The reef and the regatta: the 20-year controversy of Brazil’s 1987 championship

The reef and the regatta: the 20-year controversy of Brazil’s 1987 championship

For connoisseurs of organisation catastrophes, the 1987 Brazilian Championship was a particularly fine vintage. Stories of administrative meltdown and infighting among Brazil’s various clubs and football federations are ten-a-penny, but that year the nation’s foremost bobos and blazers outdid themselves. So hapless were those in charge of running the game in Brazil in ’87 that lowly Sport Club do Recife, winners of what was effectively the second tier of football, were crowned as national champions.

It seems churlish to denigrate Sport’s finest hour, but the reality is that their journey to the summit of Brazilian football was facilitated by the indecisive, madcap actions of both the CBF and the emerging Clube dos 13 (essentially an alliance of the country’s top 13 clubs). Writer James Young would later call the whole episode “a story of Kafkaesque tedium and futility” and it’s hard to disagree.

Indeed, the right to be – officially, at least – called 1987 champions of Brazil was disputed hotly for nigh-on a quarter of a century, and it was only in 2011 that Flamengo were, finally, forced to give up the ghost of a title that many still feel is rightfully theirs.

By the middle of the 1980s, domestic football in Brazil was a mess. Corruption, regionalism, ceaseless political interference and downright ineptitude had taken their toll on the CBF, reducing it – and resultantly the club game – to a state of fractiousness and relative penury. The sheer scale of the country and the impenetrability of its geography had always made the maintenance of a truly national league a genuinely difficult undertaking, and the CBF had repeatedly proven itself all but incapable of doing so. This was never more abundantly clear than when, in June 1987, CBF president Octávio Pinto Guimarães declared his organisation unable to finance the upcoming Brasileirão, Brazil’s premier football competition.

Part of the problem lay with the amount of clubs seeking to be involved, and the travel expenses required to ferry them around this vast nation. In 1986, the national league setup, Série A and Série B, plus the dependant “qualification” and “parallel” tournaments, saw 80-odd teams taking part in a labyrinthine format of groups, phases and playoffs. Sensibly, the intention had been to reduce the numbers involved in the top tier from 48 teams to a paltry 24 for the 1987 season. But this being the CBF, they managed to make a hash of things.

Squabbling over who would take part in this pared-down Série A had begun long in advance of the association’s decision to step aside from running the competition. The more illustrious clubs that hadn’t performed well in 1986 demanded inclusion – Botafogo, who’d finished 31st overall, risked being left out in 1987 – as did smaller teams and regional sides desperate to be brought in from the margins, resulting in an unholy clamour for those precious 24 places. Ministers and politicos stuck their noses in, pushing for their teams to be allowed into or kept in the top flight. Gradually, the CBF caved under pressure and agreed to expand the league, but quickly realised it was not feasible to do so. It was this realisation that led to Guimarães’ aforementioned declaration.

Into the breach stepped a number of Brazil’s most famous clubs. Led by Carlos Miguel Aidar and Márcio Braga, the presidents of São Paulo and Flamengo respectively, a loose alliance that came to be known as the Clube dos 13 proposed that they themselves organise the top-level competition – a move in some ways comparable to the development of the Premier League in England several years later. According to writer Ubiratan Leal, the governing body assented to this via a phone call made by Aidar to Nabi Abi Chedid, vice-president of the CBF and an influential figure who had led the Brazilian delegation at the 1986 World Cup.

This powerful baker’s dozen set about securing sponsorship and financial backing for their league – eventually to be called the Copa União. Their aim was to produce a slicker, more polished tournament contested by the country’s most popular clubs. “When the new Brazilian Championship was formatted,” writes Leal, “the intention was to transform the competition into a great commercial product. The main attraction would be big clashes between the most widely-supported teams.”

This may sound like plain old elitist conservatism, but the reality is that the Brasileirão had rarely been a meritocracy. Often even smaller teams could wield significant power simply by possessing an administrator with political clout – just look at Bragantino’s achievements under Nabi Chedid. The proposed competition run by the Clube may have been a step towards oligarchy, but it wasn’t a move made in isolation.

