Featured on the Brazilian football website O Canarinho

This is the second 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. The first, about Portuguesa, can be found here.

The History and Identity

In the neighbourhood of Mooca in the east of South America’s biggest city, São Paulo,  lies a football club close in name but far in stature from the famous Old Lady of Turin. Though they are without doubt minnows the very fact of their existence tells a fascinating tale. If you will excuse me I must go back some way to begin, to the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the modern nation of Brazil.

In 1889 Brazil freed itself from the shackles of Portuguese colonialism and was declared a republic for the first time. Emperor Dom Pedro II was deposed from his throne and, theoretically, Brazil became a democracy. I say theoretically because it was nothing of the sort in reality. Only a tiny proportion of the population could vote, even then most of them under coercion, and power was in the hands of the white male land-owning elite.

One year earlier Princess Isabel, daughter of Dom Pedro II, had signed a declaration abolishing slavery, a practice that had been dying out for some time in Brazil anyway owing to external pressure and the increasing financial infeasibility of importing people from Africa. This presented a dual problem for the new rulers. Firstly, they had lost an important source of free labour and secondly, over half of the population was black and, to some extent, free.

This scared the new elite both in economic and social terms. Slavery may have come to an end but their attitudes to black people were unchanged, they viewed them as inferior, as a problem that needed to be solved. Their answer was the policy of branqueamento, or ‘whitening’. This meant encouraging the mass migration of white Europeans through financial incentives, and the promise of a better life on the new continent, in order to provide labour on the ever-growing coffee plantations and to ‘dilute’ and outnumber the ‘African race’.

Germans, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and Eastern Europeans all came but one nationality really dominated the influx; Italians, particularly from the north of the country.

They came principally to the South of Brazil and especially the state of São Paulo to work on huge fazendas producing the coffee that was in such high demand on the continent of their birth. The new arrivals worked and lived in horrible conditions, not far removed from the forced labour that the African slaves had endured for the preceding centuries.

The difference was that they could choose to leave, and that they did. Around the turn of the 20th century many Italian immigrants started to move from the interior of the state to the city of São Paulo to work in factories and set up small businesses, they were also joined by more Italian immigrants, generally of a higher social status who decided to move directly to the newly prosperous Brazilian urban centre.

One of these new immigrants was Rodolfo Crespi, born into a noble family he decided to emigrate to São Paulo in 1893 to set up a textile factory in the area of Mooca. It was the first large scale cotton processing factory in the country and made him enormously wealthy.

The influx of Italians at the end of the 19th century has had a huge lasting impact on São Paulo, with over six million of the city’s current residents claiming Italian ancestry.

Around the same time one of the most important developments in the history of Brazil was occurring. Football had arrived. In 1894 the Brazilian born, British educated Charles Miller returned from his studies in Hampshire with two footballs in his luggage.

At first the game was a preserve of the moneyed elite but it soon spread outside the walls of exclusive sports clubs and into the streets of working class areas. Various clubs were formed, based mostly based around their respective immigrant communities. Palestra Itália, which would go on to become Brazil’s most successful club, Palmeiras, was the first formed by Italians but others soon followed.

In 1924 workers at Rodolfo Crespi’s factory decided to merge two of Mooca’s amateur clubs and Cotonifício Rodolfo Crespi F.C. was born. With the support of the factory owner the club went from strength to strength and in 1929 won the second division of the Campeonato Paulista.

Following their promotion a decision was made to change their name and they took the title of Clube Atlético Juventus, in homage to the Old Lady of Turin and to the land that their ancestors called home.

They also wanted to change their kit from the red, white and black they had used up until that point to the black and white of the original Juventus. However, Corinthians, Ipiranga and Santos, three of the more established teams in the division, had already chosen these colours and the club members wanted to avoid a clash.

Rodolfo Crespi himself intervened and proposed burgundy and white, the colours of Torino FC, the Italian city’s other big team. The suggestion was accepted and the identity of club, and its undeniably beautiful kit, was set in stone.

In the same year Juventus earned a nickname that has stuck with them ever since. After going to Parque São Jorge, the home of all-conquering Corinthians, and winning 2-1 a journalist wrote that Juventus played “with the mischief of a young boy, who dared to beat a giant in his own dominion”. From that day on the club became known as o Moleque Travesso, the mischievous boy.

The club followed the rest of São Paulo football into professionalism in 1935 and in 1941 reformed their old ground to build the new Estádio Rodolfo Crespi, situated on Rua Javari in the heart of Mooca, just 200 meters from the factory where the club originated. Owing to its location it is known to fans simply as the Rua Javari.

