Football: Brazil's oldest club seek their Holy Grail

Vasco da Gama aim to mark their centenary as World Club Champions.
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The Independent Online
IT IS A fair bet that few Liverpool fans remember their team travelling to Japan in 1981 to lose to Flamengo of Brazil. The same probably applies to Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa and their respective defeats to the Uruguayans Nacional in 1980 and Penarol in 1982. But the story on the other side of the Atlantic is very different. The World Club Championship is the highlight of the South American calendar. It is their chance to put one over the richer and more celebrated winner of the European Champions' League.

Tuesday's decider is even more important than usual. Brazil's Vasco da Gama are in their centenary year, and are desperate to crown the celebrations against Real Madrid. Vasco have spent the past two weeks acclimatising in Tokyo. Back in Brazil, the national championship has been at the quarter- final stage. A big headache for the Brazilian authorities was narrowly avoided when Vasco fell just one goal short of making the last eight. They have been adamant about their priorities all along; disputing the World Club Championship was the only fitting way to celebrate the centenary of the most important club in the history of Brazilian football.

Formed as a rowing club by a group of Portuguese immigrants, Vasco took up the new fashion of football in 1916. Seven years later, at the first attempt, they won the Rio State Championship, and set in motion the process which established Brazil as the kings of the global game. At the time, football in Brazil was largely restricted to the Europeanised elite, but the Vasco team contained four white and, unthinkably, four black players.

The genteel world of Rio football went into shock. The followers of Fluminense, Flamengo and Botafogo, formerly so well behaved, yelled "leper" and "blood- sucker" at the Vasco players. The next year Vasco were left behind as the other clubs formed a breakaway league.

These were amateur days but, even so, no one was averse to making money. Vasco da Gama had captured the public's attention. Crowds at their games were bigger than for those of the more established clubs in their new league. A peace formula had to be found.

The compromise was based on the "literacy clause". In order not to lower the tone overmuch, all participants had to be able to read and write. A lengthy form had to be filled in before players could take the field. This was beyond many of the Vasco team, who were sent to school to get them through the test. The players' amateur status was preserved, but Vasco arranged jobs for them in the small businesses of Rio's Portuguese community, the club's traditional support. To consolidate their position, Vasco's membership clubbed together to build the Sao Januario stadium, inaugurated in 1927. At the time it was the biggest ground in Latin America, and it was from its tribune of honour that, in 1943, President Vargas announced a famous set of legislation that protected the rights of Brazilian workers.

A few hundred miles away, Pele was growing up a Vasco supporter. As a child he heard on the radio reports from the club's golden age, the late Forties. The team was a dazzling collection of talents who formed the basis of Brazil's 1950 World Cup team, seen by some as the most talented in their history.

Even by this time, though, Vasco were no longer the game's revolutionaries. Professionalism had guaranteed the place of the black player in the Brazilian game and by the mid-1930s, Flamengo made a concerted attempt to steal Vasco's thunder by signing the leading black players of the day. The move paid off. Flamengo have the bigger support nowadays, and they can also boast of their world title, won with that 3-0 victory over Liverpool.

If the desire to match their rival's achievement adds some extra spice to Vasco's challenge on Tuesday, it would be unwise to expect carnival football. The coach Antonio Lopes has been in charge at Vasco for more than two years - a minor miracle in the madness of Brazil - and has imposed his cautious philosophy on the team. The way they won last year's Brazilian championship spoke volumes. Facing Palmeiras in a two-legged final, Vasco would take the title if the scores were level. Lopes placed 10 men behind the ball and ground out two 0-0 draws.

The whole team work hard to win the ball and, ably marshalled by the veteran Mauro Galvao, Vasco defend with great composure. Their discipline is combined with flashes of individual brilliance, particularly on the counter-attack with the dangerous strike partnership of Donizete and Luizao. And the European scouts will also be out in force to observe the performance of Felipe, a left-back of extraordinary talent. With Juventus ready to launch a big-money bid, it seems unlikely that Felipe will play much part in Vasco's second century.