Twenty years ago Palmeiras were obliterating all around them with an all-star team bankrolled by an Italian company. Now in their centenary year, writes Luke Ginnell, the Verdão are in danger of being relegated from Brazil's top division...
“Who could stop an attack formed by Rivaldo, Evair and Edmundo?” asked Brazilian magazine Placar in 1994, before providing the simple answer to its own question: “Nobody.”
The same year Brazil won its tetra in the USA, that 'trio mágico' fired Palmeiras to its fourth and most recent Brasileirão title. Laying waste to all defences that dared oppose them, these three players scored 38 of their team’s 58 goals that season. They were the sharp end of one of Brazil’s most attractive modern club sides, a team powered by Sampaio, Mazinho and Zinho, and fortified by a backline including the great Roberto Carlos.
This was Parmalat-era Palmeiras, a Brazilian dream team bought with Italian milk.
Twenty years later, Palmeiras are unrecognisable from their present incarnation. Now the dairy millions have evaporated and the Verdão (Big Tree) are a mediocre yo-yo side perpetually drawn into the relegation churn.
A torrid season has left Palmeiras once again fighting for survival in Série A, its on-field struggles exacerbated by incessant boardroom chicanery. As pointed out to Reuters in August by Mauro Beting, a journalist and palmeirense: “There’s no money, no team and no leadership.”
Worse still, 2014 is the club’s centenary year. How bittersweet it would be for this distinguished institution, the joint most-successful Brazilian club in terms of national titles, to mark such a milestone with demotion from the top tier. Elsewhere, those entering their 11th decade of existence receive saccharine letters of acknowledgement from monarchs. For Palmeiras, the only letters that matter now are 'A' and 'B'.
“It is impossible not to feel sad about this whole complicated situation,” remarked former goalkeeper Marcos in 2010, following the club’s most recent relegation. “I’ve had a long career, I’ve experienced many joys and sorrows. And I see the same mistakes happening over and over again, year after year.
"There’s so much division. It starts at the top and reflects on the team. Many people do not seek what’s best for the club. Instead, they cultivate their own vanity and do what they can to avoid other people’s success.”
During the nineties, it was all so different. In 1992, the club signed a three-year contract with Italian corporation Parmalat. Run by Calisto Tanzi and once considered a paradigm of virtue in Italy, the dairy giant had been involved in sport sponsorship since the mid-1970s.
Perhaps the most notable example of this was their relationship with Parma, a team in which, at the time, Parmalat had already invested significantly, bringing in stars such as Thomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla and Gianfranco Zola to promote the company through football.
Having become interested in hawking their wares to the Brazilian market, Parmalat wasted no time in developing a local version of calcio’s most nouveau riche outfit. There was an obvious candidate for their attention: a club born as Palestra Italia, now known as Palmeiras; a club representing the vast Italian community of São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city.
“According to the Brazilian joke, God made São Paulo ugly so that its people would go to work each morning,” says Garry Jenkins in The Beautiful Team, his tribute to the World Cup-winning side of 1970. “In reality, it was the Italians who built Brazil’s equivalent of Chicago.”
The Italians also built Palmeiras. From the émigré community came the founders of Palestra Italia – the club adopted its current name in 1942 – as well as renowned players like Jose Altafini, Humberto Tozzi and Anfilogino Guarisi, who represented Italy in the 1934 World Cup.
Perhaps the most notable or these oriundi was the moustachioed, rocket-powered star of the 1970 generation, Roberto Rivellino, of whom Jenkins remarks: “As a boy with Italian blood in his family he was inevitably a palmeirense.”
Unlike Tozzi, Altafini and Guarisi, Rivellino never represented his boyhood team on the pitch, being enticed away by a fat contract with their fiercest rivals Corinthians, but the point remains: he was 'Italian', so he supported Palmeiras. To this day, a defining part of the club’s identity is its Italian heritage, and it was partly this longstanding bond that encouraged Parmalat to finance the Palmeiras revolution.
On top of this, Palmeiras boasted a dedicated following and good infrastructure, but, significantly, had won nothing for 17 years. By investing in a popular club going through a lean spell, Parmalat bought itself a free hand to dictate business within the organisation.
As highlighted by José Carlos Brunoro, an executive employed by Parmalat to handle the Palmeiras project in its early days, the title drought meant the Italians could demand some bang for their buck: “[Parmalat] wanted to participate in management, which was normal for the company. Palmeiras accepted this arrangement, and the partnership was formed.”
Parmalat modernised the board, rejigged the club’s image with a new, striped kit and exercised overall financial control through Brunoro, their very own man inside. Millions were pumped in through sponsorship and much more on top of that added to a transfer kitty then unparalleled in Brazil.
Early in 1993, Verdão signed Roberto Carlos, Antônio Carlos, Edílson and, of course, Edmundo, a man once described as a “liability to mankind”, who is believed to have cost around $1.2 million.
It subsequently came to light that Parmalat harboured even grander plans, and had gone so far as to send Brunoro to Argentina to negotiate the transfer of a decaying but iconic fantasista by the name of Diego Maradona. Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, El Diego was not willing to ply his trade in Brazil.
Within a year, 'The Animal' and his team-mates had already conquered the Brasileirão, and by the time Rivaldo joined in 1994 from Mogi Mirim, Palmeiras were the strongest team in Brazil. The arrival of the bandy legged genius merely served to make them unstoppable.
