Born in Sao Paulo to a Scottish father and schooled in England, Charles Miller is regarded as the founding father of Brazilian football. In the years that followed his pioneering work, however, it was Italian immigrants who were largely responsible for the spread of the game beyond the clubs and across the country as a whole.
It is doubtful at the time that any of these missionaries knew they were preparing the ground for the emergence of one of the sport’s global superpowers, who would lock horns many times with Italy in the FIFA World Cup™, including two Finals, both won by the Brazilians.
“The brilliant journalist Thomaz Mazzoni, who wrote countless pieces on the development of football in Brazil, said that the sport was elitist in its early days and regarded as a social event,” said the historian and journalist Fernando Galuppo – the author of many books on the history of Brazilian clubs of Italian origin – in conversation with FIFA.com. “It was just like going to the cinema or the theatre. People would choose the best show. They didn’t really identify with the clubs at that time. It was just seen as entertainment.”
In Sao Paulo the popularity of the game began to spread when workers from the city’s major factories started founding their own clubs. Lacking a place they could call their own, in the early days new teams very often had to play on makeshift pitches as they struggled to establish themselves. Playing a very important part in this process were Italian immigrants, who came over initially to work on the coffee plantations in the Brazilian interior before settling en masse in the cities, where they found a variety of trades to pursue.
Spreading the gospel
Founded in 1914, Palestra Italia became the club most closely associated with the oriundi, as the Italian community was known in Brazil, and held all its meetings in Italian for the first 16 years of its existence. In 1920 the club bought the Estadio Palestra Italia, also known as the Parque Antarctica, and grew considerably in stature as the years passed. As its trophy collection grew in size, so too did its popularity spread, albeit under a new name.
That name change came about during the Second World War, following a decree issued by the national government of Getulio Vargas, which prohibited any organisation from adopting the name of any of the three Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Japan. In response, the club opted to call itself Palmeiras, retaining the initial letter of its founding name.
The same piece of legislation also prompted Belo Horizonte side Societa Sportiva Palestra Italia, which was founded in 1921 and had also grown considerably, to change its name to Cruzeiro, a reference to the constellation of the Southern Cross (Cruzeiro do Sul in Portuguese), which features on the flag of Brazil and other countries in the southern hemisphere.
Another Sao Paulo club with Italian roots was Clube Atletico Juventus, who proved a competitive side in the first few decades of their existence but failed to match the success of the two Palestras. While they were unable to keep pace with the Brazilian and state elite, they did have strong community ties and also managed to retain their name on their jerseys, which ironically for a side called Juventus were the same dark crimson colours as those worn by Torino.
Their story can be traced back to a trip made by Conde Rodolfo Crespi to Italy, in which he found time to watch a Turin derby match. On returning to Brazil, he suggested that the factory team he founded in the suburb of Mooca adopt the name Juventus, in tribute to La Vecchia Signora. To begin with the club wore the same black and white shirts as the Italian giants, the only problem being that the association to which Clube Atletico Juventus belonged featured a number of other teams with the same-coloured kits, among them Corinthians and Santos.
In their book The Glories of a Naughty Boy, Fernando Galuppo, Angelo Eduardo Agarelli and Vicente Romano Netto tell the story of how the club changed their kit: “In response to the situation, CA Juventus chose a colour that no other team in the division wore. At the suggestion of their principal benefactor, who had already suggested a name change to reflect his personal preference, they opted for dark crimson and white, the very colours worn by Torino.”
Though Juventus never became a national or state heavyweight, they boasted a tradition, inspired affection and also owned their own stadium, the Rua Javari. Despite having room for 5,000 spectators only, many more claimed to have been at the ground on 2 August 1959, the day Pele scored what he said was the finest goal of his career, in Santos’ 4-0 defeat of Juventus. As one book wryly noted: “So many people have said that they saw Pele’s stunning goal that the Javari must have been as big as the Maracana that day.”
One thing that can safely be said about the Javari is that it was always packed to the rafters whenever Juventus took on one of Sao Paulo’s big sides, though by the 1950s full houses were a common sight in Brazilian football, the game having become a national obsession on the back of triumphs such as A Seleção’s FIFA World Cup win at Sweden 1958, one inspired by the teenage Pele, who would soon be crowned O Rei (The King).
Brazil’s first goal at that competition was scored by Jose Joao Altafini, who went by the nickname of Mazzola, against Austria. Though he scored a second goal in that game, he soon lost his starting place in the team. When he returned to the big stage four years later in Chile, he would do so in the blue of Italy.
Formerly with Palmeiras, Mazzola joined Milan after his first FIFA World Cup and stayed at the club until 1965. After enjoying further spells with Napoli and Juventus, he became a leading football pundit in Italy.
“It was very simple,” Mazzola later wrote in the newspaper Lance! “Back then Brazil never called on players who were based overseas. Never. I was only 23 or 24 and I would have been devastated at missing a World Cup. It wasn’t me who left Brazil. It was Brazil that left me.”
Mazzola was not the first Brazilian to play for La Nazionale. The South American country’s emergence as a footballing hotbed would prove beneficial for Italy, who had no hesitation in welcoming talented footballing immigrants from across the Atlantic. The first of them was the right-winger Anfilogino Guarisi, also known as Filó, who formed part of the Italy squad that won the country’s first world title on home soil in 1934 and played in their opening game at that tournament, a 7-1 defeat of USA.
Making his breakthrough with Portuguesa, Guarisi played for Paulistano and Corinthians before joining Lazio of Rome in 1931, where he remained until 1937. During his stay in the Italian capital, Filó could have been forgiven for thinking he was back in Sao Paulo at times, with no fewer than four former Corinthians playing alongside him, chief among them the defender Del Debbio. Little wonder, then, that the team was dubbed Brasilazio.
For the 1931-32 season the Roman outfit even went to the lengths of signing an entire team of Brazilians, most of them hailing from the two Palestras. That side was coached by former Corinthians player Amilcar Barbuy, who also doubled up as a forward. The experiment did not prove a success, however, with Lazio having to fight off relegation.
Several members of that team made a rapid return to Brazil, though not the five members of the Fantoni clan, all of them former idols at Societa Sportiva Palestra Italia, and who would form something of a dynasty at Lazio. The most famous of them was Nininho, who was called-up to train with the Italy squad in the build-up to the FIFA World Cup in 1934 but failed to make the shortlist for the finals.
The story continues to this day, nearly 80 years on, with Thiago Motta, who was born in the state of Sao Paulo and was discovered by Clube Atletico Juventus, hoping to get the call from Italy for the upcoming FIFA Confederations Cup. As fate would have it, Brazil will face La Squadra Azzurra in the group phase, in Salvador on 22 June, an unmissable opportunity for Brazil’s Italian diaspora to celebrate the mutual benefits of the intimate relationship between two of the world’s great footballing cultures.