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Brazzil - Sports - November 2003
 

Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians

There, on the magazine cover, was a splendid panoramic
display of Morumbi Stadium, filled with 150,000 screaming
fans. Thousands of waving banners, and miles of ticker-tape
streamers, all vividly capturing the festive Carnaval atmosphere
provoked by Corinthians's amazing victory performance.

Joe Lopes

 

"Don't worry," my father assured the rowdy bunch of soccer aficionados that had gathered outside the Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners) Bar & Grill, near the central part of the city known as Pari, "Corinthians will do it."

"What? You can't be serious?" exclaimed Azevedo, one of dad's old cronies. "Annibal, tell me you're joking?"

"That stupid team hasn't won a damned thing in years," roared another, "and you're saying they'll be champions? Quick, someone, get a doctor!"

"I'm telling you, Corinthians will win," dad repeated with even more bravado than before. "I'll cut off my neck if they don't go all the way," he declared, as he defiantly left the bar, followed by the raucous crowd of doubting Thomases.

Dad was on his way to Morumbi Stadium, an imposing Coliseum-like structure situated in the choicest section of São Paulo, accompanied by my mother, her sister, and his brother-in-law. They were to be the guests of my father's oldest nephew Frede, who was shortly to become the chief administrator of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, and were to celebrate his timely promotion in fairly big fashion: by going to the concluding match in the Paulista Championship between the underdog black-and-white-striped Timão (the name Corinthians followers gave their club) and the Ponte Preta squad.

Arriving early at the stadium, they sat down behind a glass-enclosed partition, in an especially reserved corporate booth, cushioned from the delicate blows of paper cups, flying debris, and stray confetti strewn about everywhere by the thousands of delirious soccer fans assembled for this exciting occasion.

The date was October 1977, and Corinthians had last won the elusive Paulista title back in 1955, the year after my birth. Since then, the club had weathered 22 dismal seasons of ever-worsening drought conditions without ever having won a single campeonato. It was more than time for the team to make up the lost years and break this nearly quarter-century curse inflicted upon them—and dad did not want to miss out.

"Thanks be to God," my father pronounced upon his return to New York City, after having taken the month off to visit family and friends, "Corinthians did it." At this point, he furtively crossed himself, which I correctly took for reverence.

"They did?" I noted, giving my parents a big welcome home hug. "Did what?"

"They won the Paulista Championship," he croaked, in barely audible tones.

"What happened to your voice?" I inquired.

Mom quickly intervened, and explained that my father had yelled himself hoarse at the stadium after Corinthians had finally regained their championship club crown.

"Oh, I see," was my absent-minded reply.

Undeterred by my lack of interest in this latest news flash, dad asked how I had spent the last four weeks that they were away.

"Well, I went out last Sunday to Giants Stadium with Uncle Daniel," I answered, "and we both saw Pelé's final match with the Cosmos and his old team Santos."

"How was the game?" dad whispered, his words taking on the sound quality of a badly tuned radio transmission.

"Boring. No goals, no thrills, no nothing. And the weather was awful, too. Cold, damp, and drizzly."

"What did you expect from soccer in October?" he retorted. "Ridiculous!"

"Yeah, but there were 77,000 people in the stands. And Pelé gave a farewell speech at the end. How was it at the stadium in São Paulo?" I asked innocently.

In blind obedience to some invisible preconceived cue, dad pulled out his copy of the most recent edition of the Brazilian magazine Manchete.

"See for yourself," he proudly stated.

There, on its front and back covers, was a splendid panoramic display of Morumbi Stadium, filled to the rafters with 150,000 screaming fans. Huge plumes of gray smoke issued from every conceivable vantage point, along with dozens of fire cracker explosions, hundreds of colorful balloons, thousands of waving banners, and miles of ticker-tape streamers, all vividly capturing the festive Carnaval atmosphere provoked by Timão's amazing victory performance—with my parents in the middle of it all.

"Wow," I mused to myself, wishing like crazy that I had been there with them, "it must've been quite a show."

