Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Like River Plate, this is not a photo from the finals, but close enough. Cruzeiro lost perhaps the best Brazilian player of the early 70s few years back – Tostao had to quit prematurely, because of his eye problems – a sad event, but the club had consistently strong squad since the late 1960s. Zeze Moreira coached them – the Barzilian national team coach way back in the 1950s. Jairzinho joined the club after his unhappy European spell and although he was the bigger star, he never recovered the form he had around 1970. Growing long hair did not help him… and he was getting old as well. In a way, Cruzeiro mirrored River Plate – Oscar Mas failed in Europe and did not last in Real Madrid. The same happened to Jairzinho in Olympique Marseille. Perfumo was the old experienced commander of Argentine defense – Piazza played the same role and captained Cruzeiro. Alonso was considered the best Argentine midfielder – Nelinho established himself as the best right full-back in Brazil: a modern defender, who attacked and scored plenty. If Nelinho was not the proper answer to Alonso, Dirceu Lopes was. River Plate had a plethora of well respected players – and Cruzeiro as well: Roberto Batata, Moraes, Vanderlei. The Argentines had young stars, seen as central in near future, Fillol and Luque. Cruzeiro had Palhinha. Overall, Cruzeiro was perhaps a bit better team than River Plate – bigger stars, key national team players, and brighter talent. A very good squad, with Palhinha and especially Nelinho at their best form. But what a joke football aften is – Roberto Perfumo left Cruzeiro and joined River Plate in 1975. Was he happy to lose to his former teammates? I bet he was not.

It was easier to win Libertadores Cup than to win Brazil’s championship – Cruzeiro finished 19th in 1976. Well, that low, if the so-called ‘final table’ means anything. By 1976 the championship was fantastic maze of stages, mini-tournaments, and it was not even called a league, but ‘Copa Brazil’. It was already second season under this name. Conflicting interests, influences, complaints, threats made the championship fantastic – apparently, relegation was banished word, so year after year more and more clubs participated – 54 played in 1976, but it was to be outdone soon. In normal league format, so many teams would mean enormous amount of games – 106 for each – but Brazil’s ‘formula’ was stingy: the top teams played only 23 matches. Those eliminated early finished with only 12 games played. So Cruzeiro was 19th in the ‘final table’, but with only 12 games played – by itself, it was actually better record than the one of the champions: Cruzeiro lost only one match, when the champions ended with 3 losses. Generally, the tournament became so monstrous under pressure from the big clubs – accommodating them with various exceptions and provisions for advancement and no relegation opened the door for claims and complaints from the small fry – unlikely clubs participated in 1976 Copa Brasil. Ever heard of Mixto, Treze, Uberaba? Well, they played… and the only queastion left was who and why was out of the tournament. Was anybody going down to second division? Was there anything approximating second division? What was the criteria for playing or not playing ‘top level’ football? May be nobody knew. But no matter what kind of ‘formula’ was introduced the big clubs were not satisfied… for they were not winning. Botafogo, Santos, and Sao Paulo finished even lower than Cruzeiro. Apart from organizational nightmare, there was something even more troublesome: the beautiful Brazilian football was no longer beautiful. Most of the games were sparkles, increasingly brutal affairs. Fans and commentators were not happy at all, especially because of strange contradiction: Brazil had a huge number of very talented players, but they rarely shined and also were no longer able to win. The prime example was Zico – his Flamengo so far won nothing. People lamented the days of Pele and Garincha.

But eventually the machine rolled and came to the end of the road – Internacional (Porto Alegre) and Corinthians (Sao Paulo) were the finalists. On December 12 Valdomiro and Dario scored two goals for Inter. Corinthians scored plain zero and the irksome tradition continued: champions were not the big clubs from Rio de Janeiro, but from somewhere else. Inter won their second title, repeating their success in 1975. Dario, little known outside Brazil, for he rarely played for the national team, was the top goalscorer for third time – with Atletico Mineiro in 1971 and 72, and now with Inter. Another member of the champion squad was voted player of the year – Elias Figueroa. Nobody quastoned the skills of the Chilean defender, but in a way it was alarming coment on the state of Brazilian football – twice in 6 years foreigners were the best players of the season. That in the country of the best players in the world? May be Brazilian talent was drying out? Well, hardly a concern down south – in Porto Alegre football life was sweet: everytning was theirs.

Of course, it was good squad. Manga continued to win trophies, although he was ignored by national team coaches. Figueroa and Marinho Perez were excellent duo of central defenders in front of the old goalkeeper. Valdomiro, Dario, and Lula – strikers to dream of, although none of them became a regular national team player. And Falcao in midfield. This was not yet the megastar Falcao, but young talented fellow quickly establishing himself among the finest. Paulo Cesar Carpegiani is missing on the photo, but he was there as well and Inter fans still argue nostalgicly who was better and more important: Carpegiani or Falcao. Unfortunately, Carpegiani suffered heavy injuries and had to cut his career short… but he was the king in 1976.