Dirceu is a champion

The 1965 inauguration of the grandiose Estadio Mineirao coincided with one of Belo Horizonte’s two superpowers embarking upon its zenith. That year, indeed, Cruzeiro won the first of five successive Campeonato Mineiro titles, while they thrashed the legendary, Pele-inspired Santos 9-4 on aggregate in the final of the Taca Brasil 1966.

There had been two indispensable ingredients in that recipe of success, but Raposa coach Hilton Chaves would have to cook without them both in the state championship decider in 1972. Tostao, whose seldom craft helped Brazil wow the world and seize the Jules Rimet Trophy at the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, had earlier that year been sold to Vasco da Gama in a record transfer between Brazilian clubs, while the magical Dirceu Lopes had a broken right leg.

The latter was the undisputed darling of the Cruzeirenses, and had never lost a final against forthcoming opponents and fierce enemies Atletico Mineiro. And if his absence on the team-sheet wasn’t enough of a negative omen, Cruzeiro were up against the reigning national champions, who boasted Tele Santana at their reins and the startlingly prolific Dario at their spearhead.

“It was unbearable having to sit on the bench,” recalled Dirceu. Not that the attacking midfielder did for long. Within minutes, he had jumped to on to his single standing leg to bellow advice to his team-mates.

The principal recipient of the attacking midfielder’s advice was Palhinha, who had replaced him in the starting XI. Dirceu told the 22-year-old forward that if he kept getting into space in the Atletico box, a chance would eventually fall his way. Shortly before half-time, it did.

For the umpteenth time, Dirceu leapt from sitting to standing. For the first time, the recently-turned 26-year-old thumped his fist into the air in celebration, as Palhinha’s outstretched leg beat Ladislao Mazurkiewicz – the Uruguayan goalkeeper famed for being the victim of Pele’s outrageous dummy at Mexico 1970 – to the ball to prod home the opening goal.

Cruzeiro began the second half by looking the most likely to score the game’s second goal, but they were hit with a sucker-punch 17 minutes from time, when Dario’s instinctive, delightfully-executed close-range overhead-kick equalised for Atletico.

The fans in black-and-white shirts among the 63,000-plus in the Mineirao rose to their feet to enthuse. Dirceu rose to his to encourage. “Piazza,” he screamed to Cruzeiro’s captain,” “tell them not to worry, today is our day of victory.”

Piazza recalled of that moment: “We were all telling Dirceu to keep calm, that we’d win it for him. But his shouts were infectious as our supporters, despite having just conceded an equaliser, began roaring us on.”

The remainder of normal time passed without a goal. So, too, did the first half of extra time. But with the clock reading 114 minutes, parity was once again broken. Eduardo delivered a high, hanging cross into a crammed Atletico box, and the diminutive Palhinha somehow rose above his markers to power a downward header past Mazurkiewicz and the three defenders on his line. Palhinha immediately sprinted to the Cruzeiro bench to excitedly embrace Dirceu.

The few remaining minutes thereafter felt like hours for Dirceu, and he was forced to suffer an additional six of added time. Finally, though, the concluding whistle sounded and the Mineirao exploded.

“Dirceu is a champion, Dirceu is a champion,” roared the Cruzeirenses as their injured icon revelled in a lap of honour on the shoulders of his team-mates.

It’s not often a player scores both his side’s goals in victory and is overshadowed. It’s almost impossible that he does so and is overshadowed by a team-mate who didn’t even kick a ball. Yet each and every Cruzeiro supporter inside the Mineirao 40 years ago to this Friday will remember Brazil’s Independence Day in 1972 as belonging to Dirceu Lopes.