A Roberto Dinamite-spearheaded Vasco da Gama, Internacional with Falcao as its fulcrum and the Jorge Mendonca-inspired Palmeiras were championed as the teams to beat going into the Brasileirao 1978. Atletico Mineiro, Corinthians, Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Sao Paulo, who boasted outstanding talents such as Reinaldo, Palhinha, Joaozinho, Zico and Dario Pereyra respectively, were also firmly among the bulging bracket of contenders.
That bracket definitively excluded Guarani. It was unthinkable that a team from outside their state capital could become national champions – especially O Bugre. The club from Campinas, just shy of 100 kilometres north-west of Sao Paulo city, had never even come close to winning the Campeonato Paulista. Moreover, under financial difficulty, they had been forced to release a couple of their higher earners and employ an unknown coach by the name of Carlos Alberto Silva.
The 38-year-old, short on numbers, was forced to promote four players from the youth team: Odair, Tadeu, Gersinho and a 17-year-old striker by the name of Careca. The kids suffered a baptism a fire in Round 1 of the first phase, with Roberto Dinamite hitting a hat-trick as Vasco ran out 3-1 winners away at the Brinco de Ouro.
Guarani produced some hit and miss performances thereafter but ultimately did enough to finish fifth in the 12-team Group D and advance. They then came home fourth out of nine in Group J to edge into the third phase, which began with an examining trip to Internacional, who were chasing a third Brasileirao trophy in four years.
David didn’t just overcome Goliath in Porto Alegre, but overwhelmed him. Careca tormented defenders Beliato and Vanderlei Luxemburgo throughout, and Zenon completed a 3-0 victory with a spectacular goal. It put Guarani en route to winning six and drawing one of their seven matches, and progressing to the quarter-finals as Group Q victors.
Guarani then overwhelmed Sport 6-0 on aggregate to reach the last four, where, with Zenon in exquisite form, they beat Vasco home and away to march into the final (goalkeeper Neneca kept a then club-record seventh successive clean sheet in the first leg of the semis).
Still, they went into the final as the heavy underdogs. Palmeiras led Guarani 18-0 on state titles and 6-0 on national ones (no team had conquered the country on more occasions). Jorge Vieira’s Verdão also boasted Brazil internationals such as goalkeeper Leao, centre-back Beto Fuscao and attacking midfielder Jorge Mendonca, as well as dribble wizard Nei, and the feeling was that they could put the tie out of their opponents’ reach before it got back to the Brinco de Ouro.
Midway through the second half at the Morumbi, however, the tie swung in Guarani’s favour. Leao conceded a penalty for elbowing Careca in the back of the head and was consequently sent off. Having made both of their permitted substitutions, Palmeiras were forced to charge attacker Escurinho with saving Zenon’s spot-kick, but the midfielder’s trusted left boot make no mistake.
Zenon may have earned Guarani a 1-0 win in Sao Paulo, but the yellow card he received there meant he missed the return leg in Campinas. Fortunately for the Bugrinos, his team-mates compensated for his absence.
Defensive midfielder Ze Carlos delivered a performance for which his coach gave him “two grade tens” [out of ten] because he did the work of two players”, the incoming Manguinha was a rock beside him, and livewire Bozo was a constant source of trouble to the Palmeiras defenders.
The principal headliner was nevertheless Careca. Nine minutes before half-time, the pacy teenager robbed Beto Fuscao of possession inside the Palmeiras box and poked the ball to Bozo. The latter’s subsequent shot was repelled by goalkeeper Gilmar, but the rebound fell to Careca, who, from 17 yards, produced a canny first-time strike into the bottom corner.
It mattered not that Careca had what would have been one of the most spectacular goals in Brasileirao history cleared off the line in the second half – an exquisite dribble had preceded an amazing backheeled shot – for 1-0 is how it finished. The kid from Araraquara’s 13th goal of the campaign had inspired Guarani to what remains the unlikeliest triumph in Brasileirao history.
“It was very difficult at the start of that campaign,” recalled the player who went on to win national championships with Sao Paulo and Napoli and score 29 goals in 63 games for Brazil. “We were unknowns, our coach was unknown, but what we lacked in celebrity and experience, we made up for with our unity and by giving our all. And we always believed it was possible.
“I will never forget that final. Later, people expected my teams to win and me to score goals, but back then it was different. So to score the goal that won us the title, against a big team like Palmeiras, filled me with sheer joy. It’s when everything started for me.”