For your average Joe, Brazilian club football is a bit of a mysterious beast. The name Santos will be familiar. Maybe even Flamengo. The more hardcore football fan will nod wisely at Fluminese, and Corinthians and Sao Paulo. Maybe even Palmeiras. But what of the less than glamorously named Botafogo?
Ok then what if I told you they were a powerhouse 100 years ago? Jairzinho, World Cup legend, is a club hero? Garrincha and Gerson too. RIng any bells?
Probably not. You see Fogao – Great Fire – are seldom seen on the big stage these days. No Copa Lib triumphs. No recent superstars. The sole national title, achieved in 1995 thanks mainly to a swag of goals form occasional national team striker Tulio, was even overshadowed by relegation 7 years later. A fall from grace after a brief golden period.
Back in the top flight, but seen as workmanlike, modern day Fogao have lived in the shadows of the glamour boys of Rio football. Flamengo and it’s big names. Fluminese and it’s recent football, even Vasco, the boys with the cool kit, and continental trailblazers have left Botafogo behind.
But this season, something has changed. It’s a change we’re seeing here in the A-League. Botafogo have gone all marquee on us.
On the 30th of June this year, Clarence Seedorf, he of the 87 caps, 4 Champions league titles, member of the FIFA 100 and the Real Madrid Team of the Century, and owner of the deepest voice in football, put pen to paper with Botafogo and became the Club’s first genuine superstar in years.
Seedorf’s move follows the trend of the Campeonato Brasileiro being able to not only keep it’s young stars, but also attract plenty of talent to it’s shores. Alongside Seedorf, the likes of Wagner Love, Luis Fabiano, Deco and Diego Forlan have all made the move to Brazil over the past few years, with startlets like Neymar, Ganso and Leandro Damiao resisting the lure of the Euro, for the time being at least.
The booming Brazilian resources industry means the local economy is in fine fettle, with the local currency providing players with plenty of reasons to stick around, or give Serie A a go.
Seedorf’s arrival sparked hysteria amongst the Fogao faithful. In the season opener, played 2 months before Seedorf’s arrival, just over seven thousand hardy souls took to trip out the much maligned, and unloved Engenhao as the home side recorded a 4-2 win over Sao Paulo. Fast forward to Seedorf’s debut against Gremio. Same venue. Nearly thirty five thousand on hand for the Dutch debut.
Seedorf is on T-Shirts, billboards and TV ads around Rio. He is a star. An expensive one too, at a reported $65000 a week. However, and in a cautionary tale for the A-League, the novelty seems to have worn off a touch with the crowds. A few weeks later just over five thousand came to see the win over Figueirense, and in subsequent games, gates of between fifteen and twenty thousnad have been the norm, well in excess of the league average, but disappointing in the light of that opening day crowd.
I saw Seedorf first hand last week, after venturing out to Rio’s Olympic athletics venue for the match with Corinthians. The crowd was a touch below seventeen thousand, but made a noise double that, helped by a raucous travelling party from Sao Paulo. The game was entertaining, if a little scrappy at times, but Seedorf was brilliant.
He was involved in everything that was good about Fogao, popping up wide left, wide right, through the middle, in front of the back four. Despite his years, he showed energy that put many of his teammates to shame, coupled with the touch and vision that you’d expect from a player of his calibre. Two goals in the draw were his reward, plus the adoration of the home crowd, who stopped getting on the back of their coach, former Kashima boss Oswaldo de Olivieria, to lay themselves down at the feet of their hero.
But Seedorf can’t save Botafogo or the Brazilian league alone. He is one of a number who are arriving, and whilst things are bright financially, overall the footballing picture is uncertain. Crowds, for a country of Brazil’s status and population are poor. The calender is messy, the prices too high, the stadiums ill suited and the football often below par.
The local game needs a boost, and like in Australia, the big names are providing one. But it’s only one part of a much bigger jigsaw.