Pioneers of the Sao Januario

Vasco da Gama was an 'Age of Exploration' navigator, a valiant Portuguese who discovered an oceanic route from Europe to India and paved the way for his protégé, Pedro Cabral, to locate Brazil. Fittingly, the club whose name he inspired also became pioneers, breaking racial barriers in early-20th-century Brazil and becoming the first South American champions.

Vasco da Gama kicked off their footballing existence 92 years ago to this month. Now one of the most-celebrated and popular teams in their homeland, relays a tale of achievement both on and off the pitch.

Portuguese roots
Rowing was the dominant sport in late-19th-century Rio de Janeiro. However, fed up with the inconvenience of crossing Guanabara Bay to Niteroi to indulge in their pastime, Henrique Ferreira Monteiro, Luis Antonio Rodrigues, Jose Alexandre D'Avelar Rodrigues and Manoel Teixeira de Souza Junior decided to form their own club. On 21 August 1898, to mark the fourth centenary of Vasco da Gama's ground-breaking voyage to India, the quartet - along with 58 fellow Portuguese immigrants - founded Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama.

Football underwent a popularity explosion in Rio at the start of the 20th century, and Vasco inevitably became keen to transition their success in the waters on to the field of play. A merge with Lusitania afforded them this opportunity and on 26 November 1915, the club's football department was incepted.

Vasco's bow ended in a 10-1 defeat the following May, with the debutants' kits adorned by the Order of Christ cross that continues to symbolise their Portuguese heritage. The team's first scorer was Adao Antonio Brandao, whose father had expelled him from Portugal as punishment for showing a lack of interest in his education. The striker would not be the last bad boy to gain notoriety at Vasco.

Vasco initially struggled in the state's subservient championships, but finally surfaced among the elite in 1923 and revelled in a heroic baptism. The rigorous and unprecedented training regime of coach Ramon Platero paid dividends, with 11 of their 12 victories during a triumphant campaign owing to second-half winners.

However, their ecstasy was short-lived. Vasco's rivals, objecting to their use of black and impoverished players, elected to form their own league. Shorn of the competition of regional heavyweights America, Bangu, Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminense, Vasco cruised to the Campeonato Carioca crown, taking maximum points from 14 contests - a record that still stands.

The club's greatest battle in 1924 was won off the pitch, though, and their fight against racism ended in triumph: Rio de Janeiro's elite were reunited for the 1925 campaign.

The Victory Express
Vasco won the Campeonato Carioca again in 1929, 1934 and 1936, before embarking on the most dominant period in their history. Indeed, between 1945 and 1952, they added five state prizes to their collection and won the 1948 South American Club Championship, a once-run, round-robin tournament that is recognised by CONMEBOL as the precursor to the Copa Libertadores, in Santiago, Chile. There, Flavio Costa's charges swept to glory unbeaten, an honour not even an Alfredo Di Stefano-inspired River Plate, nor the great Nacional side of Atilio Garcia, could deny them.

O Expresso da Vitória (The Victory Express), as the side was nicknamed during this era, was a devastating attacking machine supported by the strictest of defences. Goalkeeper Barbosa and towering defender Ely were central to their resistance; Maneca and Danilo, whose extrasensory vision and execution of pass made him arguably the finest playmaker ever to have worn the camisa cruzmaltina, provided the ammunition, which Ipojucan, Chico and the outstanding Ademir de Menezes would utilise.

The 1952 campaign may have marked the end of O Expresso da Vitória, but Vasco swiftly found new heroes in Bellini, Orlando and Vava, who went on to help Brazil win the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™. With the trio thriving, the club secured regional bragging rights in 1956 and 1958, the latter after a thrilling tie-break tournament sucess at the expense of arch-rivals Flamengo.

It was 1970 before O Time da Virada (The Comeback Team) returned to the top of the Carioca podium, but one year later the emergence of a teenage striker sparked hope among their supporters. Roberto Dinamite went on to propel the club to the national title in 1974 and five state golds. He scored 698 times for Vasco before retiring in 1993, and remains the leading all-time marksman in the Brasileiro (190) and Carioca (279) tournaments.

Vasco went on to win the Brasileiro in 1989 and 1997, when Edmundo enjoyed his annus mirabilis, and their Copa Libertadores conquest of 1998 earned them the right to partake in the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship, which Brazil staged in 2000. With Edmundo and Romario in scintillating form, they beat Manchester United 3-1 to sail towards the final, where they ultimately lost on penalties to compatriots Corinthians.

Vasco da Gama may have been a short step away from ruling the world at the Maracana, but nobody can deny them their place in history.

The present day
A formidable attacking foursome of Juninho Pernambucano, Juninho Paulista, Euller and Romario guided Vasco da Gama to their fourth Brasileiro crown in 2000, but they have suffered a relatively barren spell since, seizing just one title; the Campeonato Carioca in 2003.

The stadium
The Sao Januario was inagurated as South America's biggest stadium in 1927, a distinction it lost in 1940 when the Pacaembu was opened in Sao Paulo, and in its primitive years it hosted a number of Brazilian national team games. The venue holds fond memories for the Vascainos, who watched their side beat Ecuador's Barcelona 2-0 en route to a 4-1 aggregate victory in the final of the Copa Libertadores 1998. Moreover, the city's second-biggest set of supporters have witnessed some of Brazil's finest showmen, namely Fausto, Danilo, Rubens, Romario, Edmundo and the extraordinarily talented Dener, whose life was tragically taken by a car accident when he was just 23 in 1994, perform there. More recently, Romario scored the 1,000th goal of his career, according to his personal count, at the Sao Januario. Vasco can proudly boast to being the only member of the state's 'big four' to own the stadium in which they play their home matches. Following a 2002 study, the Travel Channel named the Sao Januario as one of the seven best stadiums to watch a game in the world, alongside esteemed venues such as Barcelona's Camp Nou and the San Siro in Milan.

* 1 South American Club Championship: 1948
* 1 Copa Libertadores: 1998
* 1 Copa Mercosul: 2000
* 4 Brazilian Championships: 1974, 1989, 1997, 2000
* 3 Rio-Sao Paulo Tournaments: 1958, 1966, 1999
* 22 Carioca State Championships: 1923, 1924, 1929, 1934, 1936, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1956, 1958, 1970, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003.

Legendary players
Pascoal (1922-32), Fausto (1929-31 & 1933-34), Ademir de Menezes (1942-46 & 1948-56), Chico (1943-53), Barbosa (1944-62), Danilo (1945-53), Vava (1952-58), Bellini (1952-63), Roberto Dinamite (1971-79, 1980-89, 1990 & 1992-93), Romario (1985-88, 1999-2002, 2005-06 & 2007-08), Edmundo (1991-93, 1996-97, 1999-2000, 2003-04 & since 2008), Juninho Pernambucano (1995-2001).

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