The Clube had struck out in a bold new direction, and the league’s founders talked excitedly about “spectacle” and “sensation”.  It was a change of emphasis that would see glitz and glamour prioritised over pan-Brazilian inclusiveness (then again, a group of teams representing 95 per cent of the supporter-base in Brazil can hardly be called exclusive). The fledgeling league soon won major commercial deals with three large companies, Coca-Cola, Varig and Globo, with matches to be beamed live across the country by the latter, Brazil’s biggest broadcaster.

But the Clube’s activities had bred resentment among other clubs who were not invited to what was in effect a CBF-approved private party, and the pressure was heaped once again on the confederation. Those who’d found themselves outside looking in lobbied the national association to front up and organise its own competition. Which, of course, it did.

Sixteen teams, including Sport, were thrown together by the CBF into what they called the “Yellow Module”. The top two from this “module” would play the top two from a “Green Module” – ie, the Copa União – in a playoff to become champions of Brazil. Initially, the playoff was to decide the Libertadores representatives for the following season, but unsurprisingly another change of mind put paid to that. It was a ludicrous situation, and one that illustrated the inherent weakness of the association – first by agreeing to allow the Clube to form its own league, then by back-tracking and permitting a rival division to be formed.

Effectively, the best two teams in the “Green Module” would spend a season playing against some of the toughest opposition around – this module contained Flamengo, São Paulo, Palmeiras, Corinthians and Santos – only for two clubs who’d faced off with luminaries such as Bangu, Criciúma and Ceará to be given a chance to take their title in a playoff. Unsurprisingly, the Clube promptly announced that no playoffs would take place involving the “Green” clubs.

But there was a problem for the Clube – and his name was Eurico Miranda. A ruthless, Machiavellian figure focused on little other than his own, and his club, Vasco’s, interests, he served as the middle-man between the Clube and the CBF. Miranda, ever the snake in the grass, had an eye on his future within the confederation and quietly assured the CBF that clubs in the Green Module would honour the arrangement and compete in the playoffs, an assurance that was in fact far removed from the truth.

And so it was that two parallel tournaments got underway to decide the 1987 champion of Brazil. One backed by powerful commercial sponsors, a massive fan-base and the biggest clubs in the country; the other a hastily assembled entity formed by a floundering national association and comprised of mostly mediocre regional teams.

The likelihood is that you haven’t heard of many of Sport’s 1987 generation. Arguably the most famous figure associated with the squad at the time did not contribute anything on the pitch that season: Émerson Leão, a legendary goalkeeper who’d been part of almost all of Brazil’s World Cup squads since 1970, had ended his long playing career at Sport in 1986 – or early 1987 depending on different reports – and went on to serve as coach of the team in the aftermath. In fact, he began the 1987 “Yellow Module” campaign as Sport’s técnico, but would not make it to the end of the season. It’s fair to say that he was, and still is, the most well-known persona associated with that side: as befitted what was in everything but official status a second-tier setup, there were even then few recognisable names in Sport’s 1987 squad.

The same cannot be said of “Green Module” winners Flamengo. Seven years after that ill-fated competition began, five members of the 1987 Mengão squad started for Brazil in the opening match of the USA World Cup: Bebeto, Leonardo, Aldair, Zinho and Jorginho. In addition to this quintet, Flamengo also boasted famous names like Leandro, Renato Gaúcho, Andrade, Edinho, Zé Carlos and, waiting in the wings, a very young Marcelinho Carioca. Oh, and a tricky playmaker you may have heard of – Zico.

Although this crop was perhaps not as lauded or evocative of the red and black jersey as the early 1980s side that had thrashed Liverpool 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup, it was a group of players that is still considered among the finest in the club’s history. Yet in the group stage of the Copa União, this talented bunch only managed to finish second in Group A to a marauding and undefeated Atlético Mineiro. It was an indication of the strength of the competition; Flamengo qualified for the semi-finals only by dint of Atlético’s domination of the first round of fixtures in Group A.