"You wouldn't have believed it," said dad, all misty-eyed and venerable, "but your mother and I witnessed it. Imagine nothing for 22 years and then, all of a sudden, a miracle. And I told everyone that because I was there, cheering for Corinthians, that they simply had to win, but no one believed me."

My father's voice was almost gone now, as he went to the kitchen to get a glass of water to soothe his aching throat.

"I guess they believe you now, huh dad?" I smiled knowingly, while gawking at the magazine photograph.

"Pois é," was his strained final say on the matter, "yes, indeed."

Cradle-to-Grave Fanaticism

My father was what was once most commonly referred to as a Corinthiano roxo or, for lack of a better translation, a purple-faced Corinthians fanatic. He truly ascribed to the lyrics of that old stadium standard (author unknown):

"Doutor, eu não me engano,

"Meu coração é Corinthiano."

"Doctor, I'm not mistaken,

"But my heart beats Corinthian."

Indeed, all serious Timão addicts were widely renowned for their collectively shared suffering, usually experienced at home or in the stadium, and in clamorous accompaniment to the troubles of their luckless team.

Dad was no different, and had first felt his own unrequited pangs for the club during the Depression years of the 1930s, as a less than academically inspired youngster brought up in the citified surroundings of São Paulo.

He frequented the club's Parque São Jorge sports complex, located in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood of Tatuapé, where it occupies enormously expansive property space to this day. He loved to hang around the main lounge, attempting to play snooker with the local pool sharks, and trying to participate in the conversations of the more senior club members, all of whom had scrupulously analyzed the swings of the pendulum in the team's ever-vacillating fortunes with the solemn exactitude of astrophysics.

With the aid of friends, but more specifically through his Corinthians-employed nephew, dad became a lifetime member of the club, as had most of his relatives, with the notable exception of brother-in-law Arlindo, who was of Italian descent and, therefore, more of an "in the blood" Palmeiras rooter.

I suppose that there were stray sheep to be found in just about every flock, including ours, but my Uncle Arlindo was an especially lost cause.

He would go into literal paroxysms of distress every time a foul was declared against his favorite green-shirted players; he'd then proceed to castigate the offenders, as well as rain down a hailstorm of abuse onto the head of the profligate referee responsible for the call, until finally being physically ejected from the playing field.

Uncle Arlindo reshaped team fanaticism into a pure art form.

All Glory is Yours, Corinthians

Much as he had done with opera and classical music, my father was the prime soccer mover in my life, and in the life of our Brazilian immigrant family. His all-out love for, and deep abiding faith in the sport, especially where it concerned Corinthians (and every four years, the Brazilian national team), was what most clearly permeated our home environment during those precious times when the constant demands of work were assiduously set aside for the simple pleasures of soccer.

Dad's unsinkable enthusiasm for the game can be traced back to his early life experiences. The many outrageous soccer stories he was wont to recall from time to time, in addition to other similarly embellished tales, were told with a marked infectiousness and lively brio that are as difficult to recapture in writing as they were in the retelling. Nonetheless, they formed the crux of my own personal opinions about this vastly entertaining subject almost from the very moment I could talk.

My father used to tell me about the various friendships he had maintained over the years, especially the one with Oswaldo Nunes, whom I had met in 1979. He was another of those overzealous soccer fans one heard so much about—and rightly so, for Oswaldo's famous uncle, the great Neco Nunes, was one of the original Corinthians club idols from the early decades of the 20th Century.

Considered by knowledgeable Brazilian soccer buffs as a legendary sports figure along the lines of a Babe Ruth or a Knute Rochne, Neco had been a pioneer player in his day, and was a worthy participant, too, in the national team's legacy. His life-sized bronze bust, still to be seen outside the lobby of the main administration building (where I had first gazed upon it during my initial visits there), is a testament to Neco's superb soccer credentials and historic contributions to the club and to the sport.

