São Caetano weren’t founded until 1989 yet rose rapidly to the pinnacle of the South American game, only to fall at the last hurdle and slip back as the richer giants reasserted themselves. Robert Shaw reports

Brazil’s most consistent club at the start of this decade were not one of the major names. Instead it was Associação Desportiva São Caetano, a club that rose from the third division of the São Paulo state league to upset the establishment before returning to near obscurity six years later.

São Caetano made their mark by becoming national runners-up in 2000; the following year they repeated the feat, with only Atlético Paranense preventing the upstarts from going one better. Seven months later the Azulão (Big Blue) were back – this time in the Copa Libertadores final of 2002. It was a remarkable rise for this Brazilian Wimbledon. The tough-tackling team were accused of negativity and an overly physical game – “blue shirts and ­blue‑collar ­football”, critics said – but really only became very defensive as they went on the slide.

The Azulão sprung to prominence towards the end of an era when Brazil’s domestic league was prone to annual changes in rules and format largely in order to keep the big names up. In 1996 one of the big Rio clubs, Fluminense, finished in a relegation place only for the championship to be expanded from 24 to 26 teams. (Flu did go down subsequently, as far as the third level, but were allowed to skip a whole division on the way back up.)

In 2000 the Blues had qualified for the last-16 play-offs by ending as runners-up in the “Yellow Module”, a kind of national second division. After seismic defeats inflicted on Fluminense, Palmeiras and Gremio, they reach the two-legged final. Waiting for them were a stellar Vasco da Gama side, with the two Juninhos (Pernambucano and ­Paulista) linking with a still-fit Romário and the speedy Euller to form an irrepressible attacking force that would clinch three trophies that season. But São Caetano provided stiffer opposition for the cruzmaltinos than Manchester United had managed at the World Club Championship.

After a 1-1 draw in São Paulo, the second leg of the national final was staged at Vasco’s São Januario stadium in front of a crowd apparently far in excess of the official 33,000 attendance. After part of the fencing collapsed, Vasco’s belligerent president, Eurico Miranda, attempted to have the game restarted by ushering injured spectators off the pitch; common sense prevailed when the Rio state governor, who was watching on TV, ordered the game to be called off.

Vasco duly made short work of the Blues in the restaged game at the Maracanã. Even so this was an astonishing achievement for a club that had only been set up in 1989 by the mayor of São Caetano do Sul Mayor, a town of 150,000 in the São Paulo metropolitan area. Coach Jair Picerni forged a strong team spirit among his underrated players, a mixture of recruits from minor provincial clubs and the products of a council-funded youth programme. Striker Adhemar would go on to play in Europe, but other key players such as midfielders Adãozinho and Esquerdinha would never receive the same acclaim after they moved on to bigger clubs. While high-spending Palmeiras and Flamengo threatened to implode after the collapse of respective partnerships with Parmalat and ISL, São Caetano lived within their means. It was even rumoured that the players received their wages every 15 days – almost unheard of in Brazilian football.

After they lost 5-0 in their opening match in 2001, pundits forecast that the Blues would be “another Bragantino” – a small São Paulo team that were national runners-up in 1992 but then fell away. Instead São Caetano continued to confound the critics as they claimed the runners-up spot in 2001, with fourth- and sixth-placed finishes in 2002 and 2003. But defeat on penalties by Paraguay’s Olimpia in the 2002 Copa Libertadores final was a bitter blow. After winning 1-0 away, São Caetano took the lead at home, only for the visitors to hit back and, with away goals not counting, finally win a penalty shootout. Critics jibed that the Blues were a timinho (a small, weak team), destined always to be vice (runners-up) – and the club did indeed lose all four finals they contested between 2000 and 2003.

The club’s long-term future was jeopardised by the fact that they had few fans of their own. Many of the 40,000 who turned up for the Olimpia game were on loan. As Fabio Portella in São Paulo’s Folha newspaper wrote: “After the defeat the fans of the Brazilian team left the stadium with their heads down but nobody cried over the result. The following day everyone knows they will be back to being corintianos, palmeirenses and santistas.”

The competition was also played out before a media still preoccupied with extolling Brazil’s World Cup success in Japan. There was a striking contrast between the attention lavished on the Santos v Boca Copa final a year later and São Caetano’s undervalued achievement. But their decline at this point was only relative to the startling impact made since 2000. In 2004 São Caetano still made it to the Libertadores ­quarter-finals, only losing out to Boca Juniors on penalties after drawing both legs.

If the media were sympathetic to São Caetano’s cause back in 2000 it was partly due to a feud between the main TV network, Globo, and Vasco vice-president Eurico Miranda – who had ordered his team to appear with the logo of rival broadcaster SBT on their shirts. But any residual romance attached to the Blues disappeared on the night of October 27, 2004, when defender Serginho collapsed from heart failure after 59 minutes of an away game at São Paulo. The 30-year-old defender was pronounced dead at hospital later that night. Club officials were accused of negligence for allowing Serginho to play on despite being aware for several months of his heart condition. That problem appeared to be common knowledge among his team-mates, one of whom had commented ­tearfully after the abandonment: “We always knew there was a chance of this happening.” While the club were spared automatic relegation, the docking of 24 points converted potential Libertadores qualification into escape from relegation by a whisker. Some duly questioned whether a similar punishment would have been meted out to one of Brazil’s major clubs.

After two seasons of struggle and the departure of future World Cup players Gilberto and Mineiro, the Blues were relegated in 2006. Taking 13 points in their last 19 games meant São Caetano followed other recent relegatees, such as Botafogo, Palmeiras and Gremio. These major clubs bounced back immediately, as they could afford to mount expensive promotion campaigns. São Caetano, in contrast, have had a poor Serie B campaign, despite an outstanding Paulista state championship in 2007 when they lost in the final to Santos and had an amazing 4‑1 semi-final win away to São Paulo.

This kind of giant-killing at state level may be the most the Azulão can hope for in the immediate future. The collapse of a section of terracing at Bahia’s Fonte Nova Stadium in November caused the deaths of seven fans and prompted the Brazilian Federation – looking for a cosmetic makeover to appease FIFA in the short-term – to ban the use of other poorly maintained grounds in the Libertadores and the knockout Copa de Brasil, which provides one Libertadores qualifier. The Blues’ Anacleto Campanella was on a hit list of 14 stadiums, so if they are to make a comeback any time soon it may have to be as someone’s else’s tenants – a sadly suitable fate for Brazil’s version of Wimbledon.

From WSC 254 April 2008

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