How Rivaldo, Cafu and Djalminha turned Palmeiras’ class of ’96 into one of Brazilian football’s most entertaining

How Rivaldo, Cafu and Djalminha turned Palmeiras’ class of ’96 into one of Brazilian football’s most entertaining

In 1942, with the Second World War centre-stage as the all-consuming virus of the globe, a team from the Brazilian state of São Paulo was reborn. Up until that point, the club of the Italian community was named Palestra Italia – translated literally as Italian Gym – and was founded in August 1914. Twenty-eight years later, the Justice Ministry ruled that no sporting entity could contain the name of enemy countries and thus they changed theirs to Palmeiras (Palm Trees). 

Since then, they have gone on to become the most successful team in Brazilian football, holding the record for the most Brasileiro titles with ten, winning two of the last three. On the continental scene, their crowning moment came in 1999 when they beat Colombia’s Deportivo Cali on penalties in the Copa Libertadores final, a year after winning the Copa Mercosur.

Today, they are on the longest unbeaten streak in the modern history of the Campeonato – starting in 2003 – currently 29-games without defeat, a run that straddles the current and previous season, one which secured the 2018 title. Previously held by Corinthians – 17 games in 2017 – Palmeiras’ run is now closer to Santa Cruz’s 35-game unbeaten streak of 1977/78 and has the all-time record in sight: Botafogo’s 42 games without defeat, also in the 1977/78 season. Achieved under a different format, the records of Santa Cruz and Botafogo are incredibly impressive.

Their current successes have come under World Cup-winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who joined two days after their last Série A defeat – a 1-0 loss against Fluminense in July 2018 – and is thus unbeaten in the competition since returning to the club for his third stint in charge.

Recognition for his side’s efforts hasn’t come in the form of the national squad, however, which contains just two domestically-based players for the upcoming Copa América, despite hosting the tournament. They are represented by São Paulo-born Palmeiras academy product Gabriel Jesus, though, who Manchester City signed for £27m in 2017.

This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, Brazil haven’t won a World Cup without a player from Palmeiras in their squad. During their inaugural triumph, the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the Seleção boasted a 19-year old Mazzola – better known outside his homeland as José Altafini – who scored two goals in the opener and assisted Pelé in the 1-0 quarter-final win over Wales. Altafini went on to represent Italy four years later at the next World Cup, and enjoyed a glittering career in the country with AC Milan, Napoli, and Juventus.

In Mexico, Palmeiras’ contingent didn’t feature, with reserve goalkeeper Leão and defender Baldocchi failing to make an appearance between them, but their presence did coincide with the country’s third World Cup triumph. The drought before the next one would last 24 years. 

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In the USA, Brazil may not have played the prettiest football but they got the job done. Central to the show were Palmeiras’ Zinho and Mazinho. The former started all of Brazil’s games, while Mazinho featured in all but one, beginning the tournament on the bench but starting every game in the knockouts, including the famous shootout win against Italy in the final.

In 2002, after defeat in France, they bounced back, and in goal from start to finish was Palmeiras’ Marcos. Wedged between the Verdão of World Cup winners Zinho and Mazinho and the one Marcos, was Rivaldo and Cafu’s. In 1996, following a necessary rebuild, with the aforementioned duo aged 24 and 26, and aided by Italian money, Palmeiras steamrolled their way to the Campeonato Paulista with breathtaking ferocity.

Remembering it all is Paulo Freitas, the Brazilian head researcher for Football Manager and former Sky Sports correspondent. “Palmeiras were already a strong team prior to the 1996 squad, as Parmalat had been investing in the club, helping Palmeiras win the Brazilian league title in 1993 and 1994,” Freitas told These Football Times, “but in 1995 that squad had been dismantled, so the team had to be rebuilt. The likes of Júnior, Djalminha and Luizão were brought to a squad that still included Amaral, Rivaldo, Müller and goalkeeper Velloso.”

Before destroying themselves to the tune of £13bn in 2003 – Europe’s biggest ever bankruptcy – Parmalat had enjoyed a successful decade of diversification and expansion. Attracted by the Italian community in São Paulo and having already experienced the world of football at home with Parma, the multinational dairy company signed a three-year sponsorship deal with Palmeiras in 1992, quickly turning them into the richest club in the country. 

As Freitas alluded to, success came at a price. Many consider the Palmeiras side that won back-to-back Brazilian and State Championships in 1993 and 1994 the best they’ve ever had, and losing no less than 11 players – including Roberto Carlos to Inter, Edmundo to Flamengo, and Mazinho to Valencia – in the wake of the triumphs lends weight to the case.

The fact that eight of the 11 that left following those two trophy-laden seasons had joined since the 1992 Parmalat deal suggested that while money could help buy Palmeiras a squad, it wasn’t going to be able to keep them together. Even the manager, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, left. His departure was just as damaging as the players’, and it wasn’t until he returned in 1996 that Palmeiras recovered their form.

“Vanderlei was brought back as manager. Back then Luxemburgo was a relatively young manager but one that had already achieved success at Bragantino, and also at Palmeiras during his previous spell at the club. He turned Palmeiras into an efficient attacking team but without neglecting the defence. Success came quickly, with a 6-1 win against German champions Borussia Dortmund in a friendly tournament.”