Crowds gathered at the newly reformed stadium in 1940

For the following decades the club remained mostly in the top division of the São Paulo state championship, with a couple of seasons in the second tier, without achieving any notable success. Giants São Paulo, Santos, Corinthians and Palmeiras oligopolised the silverware, leaving little chance for smaller clubs like Juve.

Two tours of Europe, the first in 1953 and the second in 1977, were probably the highlights of the middle part of the 20th Century for o Moleque. In the first they travelled to their spiritual home, Italy, where they won two of their three games, as well as Spain, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Austria and Germany. In the second they returned to Italy before playing games in France, Romania and Bulgaria.

In between these two excursions to the old continent one of the most memorable moments in Brazilian football took place in front of just 7,000 people on the pitch of the Rua Javari. Brazil’s greatest goal-scorer scored his greatest ever goal. According to the man himself the finest of Pelé’s 1,281 strikes was netted against Juventus as an 18-year old on the 2nd August 1959, just a year after he had lead Brazil to their first World Cup.

In 2006 Juventus saw fit to erect a bust of the great man within the confines of their ground to celebrate the momentous feat. No footage of the game exists but a bizarre CGI version of the wonder strike can be seen below, recreated from the memory of o Rei and a spectator who was there that afternoon. Pelé is not a gentleman renowned for his modesty so perhaps the cartoon is best viewed with a light sprinkling of salt.

O Moleque’s most glorious hour arrived in the Autumn of 1983, as they were crowned champions of that year’s edition of the Taça de Prata, the competition that today is Série B of the Campeonato Brasileiro.

They started the season in the top division, the Taça de Ouro, but at the time the rather confusing Brazilian league system had mid-season relegation and promotion. After a poor first part of the season they found themselves competing for the secondary prize but their form soon recovered and they made it from the group stages into the knock-out rounds.

In the last-16, quarter-final and semi-final they dispatched Itumbiara, Galícia and Joinville to reach the best-of-three game decider where they faced Centro Sportivo Alagoano. The first game was away in Alagoas and the men in burgundy and white succumbed 3-1. However, the second and third games were held at Corinthians’ Parque São Jorge. Juventus were able to take full advantage of the home crowd, winning the games 3-0 and 1-0 to take the trophy, the only national silverware in o Moleque’s history.

The 90s were less kind to Juventus. In 1993 they were relegated to the second division of the state championship and in 1995 fell from the second to the third tier of the national league. They managed to achieve promotion from the Paulista A2 at the first attempt and from the Brasileiro Série C in 1997, but in 1998 o Moleque had a year to forget, being relegated again both locally and nationally, eventually falling out of the national league system altogether.

Since then they have yo-yo’d up and down the top three divisions in the São Paulo championship, winning Série A2 in 2005 but falling back into the third tier with consecutive relegation in 2008 and 2009. They also participate in the Copa FPF, a tournament organised by the São Paulo football federation for teams that do not compete nationally, which they won in 2007 giving them access to the national knock-out tournament the Copa do Brasil for the first time.

Over the years some players of the highest quality have passed through the club, mostly at the youth levels. They include Luisão, one of Brazil’s centre-backs at the 2006 World Cup, ex-Chelsea defender Alex, and PSG’s Lucas Moura. The player that they have produced that best defines their identity though is Thiago Motta. Born and raised in São Paulo with Brazilian-Italian dual nationality, he has since pulled on the blue shirt of the Azzuri more than thirty times as well as earning three full caps for Brazil.

This year Juventus competed in the Campeonato Paulista Série A2, avoiding relegation but not threatening to achieve any more than that and are currently bottom of their group in the Copa FPF with four points from eight games.

For the years in which they traded blows with the big boys in Série A1 of the Paulistão and the top two divisions of the Brasileirão Juvetus were a team punching well above their weight. For their fans it is a shame, but they have probably found their level in the second tier of the Paulistão and the Copa FPF, after all the capacity of the Rua Javari stadium is only 3,800.

One struggles to imagine that they will reach the higher levels of Brazilian football again but Juventus is more than that. Sporting success seems not to be the be-all-and-end-all foro Moleque; it is a club that is at the heart of a community, representing not just an area but a distinct working-class Italian-Brazilian identity.

Match Day

The game we have chosen is a Copa FPF tie against XV de Piracicaba, a mid-sized club from the interior of São Paulo state. Juventus almost always play their home games at 10 o’clock on Sunday mornings, so we arrive at the Estádio Rodolfo Crespi slightly bleary-eyed but the day is pleasantly warm and our heads quickly clear.

We wander up Rua Javari with some burgundy-shirted locals and spot some away fans who are already tucking into a few bottles of lager to get warmed up for the game. The atmosphere here is not like at games of the big clubs; opposing fans happily drink and fraternise in street-side butecos before going into the ground, just a bit of gentle goading can be heard on the way past.