Indeed, his signing was something of a publicity coup. After Corinthians dithered on paying the fee demanded by Mogi Mirim following a loan spell at Timão in 1993, Parmalat showed no such hesitation, and got their man.
In spite of their fractious natures, Rivaldo and Edmundo hit the same frequency almost immediately, the former’s gangling posture and unhurried ease on the ball contrasting with the brutal flair of his partner-in-crime. They made a striking pair; the one all controlled grace, the other a study in madcap improvisation. Combined with the poaching instinct of Evair, Palmeiras possessed a forward group comparable in relative terms to Brazil’s 'Three R' attack in 2002.
The side played with a free-flowing style encouraged by their new coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo. Dismissed as the man of the 'magic quadrilateral' while managing Real Madrid, Luxemburgo’s favoured 4-2-2-2 formation was in fact a reflection of the one used by Tele Santana’s Brazil in 1982.
As noted by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid, the system “seemed to suit the Brazilian mentality, the two deep-lying midfielders providing a platform for four out-and-out attacking players”. Luxemburgo employed it to good effect at Palmeiras, albeit with some variation.
Behind the frontmen, the precocious Zinho frequently appeared to be pulling the strings of those around him. His subtle puppet-mastery was sometimes undervalued, but he received enough recognition to form part of Brazil’s World Cup squad in 1994.
A combination of Mazinho, Sampaio, and Conceição supported him in midfield, an extra layer of protection for an unyielding central defence, where Antônio Carlos, Cléber and the jheri-curled Tonhão all vied for starting berths.
Allied with the diabolic energy of Roberto Carlos on one flank, Claudio or Mazinho on the other, and reinforced by Velloso in goal, this was a formidable defensive collective that allowed the creative arsenal assembled by Parmalat’s chequebook to fire at will. Arguably, the team became the strongest Brazilian domestic side since Zico’s Flamengo in the early 1980s, or even Pelé's Santos.
With back-to-back victories in the Brasileirão, Luxemburgo’s men had simultaneously provided palmeirense with the glory they craved and Parmalat with their perfect marketing tool. The 1994 triumph was made all the more sweet given the decisive win came against Corinthians, but after this second title, the side fell apart.
Edmundo fled to Rio to pursue a career feuding with Romário, while Rivaldo jetted off to Europe for a life of affluence, as did Conceição, Mazinho (who is the father of Bayern’s Thiago Alcântara) and several others. The golden generation disbanded as quickly as it had been thrown together.
Further glory would follow in 1999 with a Phil Scolari-led Copa Libertadores triumph but, predictably, Felipão’s Palmeiras was an infinitely less glamorous specimen, built around discipline rather than flair. The spirit of '94 was not to be recaptured, and Parmalat gradually began to reduce its investment in Palmeiras.
Shorn of its stars, the team’s performances took an alarming and rapid downturn. In 2002, exactly a decade after the Italian takeover, Palmeiras were relegated from Série A. Several years later, it became clear why the Italian company was paring back its investments.
“Even as far away as South Africa, Australia and Brazil, children have grown up with cartons of Parmalat milk and yoghurts on their kitchen table,” wrote Sophie Arie in The Observer in 2004. “For now the cartons are still sitting on the supermarket shelves. But, in a matter of weeks, the multinational company, a symbol of Italian industrial success, has imploded in a fraud scandal rapidly becoming one of the biggest in history.”
As it turned out, head honcho Tanzi had been siphoning off funds from his company for years; about €8bn was unaccounted for. The Parmalat empire foundered, almost taking down its grandest symbol, Parma, in the process. Though their involvement with Verdão had wound down to virtually nothing since the turn of the millennium, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Tanzi was the final catastrophic indicator that Parmalat-Palmeiras was no more, a fleeting glory now consigned to memory.
Despite some level of sponsorship from another Italian corporation, FIAT, Palmeiras has not recovered financially from losing Parmalat, and has found itself a bit-part player for most of the 21st century so far.
This has been a bitter pill to swallow for its reputed 15 million supporters, who are accustomed to Verdão being one of the big boys.
Incumbent president Paulo Nobre has stabilised things, at least in comparison with the disastrous reigns of predecessors like Mustafa Contursi, whom some hold responsible for much of the impropriety that characterises present-day Palmeiras.
Nobre has brought restraint in terms of spending and a more responsible allocation of resources but this has not endeared him to all palmeirense, many of whom would rather the directors spend freely and aim high. Nobre, however, seems unmoved and, outwardly at least, he and his board are governing sensibly, if parsimoniously.
This does little to hide the fact that Palmeiras are a poor team. For a while now, their best players have been leaving the club, deemed expendable in the face of Nobre’s cost-cutting. The squad, wallowing in the bottom four of Série A, is comprised mostly of youngsters and returnees from Europe, but there is enough talent there to stay in the top tier.
But palmeirense derive scant consolation from this, humiliated that the club is forced to spend its centenary and the 20th anniversary of its most beloved generation fighting for survival. At best those great landmarks will be marked with anti-climax, at worst with the despair of relegation.
A derby with Corinthians looms in late October, and a loss could help send Palmeiras down. By then, of course, it might already be too late.