Another of my father's friends, Nelsinho, who I had also made the personal acquaintance of, was an ex-member of the 1955 Corinthians championship team. He worked as an athletic trainer at the club, and remained a recognized mainstay there for years once his playing days were over.

In fact, it was largely due to the generosity of people like my cousin Frede and the other club officials that kept many former players out of the streets and on the company payroll when nothing else was available to them. One sensed the profound gratitude these proud men felt for Corinthians, and the total allegiance they swore to the club, because of this extra degree of compassion shown them by the powers that be.

And not many people knew about this, save for a select few.

"But for the grace of God and Corinthians go I," dad once told me, as another of his impoverished pals passed by to greet him.

The Long-and-Winding Soccer Road

While my father had lived in São Paulo, he was able to associate freely with others of the original club champions who were still in permanent residence there, including the popular Baltazar, another best buddy from the golden age of fifties futebol. But all that pretty much changed once he moved to the soccer-less streets of 1960s America.

Because of our fundamentally Brazilian sports background, however, it can be stated with complete conviction that my family and I were fortunate eyewitnesses to the incredible growth and spread of soccer here in the United States. On the flip side, I can also testify to the agonizingly slow and painful deterioration of the same sport in my native land at the hands of incompetent coaches, unscrupulous club owners, and overly avaricious players.

My own childhood memories of the game were filled with scenes of long hot summers on weed-covered playing fields, learning to play soccer with my dad and my brother, always competing for attention and space with the other popular outdoor activities of sandlot baseball, schoolyard stickball, and cement court basketball.

I can recall one Sunday afternoon in the mid-sixties, when dad took us to see our first exhibition match at Downing Stadium on Randall's Island, where I enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Santos' star scorer, O Rei (The King) Pelé, with Europe's two-time Athlete of the Year, Eusébio, the Lion of Angola, who despite his ferocious-sounding epithet was born in Mozambique.

I can remember viewing the 1970 World Cup matches from Mexico on the giant closed-circuit screens at Madison Square Garden, and dancing in the aisles there with my family and our compatriots when the imperturbable Brazilian team trounced Italy's Forza Azzuri 4-1, to retire the coveted Jules Rimet trophy with an historic third world title.

I closely followed the late-seventies phase of Pelé's American career with the New York Cosmos, and even went to many of their home games at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, to watch world-class players of the caliber of ex-Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia, the German "Kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer, the Portuguese Seninho, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the Dutch Johan Neeskens, the Croatian Vladislav Bogicevic, and many others, attempt to transform the fledgling North American Soccer League into one of international repute and competitiveness.

I looked back fondly on a nervy conversation my father had in the early eighties with Professor Júlio Mazzei, the well known soccer coach, teacher, and mentor to Pelé, as dad asked him why more Brazilians weren't hired by the Cosmos as starters, to which the loquacious Professor Mazzei responded that the owners of the team had demanded more players from the Continent because of the higher proportion of European immigrants living in the U.S. In other words, it was strictly a marketing ploy, but he felt sympathy for my father's frustration in wanting to see more of his fellow countrymen play here and quite naturally commiserated with him over it.

I empathized with the league's later monetary misfortunes, as it inevitably folded in 1984 due to serious lack of funding and interest, as well as television ratings. Many (but not all) of the overpaid international stars who came here were on their last soccer legs anyway, and went on to finish up their field careers as spent war veterans with very little left to thrill testy North American audiences.

All in all, though, I managed to observe the slow and steady buildup of the sport throughout the remainder of the eighties and nineties, up to its present participative level.

And during the time I resided in São Paulo, I had withstood the steady onslaught of constantly televised jogos (games), the endlessly confusing soccer tournaments, the incomprehensible club playing schedules, the scandalous Wanderley Luxemburgo corruption investigations, the shocking revelations they ultimately disclosed, and, worst of all, the pathetic and self-serving press conference given by coach Zagallo after Brazil lost 3-0 to the French at the 1998 World Cup finals in Paris.

