Beautiful Horizon – How Belo Horizonte became the football capital of Brazil in 2013
There might still be 16 games left of this Brasileirão season, but the celebrations of almost 50,000 Cruzeiro fans after a 3-0 win over closest rivals Botafogo on Wednesday night had a definite ‘put the champagne on ice’ feel. The victory put Raposa (“The Foxes”) seven points clear at the top, and, with a deep squad, a thoughtful coach in Marcelo Oliveira, and the absence of much truly stiff competition, it already feels as though the title is Cruzeiro’s to lose.
If the blue half of Belo Horizonte does end up celebrating a third national title it will cap a remarkable footballing year for the city, which began with the reopening of the iconic Mineirão stadium, for so long a symbol of the footballing ambitions of this part of Brazil, back in February. Unlike many of Brazil’s World Cup venues, the Mineirão opened not with a whimper but with a bang, as city rivals Atlético and Cruzeiro fought out a gritty clássico in front of 53,000 fans, and the sense of momentum has hardly wavered since.
Next up was BH’s sparkplug role in Brazil’s Copa das Confederações triumph. Fuelled by the rough kindling of some of the country’s biggest and most confrontational street demonstrations in the days leading up to the semi-final clash against Uruguay, the Seleção won through at the Mineirão in dramatic style, with Julio César saving an early penalty and Paulinho scoring a late winner, as patriotism tumbled unchecked from the heaving stands.
The most memorable moment of Belo Horizonte’s annus mirabilis was yet to come. Atlético and Ronaldinho’s dizzying Copa Libertadores final win in July, when Galo overturned a two goal deficit against Olimpia of Paraguay in dramatic fashion, was the club’s first ever Libertadores title, and its first major honour in 41 years. In some corners of the city the celebrations may be going on still.
And now there is Cruzeiro. Victory over Botafogo was the fruit not only of Marcelo Oliveira’s astute leadership, but also of some intelligent, and not insignificant, investment in players in recent months.
The opening goal, at the end of an occasionally ragged but relentlessly gripping first half, was scored by Nilton, a volante with excellent positional sense and an eye for goal, brought over from Vasco da Gama in December. Cruzeiro’s neat attacking play and rapid passing exchanges were inspired by the mercurial Everton Ribeiro, scorer of this stunning goal against Flamengo last month, who arrived from Coritiba at the beginning of the year. Honourable mentions go to Ribeiro’s partner in crime Ricardo Goulart, signed from Goiás, and a gaggle of others.
The effects of the symbiotic rise of Atlético and Cruzeiro this year can be seen in two more recent signings. The tribal intensity of Brazilian football’s rivalries should not be understated, and there is no doubt that Atlético’s Libertadores triumph, and the national and international spotlight that the arrival of Ronaldinho and emergence of exciting young winger Bernard attracted to Galo, spurred Cruzeiro, determined not to be overshadowed by their city rivals, on to greater off-field efforts.
In April, with Atlético having romped effortlessly through the Libertadores group stages, Cruzeiro made monolithic Vasco zagueiro Dedé, an emerging Brazil international who had been rumoured to be on his way to Manchester United just a few weeks before, its record signing. While Dedé’s occasional lapses in concentration can sometimes make him look more like Titus Bramble than Dedéckenbauer, his pulverising physical prowess makes up for the odd blunder, and the signing represented a huge coup.
Then in July Cruzeiro invested heavily in repatriating former Real Madrid and Arsenal midfielder Júlio Baptista. The player was presented to the fans on the pitch before the clássico against Atlético, a mere four days after Galo had lifted the Libertadores in such unforgettable fashion, and the sharp-elbow-to-the-ribs symbolism could hardly be missed. A second half substitute on Wednesday, Baptista scored two late goals to sweep Botafogo and a subdued Clarence Seedorf aside.
Not so long ago the picture was very different. As both the Mineirão, and Atlético’s current Independência home, underwent rebuilding work, the Belo Horizonte big two spent a miserable couple of years in exile, flirting with relegation while playing in front of tiny crowds in the neighbouring town of Sete Lagoas. The lines of “Triste Horizonte” by the great Minas Gerais poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade never seemed more apt – “I don’t want to see you any more, my sad and broken horizon.”
Those days seem a long time ago now, and despite Atlético’s traditional post-Libertadores slump, both Belo Horizonte clubs are now in much ruder health. They will need to be to take on the footballing hegemony of Rio and São Paulo, and the influence that clubs from those cities exercise over the CBF (Brazilian football’s governing body) and the national media. “This will make people remember there’s football on this side of the mountains,” as Galo president Alexandre Kalil sniffed pointedly after signing Ronaldinho.
There is no doubt too that Belo Horizonte has benefited from the current failed state status of football in Rio and São Paulo. As of this week’s games, two regions with a combined population of over 56 million can boast only one team in the qualifying spots for next year’s Libertadores (executive thinking and financial planning with all the professional guile of a parish hall whist drive are largely to blame).
Belo Horizontinos could care less about that, and will be forgiven for cocking a snook at pompous paulistas and too clever by half cariocas these days. If Cruzeiro do manage to turn those metaphorical popping champagne corks into a reality come December (and such an aesthetically pleasing team would make worthy champions), it will mean a clean sweep of the only two prizes that matter in Brazilian football for the country’s third biggest city.
Though perhaps notions of love thy neighbour shouldn’t be stretched too far, for those tribal rivalries still run deep. Before Nilton’s exquisite balletic flick for the opening goal against Botafogo, the announcement that Atlético were losing to São Paulo brought the most raucous cheer of the night from the Cruzeiro fans.
James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The Blizzard, World Soccer and The New York Times, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.Tagged in: football
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