Beaten 3-0 by Fluminense in a Rio State semi final on Saturday, Vasco da Gama have more to worry about than elimination from a tournament of dubious relevance. At the end of last year they were promoted back to Brazil’s first division. The national championship kicks off in under a month’s time, and the club’s fans streamed away from the Maracana stadium on Saturday fearing a long battle at the wrong end of the table.
But at least they have something to celebrate. The previous day was the 90th anniversary of the inauguration of their home ground, one of the most important venues in the glorious history of Brazilian history. Without the values represented by the Sao Januario stadium, Brazil would never have become a global power in the game.
Nine decades ago Rio de Janeiro was still the nation’s capital and its biggest city. And with the new, glamorous medium of radio starting to broadcast its games across the country, it was the place that set the tone for the way that football was to develop.
The game began as an elite pastime, and in hierarchical, conservative Brazil (where slavery was only abolished in 1888) sectors of the elite fought to keep it that way. Rio’s three leading clubs, Fluminense, Flamengo and Botafogo, were elite clubs based in the city’s swanky south zone.
Vasco da Gama were something different. They were from the working class north zone, and pointed the way towards a more democratic future when in 1923 they won the Rio title with a line up including poor whites and black players.
The elite clubs tried to hold back the tide. They demanded that players fill out a form before taking the field, a task that was beyond many of Brazil’s poor at the time. And then they declared that in order to take part in the local first division a club had to have its own stadium. Vasco did not. But they quickly put that right. Much of the club’s support was drawn from the city’s Portuguese community, many of whom owned small businesses. They clubbed together and constructed Sao Jaunario, which on its inauguration in April 1927 was the biggest stadium in Latin America. It was Rio’s most important venue, and the principal home of the Brazil national team, until the Maracana was built 23 years later.
Most importantly, its existence was imposing, concrete proof that Brazilian football, as the Uruguayan game had already done, was going to draw on talent from all backgrounds – the corner stone of its global prowess.
The inspirational effect of Uruguay on the Brazilian game has been largely forgotten. It is interesting, then, to note that the club invited to take on Vasco in the stadium’s inaugural game was Montevideo Wanderers.
They were unable to attend and so the first game, on April 21st, 1927, was against Santos – a fact which holds a delicious irony. Less than a decade and a half later Pele was born in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais. He grew up as a Vasco supporter, but ended up playing his football for Santos and conquering the world with Brazil.
Without the inclusive values represented by Sao Januario there would have been fewer opportunities for someone like Pele. But there was still one more battle to be fought – the fight to introduce professionalism.
This took place in the early to mid 1930s, and by this time Vasco da Gama had positioned themselves on the wrong side of history. They were in favour of the preservation of amateurism. It proved a catastrophic mistake. For these were the years when identities were being cast in stone. Under a visionary president, Jose Bastos Padilha, Flamengo saw which way the wind was blowing, embraced professionalism and worked night and day to rebrand the club; from an elite outfit, Flamengo now presented themselves as an inclusive institution for all Brazilians. It was remarkably successful, and it won them a massive, nationwide cross-class support base.
And while Vasco da Gama continued to be based in the working class north zone, the club’s identity lost some of its sparkle as tribune of the people, and instead put more stress on the connection with Portugal.
Vasco against Flamengo remains Rio’s fiercest derby – it is known as the classic of the multitudes. Flamengo, though, are the bigger club – but Vasco’s fans have the consolation of being able to congregate in their Sao Januario stadium – striking, historic, important and 90 years old.