We buy our tickets and take our seats in the beautiful 1940s grandstand that gives you a sensation of having been transported back in time. We arrive just in time to see the players walking onto the pitch with a banner that reads ‘Happy Father’s Day’. It’s a nice gesture and appropriate given that there appear to be several generations of some families seated around us. Over to out left behind the goal is another huge banner put up by the torcida Ju Jovem, Juve’s hardcore, that reads, ‘Against modern football’.

The ref blows his whistle to start the match and the pattern of play soon becomes clear. The ball is treated by both teams as if it were a grenade with the pin pulled out, lurching from one end of the field to the other high over the heads of both sides midfielders.

Captain André Astorga

Juventus’ ball-launcher-in-chief is centre-half and captain André Astorga, who is heavily bandaged around the head after a collision the previous week which lead to him having six stitches. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that Astorga has previously played for CFR Cluj, Hannover 96 and Santos but he looks like his best days are long behind him as he just about manages to fend off the XV de Piracicaba front men, who produce the only real moments of danger in the first period.

Sitting just behind us is a prickly old man who implores the team to get the ball down on the floor without any success and takes every possible opportunity to abuse the ref, the opposition, the Juventus players, the management and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross his line of vision. Older people of Italian descent in São Paulo also have an accent distinct from that of other residents and his is very noticeable.

At half time we have a walk around the charming old stadium and look at the Cannolis, a traditional sweet Italian pastry on offer at every game, but decide not to indulge. We also come across a plaque on the wall urging fans not to wear shirts of São Paulo’s bigger clubs in the stadium.

Much to the annoyance of some of their more hardcore supporters, Juventus are known as being everybody in São Paulo’s second team, leading some to say, rather wishfully, that they have the city’s biggest fan-base. The sign clearly hasn’t had the intended impact though as a boy walks in front of it decked-out in a full Corinthians kit.

The plaque

For the second-half we move back a few rows to get out of the now-blazing sun and avoid the irritable man’s wayward saliva. From behind him it is possible to see his burgundy Juventus t-shirt with ‘Na Mooca, tutti buona gente’ scrawled across the back, the Italian connection is clearly still strongly felt. The interval appears not to have calmed him down though and his abuse now focuses mostly on the referee.

Juventus come out of the blocks quickly in the second half and their big centre-forward misses a pair of presentable headers. The men in burgundy and white seem to have some luck getting the ball forward aerially to their number nine but any final ball from the wingers and attacking midfielders on the floor is generally poor.

XV de Piracicaba are to waiting for their moment to strike, seemingly safe in the knowledge that at some point o Moleque’s  defence will fall to pieces. The error comes mid-way through the second forty-five. The horribly bad left-winger Amoroso (look that up on Google Translate) throws himself to the floor looking for a foul but the referee is not fooled and the XV right-back obligingly steals it and plays a nice long pass to the centre-forward. He runs through a defence that has parted like the red sea and one-on-one with the keeper he makes no mistake, slotting it low into the corner to give the visitors the lead.

The goal is met with grunts of frustration by the home supporters and one man just to our side shouts, “If we can’t beat XV de Piracicaba, who can we beat?”, it is probably a question best left unanswered. Ten minutes later, with Juve pushing for an equaliser XV de Piracicaba strike again, once more breaking into hectares of room left by o Moleque’s defensive line.

There are some days as a fan of a shit football club that you turn up knowing that you will lose, and when your side concede the goal that condemns you to yet another inevitable defeat you make a noise over which you have absolutely no control. It is a groan of expectant resignation, and it could be heard in perfect harmony from the Rua Javari faithful at the moment the ball nestled into the back of the net.

In the next few minutes Juventus had two desperate, half-hearted appeals for a penalty turned down, leading the rest of the gathered crowd to join in with the irascible gentleman’s chants of ‘eh, juiz, vai tomar no cu’. Despite huffing and puffing aplenty Juve never really look like breaking down the XV defence and the final moments trickle past without any real chances for either side.

As the ref blows his whistle to bring things to a close a torrent of abuse is thrown in the direction of the manager, who runs down the tunnel as fast as his chubby little legs will carry him. A few days later I read that he has been sacked and replaced by his assistant, though with the quality of players at his disposal I would venture to suggest that improvement is unlikely.

Despite the annoyance of the fans it was a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning. The low standard does not dilute the passion of the locals who feel that there is something more at stake than just football. Juventus is part of their heritage and tradition and they want to see it do as well as possible despite the limited resources available.

We leave the ground and walk back towards the site where the factory used to sit and where the smell of wood-fired pizza ovens now fills the air. This time we can’t resist a quintessentially Italian treat and stuff ourselves in one of the neighbourhood’s many traditional pizzerias. Well it would have been rude not to, wouldn’t it?