The date was 29 August 1993 and A Seleção under Carlos Alberto Parreira were, to put it mildly, going through uncertain times. A little over a month before, Brazil had suffered their first ever FIFA World Cup™ qualifying defeat when going down 2-0 to Bolivia in La Paz and, on 22 August, Parreira’s charges were roundly booed at the Morumbi in Sao Paulo, despite a 2-0 win over Ecuador. We are, after all, talking about a nation grown used to footballing success but, at the time, without a FIFA World Cup win since Mexico 1970.
“And then, when we got to Recife, everything changed,” recalled Ricardo Rocha, a centre-back in that Brazil squad. Nor could the Pernambucano be accused of being biased towards the fans in his home town, as everyone who was there that day agrees with him. Indeed, that match - against Bolivia once more - was the first time the Brazilian players entered the pitch hand-in-hand, in a gesture that would become a characteristic of this A Verde e Amarelo side.
The overwhelming 6-0 victory that followed, in an Estadio do Arruda bubbling over with people and positive energy, is widely considered the turning point that put Brazil on track for world title number four, which would come at USA 1994. It also went down as a perfect example of the kind of welcome this north-eastern state is famous for – both in terms of Seleção matches and for anyone who comes to savour its wonderful beaches and attractions.
Though he only played in Recife until the age of 22 – at modest outfit Santo Amaro and then Santa Cruz – Rocha was forever associated with the city and with Pernambuco state, and remains one of its main footballing ambassadors. Even today, Rocha still has a home in Recife and, in an interview with FIFA.com, he was able to make it very clear just why the city and its passionate enthusiasm for sport are so special.
FIFA.com: Despite not playing professionally in Pernambuco for long, your name remains inextricably linked with the game in Recife. As someone who knows the city so well, what would you recommend to visitors?
Ricardo Rocha: Listen, I think that, generally speaking, there aren’t many people who are as proud of their home state as us Pernambucanos. And, I have to say, it’s with good reason. This place is wonderful, it’s got beautiful beaches: Porto de Galinhas, which is a fabulous tourist spot; Carneiros beach. And it’s got loads of history too: the city of Olinda, which is a real gem; the centre of Recife, with the Marco Zero (from where all rail distances are officially measured), and all the history associated with the Dutch legacy in the city.
Pernambucano fans are also famous for passionately getting behind A Seleção. Is that really the case?
Without a shadow of a doubt. Every time A Seleção come and play here, everybody loves it. It’s one of the most enthusiastic places, not just when it comes to game time but regarding everything surrounding the match too. There’s always a welcoming atmosphere and that can make a difference – it helps the team feel more at home. I’ve said it before: if Brazil reach the World Cup Final, we should have it in Recife! (laughs)
You were personally involved the most famous example of that phenomenon: Brazil’s 6-0 win over Bolivia in qualifying for USA 1994. How much of an impact did the fans have that day?
Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps. I can remember the scene vividly. When we took the field, the noise and the energy levels were incredible. That’s contagious. You just need to look at the half-time score: we were already 5-0 up. The supporters were vital and, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t the first time either. They’d done the same against Paraguay in the Copa America 1989 too. We felt so grateful that, after we won the World Cup, we convinced the powers-that-be to change the route of our return flight [from the USA]. Instead of going straight to Brasilia, we wanted to stop off at Recife first. Everyone wanted to thank the Pernambucanos for their support during that difficult time. That was a major turning point for Brazil, from being a team in crisis and under-fire to getting back on the road that led to us becoming world champions.
How does that footballing passion translate to club rivalries?
If you think about club rivalries in Brazil, the rivalries between two big teams in the same city almost always leap to mind: Atletico Mineiro versus Cruzeiro. and Gremio against Internacional etc. But Recife has the interesting scenario of having three strong teams with big and passionate faithfuls. So, it’s always tough trying to do something that involves all three, because there’s so much history there. You might just about be able to get Nautico and Santa Cruz working together, but once you throw Sport into the mix things get tricky.
But which is the fiercest rivalry?
That’s the fiercest rivalry: everyone against Sport! (laughs) I’m joking of course but there is some truth there, perhaps it’s because in recent decades they’ve been Brazilian champions, have won the Copa do Brasil and have dominated the Campeonato Pernambucano. Of the last 20 state championships, they’ve won 12, and that success ends up putting them in a different position.
Do you think that the construction of the Arena Pernambuco is going to aid the development of football in the state?
It will help a lot. The arena’s looking truly fantastic. And, even above all that, taking the project out of the centre of Recife and putting it in a non-urban area was a brilliant idea. That’s going to literally turn into a new city, thanks to all the housing that’ll be built. It was a very interesting change of strategy and one that’s going to do a lot of good for Pernambuco. And not just in footballing terms, but for life there too.