boost they so desperately need to climb away from the bottom two.
Despite Portuguesa’s travails and the defeatist atmosphere that currently surrounds the place, I had thoroughly enjoyed my Saturday evening in the Canindé, and I will definitely be back for more. It has the feel of a real family sports association, a million miles away from the cold corporatism of Allianz Parque or the Arena Corinthians. It would be nice to see the men in red and green back amongst the bigger boys in top two divisions, but if that doesn’t happen let’s at least hope that those suffering fans enjoy that beer.