Surely, I surmised, and with a deep sense of saudade (longing) for the glory days of soccer, the final reckoning for futebol was close at hand. But then, in South Korea, in the year 2002 A.D., the Brazilians won their fifth World Cup and all previous soccer transgressions were dutifully absolved.

Keeping Faith with Football

Erstwhile soccer fans will argue, of course, that the driving force behind their adored athletes was fueled not by greed, but by passion; that the outstanding mental and physical attributes of the greatest players were complemented not by the bulging balances of their bank accounts, but by the overpowering love and respect they showed for the sport.

My father would spin in his grave if he had ever caught wind of the stench of scandal that has lately wrapped itself around his favorite pastime. On the other hand, he might also have taught us to continue to believe in the spirit of the team; that despite the recent setbacks, the hard times, and the terrible moments of loss, there would soon come the grand celebrations, the good times, and the glorious triumphs to be, if we'd only keep faith with the game.

And dad was the living embodiment of that principle: his own faith was of the type that would never move mountains, but instead willed his teams to win.

As young children, and later as adolescents, my brother and I looked to our parents for help and guidance with all aspects of our lives, believing them to possess outsized hearts to go with their heads and hands, always telling us what to do and when to do it, much as anyone's parents might do; we also viewed them as godlike creatures, indestructible, infallible, and all-wise in the ways of the world.

So how could we, as rational human beings, possibly ever have believed that dad could really bring his favorite clubs back from the brink of sudden death, to deliver them to the promised winner's stand, and turn team despair into total victory?

It seemed inconceivable for us to accept that our father had made some sort of devilish pact with a lesser soccer demon; rather, it appeared more likely he might have made all of this come to pass through the sheer force of his personality, not to mention several well-placed slaps to the knee.

But regardless of whether it was logical or not, we eventually became true believers in spite of our doubts. We needed to believe, for dad had convinced us to believe—because he was himself convinced of his gift, firmly and categorically. As if in pale imitation of a Eucharistic rite, he gave full credence to the notion that his own manifest presence in our living room, or at a soccer stadium, could somehow turn the proverbial tide against an implacable foe, and confer credibility upon Corinthians, earn esteem for Brazil, or nurture respect in the Cosmos—and, by dint of it all, acquire safe passage into football heaven—for whosoever was the lucky recipient of his beneficence. And isn't that what all purple-faced fans aspire to?

Mind you, it didn't always work out that way, but like grace itself, it was there for the asking. And, if perchance the teams really needed dad's earthly intercession, so let it be done.

It's been 10 years since my father passed away, yet I can't help thinking that he would have gotten a tremendous lift from Brazil's latter-day World Cup wins, which sadly he never saw; he would also have been among the first to join in and sing right along with us the popular anthem for Timão, "Salve o Corinthians."

Perhaps the song could, in the end, serve some higher purpose: as a universal rallying cry for soccer clubs everywhere.

The lyrics curiously read like a longlost biblical passage, only substitute the name of "Corinthians" for any team or organization, substitute the country of "Brazil" for any nation or continent, and one could still have a rousing enough theme that would reverberate in a thousand soccer stadiums with the true sentiments that die-hard fans have always felt for their beloved sport.

Dad would have wanted it so:

Salve o Corinthians,
O campeão dos campeões,
Eternamente dentro dos nossos corações,
Salve o Corinthians,
De tradições e glórias mil,
Tu és orgulho dos desportistas do Brasil.

(Lyrics by Benedito Lauro D'Ávila)

Hail to you, Corinthians,
The champion of champions,
You are and forever shall be in our hearts,
Hail to you, Corinthians,
With a thousand glories and traditions behind you,
You are the pride of every sports-lover in Brazil.

(Translation by the author)


Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. He returned to the U.S. in January 2001, and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is an insatiable film and opera buff, and a lover of all types of music including classical, pop, jazz and blues, as well as a World Cup soccer fan and Corinthiano. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com

Copyright © 2003 by Josmar F. Lopes

 









 
 
 







 



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