Confused? The 1987 Green Module/Copa União was subdivided into two “phases”, a round-robin and a subsequent playoff tournament. The first phase was in turn broken down into two “stages” contested by two groups of teams – A and B. In the first stage of the first phase Group A teams played against Group B teams. In the second stage, the teams in each group played the other teams in their own group. The group winners from both stages qualified for the semi-finals. Atlético Mineiro topped Group A in both stages of the first phase, so Flamengo qualified for the “second phase” – ie the knockout rounds – as a result of finishing second in the second stage of the first phase. Simple.

During the course of Group A, Flamengo had lost 1-0 to the side from Belo Horizonte, against whom they were drawn in the semi-finals. But against all expectation, they put Galo to the sword with a 4-2 aggregate win across two legs. With Leonardo and Jorginho as wing-backs, Zico and Zinho in the middle and Bebeto upfront with Renato Gaúcho, this was a team with an attacking repertoire to be feared, and the previously imperious Atlético found themselves out-gunned. In the two-legged final in December, Flamengo disposed of Internacional 2-1 on aggregate, with a 1-1 draw and a 1-0 defeat of the Porto Alegre side.

Yet while Flamengo celebrated winning the final, and by extension becoming Brazilian champions for the fourth time, in front of 91,000 on a Maracana pitch hoarded in by advertisements for McDonald’s, Adidas and Lubrax – evidence of the Clube’s commercial pull – another final was taking place in Recife. This was the “Yellow Module” decider between Sport and Guarani, which Sport won to become modular champions and qualify for the CBF’s phantom playoffs.

And so in January 1988, the charade was played out. Flamengo and Internacional duly refused to compete in the playoffs, meaning Sport and Guarani met again in what was officially the final of the Brasileirão. The Recife side once more defeated their Paulista opponents, and Leão fans rejoiced at their team’s new-found and unexpected status as Brazil’s leading light. But outside Recife, few were fooled; it would have taken a monumental leap of faith to believe that Sport were on a par with that mighty Flamengo team, or indeed any of the other Green semi-finalists. Yet there they were, national champions by virtue of circumstance, political chicanery (albeit not necessarily their own) and stubbornness on the part of the Clube dos 13. Flamengo, meanwhile, were left celebrating a victory that was soon to be stripped of any official meaning.

According to Robert Shaw in When Saturday Comes, Zico later claimed: Everyone knows that the CBF did not recognise Flamengo’s title due to political disputes.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the Rio club. Flamengo pushed almost immediately to be recognised as sole champions of Brazil, but as Shaw says, “This cut little ice with the CBF, FIFA or indeed Sport Recife, who maintain their single national title has an unimpeachable legal basis, given that in 1988 they also contested the Copa Libertadores.” For many years the 1987 title was suffixed by an asterisk in the record books; it was effectively “shared” in the eyes of some, Flamengo’s in the eyes of others, but was Sport’s in the eyes of most of Brazilian football’s highest-ranking confederates.

The saga dragged on well into the 21st century, and was revived with a vengeance in 2007 when Flamengo returned to prominence after a period in the doldrums. An ongoing campaign to award them the 1987 title was revitalised on the 20th anniversary of the event, but despite this movement’s constant harassment of the CBF, the football association finally decided to hand sole possession of that honour to Sport. In 2011, Sport’s lone Brasileirão was at long last etched permanently in the record-books by CBF president Ricardo Teixeira.

This is a triumph that cannot, and perhaps should not, be taken away from Sport. De jure, they were the best team in Brazil in 1987, despite the de facto evidence to the contrary. Many have and will continue to dispute the legitimacy of their title, but by refusing to play participate in the playoffs, Flamengo and the other Green Module teams made these arguments redundant. Whatever about who the “true” champion of 1987 was, it is Sport who can point to the fact they fulfilled the requirements dictated to them by their national association. They beat what was in front of them, and could do no more than that.

By Luke Ginnell @HeavyFirstTouch

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