On Saturday evening the charismatic Canindé Stadium, situated on the margins of São Paulo’s River Tietê, hosted a meeting between Portuguesa and Bangu, the fifth of six games in group A13 of this year’s Campeonato Brasileiro Série D. Portuguesa prevailed 3-0, meaning that qualification for the knockout rounds will go down to the last day, with all four teams in the group still in with a chance.
Série D does not normally get much of a look in on this site but this match was one with a little more to it than your average fixture in the vast and convoluted fourth tier of Brazilian football. Despite their current tribulations these are two clubs with rich and remarkable histories.
Portuguesa, the city of São Paulo’s fourth biggest club, are a topic I have previously written about on these pages and last year they were relegated to the fourth tier, the deepest they have ever plunged in the national league system. It is a sad state of affairs for a club that was in Série A as recently as 2013 and were Campeonato Brasileiro runners-up in 1996.
Founded as a sports and social club by the city’s Portuguese immigrant community, Portuguesa have won three São Paulo state championships and produced a raft of fantastic players. 1958 and ’62 World Cup winner Djalma Santos started his career here and more recently internationals like Zé Roberto and Ricardo Oliveira have come up through the ranks.
Since their relegation from the top tier in 2013, however, the club has plummeted like a brick dropped from the top of a São Paulo skyscraper, culminating in last year’s relegation to Série D. They have also accumulated huge debts, the fifteenth biggest of any club in the country, which are utterly unsustainable now they are so far from the relative riches of the top division.
If they do not bounce back into the third tier this year, a difficult proposition when you consider there are 64 teams vying for four promotion spots, they will cease to participate in any level of national competition. Banishment to the footballing wilderness of the São Paulo state league could spell the end of the road for this once-proud club.
Bangu are also a side that can boast a noteworthy past. They have twice been champions of Rio de Janeiro’s state tournament and were runners-up in the 1985 Campeonato Brasileiro.
More recently, though, they have been through tough times and have not participated in any of the four national divisions for the last 14 years. Bangu were even relegated from the top flight of the Rio de Janeiro state league in 2004 and spent four year in the depths of the Campeonato Carioca Série B.
As well as being historically successful on the pitch the club also played an important role in the development of football as a ubiquitous social phenomenon in Brazil. When first introduced by the British, the game was a preserve of the white, wealthy, urban elite but the club were fundamental in shattering that initial exclusive arrogance.
Set up in 1904 as a team for the employees at a British-owned textile factory on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Bangu were the first club to field working-class players and, by virtue of that, players of African-Brazilian descent. It was something that the members of more famous club such as Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo abhorred but it paved a path for football to become the game of the Brazilian people.
Domingos da Guia, one of the finest footballers ever to grace the field and one of Brazil’s first black superstars, began his career at Bangu as did his son Ademir, who represented Brazil at the 1974 World Cup.
Série D is perhaps, then, not the most fitting stage for two such storied clubs to meet but it is, nonetheless, where they currently find themselves. History would certainly not have been in the minds of either set of players as they took to the field on Saturday night looking to book their place in the last 32 of the competition.
Bangu went into the game on the back of a loss, a draw and two wins in their first four games, one of those victories having come over Portuguesa at the home game in May.
Portuguesa, on the other hand, had only managed to accumulate four points prior to Saturday’s encounter, which meant they came into the game in fourth place in the group and in need of a win to keep their hopes of progressing alive.
As we approached the stadium there seemed to be an unusually large crowd gathered outside the compound which houses the stadium and the adjoined sports club, filling me with hope that there might be a few more than the usual thousand or so hardy souls who turn up to home games.
Unfortunately my hope was in vain. It turned out that the multitudes were there for a concert that was happening at the same time in another area of the club. Throughout the game the songs of the Portuguesa torcida organizada, and the few Bangu fans who had made the six hour drive, were drowned out by the incessant blasting music coming from the outdoor stage.
In the opening minutes it quickly became clear which side were in desperate need of the points. Portuguesa came out with real attacking intent and intensity and found the net twice within the opening fifteen minutes.
The first came after a move in which the home side kept possession of the ball for over a minute, exchanging passes in the midfield before left winger Luizinho cut inside on his right foot and tried his luck from about 25 yards out. The shot looked eminently stoppable but the Bangu ‘keeper Jefferson stuck out what Brazilians refer as a ‘lettuce hand’ and couldn’t do enough to divert the slow-moving ball around the upright.
The second followed shortly after as Portuguesa broke quickly on the counter. Luizinho ran in behind the Bangu defence and pulled back for teammate Fernandinho to tuck his effort into the bottom corner, well out of the reach of the hapless Jefferson.
From there the game slowed a little but Portuguesa remained in control and appeared the more likely to score for the rest of the half. The atmosphere in the ground reflected the performance on the pitch and the fans did not allow the ongoing concert to distract them from their own repertoire of songs.
In the second period it was more of the same, Portuguesa starting once again with a flurry of activity. This time though they could not find the net and the game once more settled into a more balanced rhythm.
Marcelinho Paraíba, previously of Marseille, Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg and the Brazilian national team is now playing for Portuguesa at the ripe old age of 42 and showed he was still a cut above the rest of the players on the field, wandering into space and stroking passes around with consummate ease.
Bangu only came close on one occasion when the left winger, by far their best player on the night, sent a volley thundering over the cross bar from a promising position.
In the closing seconds Portuguesa substitute Thiago Luiz put a deserved sheen on the scoreline. An nice exchange of passes saw him go through one-on-one with Jefferson and he shot low and hard into the bottom corner.
Next week sees the last games in the group, with both of these sides in need of a positive result to guarantee their passage to the next stage. Portuguesa face an away game against Desportiva Ferroviária of Espírito Santo state whilst Bangu host group leaders Villa Nova-MG.
It would be nice to see both sides progressing further in the tournament but in particular I will be rooting for Portuguesa. The club is in serious danger of failing financially and disappearing off the map forever. If they do not get back into the third division this year it would be a huge blow to their hopes of survival.