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It was a romantic return for the future Real Madrid manager, who faced up against Bundesliga holders Dortmund and Flamengo in a Friendly Euro-America Cup in January 1996. The German side, managed by Ottmar Hitzfield, fielded six players in their starting line-up that would go on to start in their 3-1 Champions League final win over Juventus.

Palmeiras’ team that day was typical of their season: Velloso; Gustavo, Sandro Blum, Cléber, Júnior; Galeano, Cafu, Osio, Rivaldo; Müller, Luizão. Swap in Flávio Conceição and Djalminha for Gustavo and Osio and you’ve got one of their most common line-ups of the season. Two other prominent players that campaign were Roque Júnior, who would go on to play for AC Milan, and Amaral.

With Cléber and Blum forming a solid centre-back partnership that would concede just 19 goals in 30 league games, wing-backs Júnior and Cafu were permitted to bomb forward relentlessly, safe in the knowledge that Amaral and Conceição would sit deep and cover on the halfway line. Equally, this allowed Rivaldo and Djalminha to operate as inverted wingers high up the pitch, providing Luizão with plenty of support, along with Müller, who would often start left of centre to link up with Rivaldo.

On paper, it could be described as a 2-4-2-2, such was the fierceness of their attack, but a 4-2-2-2 would be a fairer assessment of the style. “The state league came next with easy wins against the smaller sides, but the most impressive win was a 6-0 away victory against 1995 league runners-up Santos.”

To win 6-0 against your rivals on their own patch in one of the biggest derbies the country has is monumental, but that season, Palmeiras made scorelines of this ilk normal. They recorded the league’s biggest home win of the season (6-0 against America), the biggest away win (8-0 over Botafogo), and beat CS Sergipe 8-0 in the cup. Other drubbings were dished out to Ferroviária (6-1) on the first day of the season and Novorizontino (7-1). So heavy were some of the defeats they inflicted on their opponents, goalkeeper Velloso recalled in a documentary for TV Palmeiras that the boy in charge of the scoreboard did not have placards high enough to show the correct score.

“Palmeiras would eventually win the title, scoring 102 goals, winning 27 games, drawing twice and losing only one game, against Guaraní. That’s the best campaign from a team in the São Paulo State League,” says Freitas.

On top of the Paulista, in which they recorded a +83 goal difference and earned 92.2 percent of the total points available (83 from 90), Palmeiras finished runners-up in the Copa do Brasil. Despite performances and results mirroring their league form, including a 5-0 win against Atlético Mineiro, Palmeiras lost to Cruzeiro 2-1 in the final, in a defeat that, according to Freitas, “became known as the Palestrazo, in an allusion to the famous 1950 Maracanazo.” The fact Palmeiras’ defeat to Atlético Mineiro is likened to it demonstrates how unexpected the result was for the men in green.

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The similarities didn’t stop there. Even though he was voted goalkeeper of the tournament by journalists, Brazil’s in 1950 fans blamed Moacir Barbosa for the winning goal, scored by Uruguay’s Alcides Ghiggia 11 minutes from time. He played just once more for the national team and suffered for conceding until his dying day, penniless at 79 years of age. “Look at him,” Barbosa recalled of his treatment when a woman with her son saw him in a shop some 20 years later, “that’s the man who made all of Brazil cry.”

When Palmeiras’ Palestrazo took place, the winning goal also came at the fault of the goalkeeper. With an easy-to-gather cross coming in from Roberto Gaucho, Velloso made a mess of it and Marcelo Ramos unapologetically prodded home. Instead of abuse, though, Velloso was consoled by his manager and applauded by the fans. The stopper, arms aloft, apologised to the crowd. Poetically, in goal for Cruzeiro that day was Dida. 

It was the beginning of the end, however; that free-scoring team, backed up by the winner of the Paulista Goalkeeper of the Season, was about to be dismantled. “Cafu, Djalminha, Flávio Conceição, Rivaldo and other key players left the club following the failure to qualify to Libertadores,” Freitas explained, “but the team are still regarded as one of Palmeiras and Brazil’s best ever, and nobody else in Brazil in the last couple of decades has achieved that level of domination over their opponents.”

Cafu left the club a year later, joining Roma for around £7m, as did Djalminha, who signed for Deportivo for an undisclosed fee, a year after Rivaldo and Flávio Conceição had made the same move together. When Brazil reached the World Cup final two years later, six of the 13 players that featured for the Seleção had represented Palmeiras between 1994 and 1996. 

“Palmeiras would rebuild the team again in the following years, finally winning the Libertadores in 1999 under the leadership of manager Scolari and new idols such as Marcos, Arce, César Sampaio and Zinho, with Cléber and Júnior among the remaining players from the 1996 squad.”

Following Parmalat’s bankruptcy in the early 2000s, Parma and Palmeiras both suffered the knock-on effects. It hit the Italian side far harder, with the club under controlled administration from 2003 to 2007, and eventually declared as bankrupt in 2015. They were re-founded and, after three back-to-back promotions, were back in Serie A for the 2018/19 season.

Palmeiras were relegated within two years of their sponsorship deal with Parmalat coming to an end, but promptly returned to the top-flight, winning Série B at the first time of asking. Relegation happened again ten years later, and once more their return was immediate. Since then, the club has undergone an entire overhaul, and recent cup and league titles have resulted in Palmeiras cementing their place as the most successful Brazilian club of all-time.

By Jordan Florit @thefalselibero

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