On the brink of triumph, little São Caetano are not so little anymore, and they have a lesson for Brazil's big boys. Cassiano Gobbet explains
Two years ago, when they reached the finals of the Brazilian championship, AD São Caetano and their supporters used to sing: “We’re on our way to Tokyo.” This was a joke about the yearly Toyota Cup match between the club champions of South America and Europe. It’s no longer a joke. Outperforming the big names of South America, many of whom are drowning in debt, the Azulão (Big Blue) have reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, the equivalent of the Champions League. At the time of going to press, they hold a one-goal lead from the away leg of the final against Olimpia of Paraguay and so are in with a great chance of travelling to Japan in December to compete with Real Madrid for the crown of world champions.
Is it a sign of the times? Probably. As with the Italian side Chievo, surprise qualifiers for this season’s UEFA Cup, São Caetano offer proof that a tightly controlled budget can count for more than a large support or big name signings. “São Caetano follow a simple rule,” explains the club president, Nairo Ferreira de Souza. “If we earn ten, we spend nine. Or less.”
On the pitch, the team’s secret is a group of inexpensive players who have been together for a long time. Goalkeeper Sílvio Luiz joined the club four years ago when they were playing in the third division of the São Paulo state championship. Midfielder Adãozinho was a bricklayer before being a footballer. Striker Somália, who had brief spells with Feyernoord and in Slovenia, earned his nickname because he was too thin when he arrived at a former club, América Mineiro. Another forward, Anailson, is the most expensive player in the current squad, bought for £200,000.
Few have experience of playing for one of the big teams in Brazil. “They know how hard life is,” says the manager Jair Picerni, who has led his team to the final of the last two Brazilian championships. Due to a typically bizarre rule applied in 2000, the final phase of that year’s tournament involved teams from all three divisions. São Caetano, who had finished runners-up in the national second division, got through the knockout stage before losing in the final to Vasco da Gama. Last season, as a first division team, they lost in the final to Atletico Paranaense.
The club receives great financial support from its home town, a small but affluent suburb in the metropolitan area of São Paulo and base of a large car manufacturer. The São Caetano board denies any ties with the city hall, but Mayor Luis Tortorello (himself a former club official) saw the potential boost that football could have for his political career, and gives the club all the support he can. Furthermore, the stadium is owned by the city and the team sponsors were found by local politicians. Even the bus used by the squad belongs to the city. Not coincidentally, Tortorello’s approval rate is very high these days.
The club’s success has started a discussion in Brazil about the wages and skyrocketing signing-on fees of some players. Traditional giants like Flamengo, Vasco and Santos, all former Libertadores winners, are on the edge of bankruptcy, as are Argentinian powers like Boca Juniors and River Plate. “If Brazil had serious regulations for football, these three clubs would now be buried,” the ex-president of one big club was quoted as saying, anonymously, for fear of incurring the wrath of his former colleagues.
Free of the influence of agents and stars, São Caetano spend approximately £100,000 on monthly wages, less than Zinedine Zidane earns in a fortnight. If São Caetano hold on to their lead in the second leg, the French star and millionaire team-mates will face the Azulão in December with a clear obligation to win. Should they not deliver the goods, Real Madrid could do worse than look to the outskirts of São Paulo for a few lessons in how to improve their transfer policy.
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month