Brazil flagThe sun sets quickly in the nordeste of Brazil. According to the cliché, it might be the only thing that moves fast in teeming, sweltering Salvador. At around five o’clock on the second Sunday of February, half way through the 442nd Bahia-Vitória clássico, the blazing heat of the afternoon had begun to relent, just a little, and inky black shadows crept across the pitch.

Just before the sun dipped down below the top of the stands at the Pituaçu, if you were standing behind the goal, down near the corner flag, and looked along the touchline towards where the managers stood, you might, if all the angles were right, have caught a glimpse of two agitated figures, perfectly aligned. The glare of the sun behind had turned them into silhouettes, one superimposed upon the other. In unison, arms whirled, heads bounced, feet kicked out at imaginary balls.

Paulo Roberto Falcão and Toninho Cerezo, together again.

This was no ordinary Ba-Vi. Salvador, the original capital of Brazil, had become a city under siege, embroiled in a ten day police strike that had turned the streets almost lawless and left over 100 dead. Right up until game day, the clássico, a feisty affair at the best of times, had been under threat. Only on Friday afternoon had the police confirmed they would work the game, and just as importantly, provide security along flashpoint bus routes and at terminals out in the deprived periferia. 30,000 tickets were sold in a matter of hours, and the game was christened O Clássico Da Paz.

The Clássico of Peace.

The day before the game, at a press conference held down by the beach in middle class Barra, Bahia manager Falcäo and Vitória’s Cerezo appealed for calm. Though the eyes still sparkled and figures remained trim, wrinkles now cut a little deeper, and hair, at least in Falcão’s case, had gone almost completely. The two men talked of admiration and mutual respect. No. More than that. They talked of love and brotherhood, and the time they had spent playing at the hub of that extraordinary Seleção midfield in Spain 1982, and then later together in Roma. Throughout the meeting, there was the easy, companionable laughter of a decades old friendship.

“Where’s the suit? How about a little respect?” came Cerezo’s opener, in response to Falcão’s casual garb. Cerezo, of course, was dressed in polo shirt and jeans himself.

Thirty years ago, alongside Zico, Socrates, Junior and the rest, these two men formed the heart of the world’s second favourite team. The images that linger are of Falcão lining up shot after extraordinary, blistering shot from the edge of the box, and Cerezo’s hypnotic probing just behind. The memorable moments are so clearly engraved upon the mind that they barely need repeating, and yet are so symbolic of an era, and a Brazilian style of play that is now perhaps gone forever, that they can hardly not be revisited.

Éder’s late winner against the USSR. The eight goals that followed in the next two group games, against Scotland and New Zealand, including two from Falcão. That all too easy second round opening win against Argentina and a fuming Maradona. Then, the by the numbers win over a far inferior Italy in the next game, followed by a hiding handed out to Boniek’s Poland in the semi, and that magisterial last triumph over West Germany in the final.

Almost. It might have turned out that way, perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Paolo Rossi. And, many in Brazil say, if it hadn’t been for the elegant, sometimes languid, Cerezo, whose wayward pass across his own back four let Rossi in for his and Italy’s second. What many forget, of course, is how Toninho made amends later in the game, with a canny decoy run down the right hand side of the penalty area, allowing Falcão space to pick his spot for Brazil’s second equaliser. People forget, of course, because of what happened later, when Rossi scored his third and broke a few hundred million hearts around the globe.

In 1983 Cerezo left his hometown club of Atlético Mineiro behind and joined Falcão at Roma. His friend and international teammate had led the Italian side to their first Scudetto in 42 years in the season just gone, and together the two would help the club win the Coppa Italia in 1984.

Cerezo moved on to Sampdoria, where he spent six marvelous years playing alongside the likes of Pagliuca and Vialli, winning the Scudetto in 1991 and playing in the European Cup final against Barcelona the year after. After returning to Brazil he won the Libertadores and Mundial de Clubes with São Paulo, before finishing his career back at Atlético, for whom he played, in total, over 450 games. Falcão, older by two years, was done as a player soon after the 1986 World Cup.

The pair have had checkered careers as managers. Falcão enjoyed success with América of Mexico in the early 90s, and even trained the Seleção for a while prior to the 1994 World Cup. Yet he has sometimes struggled to incorporate his more poetic footballing beliefs into the results driven functionalism of the modern game, and Brazilian football rarely has much patience with experimentation. Earlier this year he was sacked by Internacional only 19 games into what was supposed to be a long-term project. He then briefly returned to the broadcast booth, where he had spent 14 of his post playing career years, before being tempted back into management by Bahia.

Cerezo spent five triumphant years coaching Kashima Antlers, winning the Japanese title two years in a row, as well as two J-League Cups and an Emperor’s Cup, before working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2010 he returned to Brazil with Sport, of Recife, where he lasted only three months before being fired after a miserable run in Serie B.

Now the two are together again in Salvador, albeit on different sides of one of Brazil’s most intense footballing rivalries. This clássico came in the Campeonato Baiano, the Bahia State Championship, where the two Salvador giants currently vie for top spot, and will expect to meet again in a few months in the final (though both were surprised last year by eventual champions Bahia de Feira, a team from the inland market town of Feira de Santana).

But it is in the Campeonato Brasileiro where Falcão and Cerezo will face their real challenge. Bahia barely clung on to their Serie A status last year, while Vitória fell at the final hurdle in Serie B, losing at home to two late São Caetano goals in their penultimate fixture, when victory would have clinched promotion. Both will hope to overcome the financial imbalance that makes life for clubs in the norte and nordeste of Brazil so difficult when competing against their cousins from Rio, São Paulo and the sul. Both will struggle too to handle the pressure of managing in a fanatical, passionate city, where success is demanded despite often difficult financial conditions.

This clássico ended in a goalless draw, which was perhaps for the best, given the tinderbox atmosphere. At the end Cerezo and Falcão embraced, and, just at the moment when etiquette demanded they should break apart, paused and gave each other another comradely squeeze.

There was even time for Falcão to interrupt Cerezo’s post match press interview. “You were lucky today,” he shouted around the door, as Cerezo was about to speak. “Away and take a shower,” came the response.

In the end, it was left for Cerezo to put into words the emotions that hung so thickly in the air.

“When you stop playing, the only things that stay with you are the supporters and the friends you made. And when you get older you want to express your feelings more. What I really wanted today was to be on the pitch. That’s what I miss most.”

And with that he looked towards the door through which Falcão had just departed, thinking, perhaps, of another sunlit afternoon, this time in Barcelona, almost 30 years before.

Footnote: On Sunday afternoon just past, the two teams met again in the second Ba-Vi of the year. The game might not have reached the heights of Brazil v Italy all those years ago, but neither did it disappoint. Vitória were first out of the traps with two goals in the first seven minutes, including one from Brazil’s leading scorer this year, Neto Baiano. Bahia hit back with two of their own midway through the first half, before Geovanni, once of Barcelona, Manchester City and Hull, curled home a wonderful free-kick winner just before the break, for a fitting enough final score of 3-2. Cerezo, this time, had the broadest smile.

By James Young

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