Edmundo: O Animal

Edmundo: O Animal

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A cauldron full of seething excitations: that’s how Sigmund Freud describes the id, the psychological structure responsible for our base desires. The id, Freud argues, must be kept in check to prevent man from acting impulsively against his own interests. A failure to repel one’s instincts, he warns, can have devastating consequences, not only for man but also his contemporaries. Nobody in football knows this more than Edmundo.

His legend, like so many others of Brazilian football, began in the exacting slums of Rio de Janeiro. Teixeira de Freitas Street may be just 30km from Ipanema, but for the downtrodden inhabitants of Niterói, it may as well be 3,000.

Whilst the Maracanã glistened across Guanabara Bay, Reinaldo de Souza was trying to raise a family. A barber like his father and brother before him, he struggled to make ends meet whilst his wife worked long hours as a cleaner. With nothing to distract them from the long period without their parents, brothers Edmundo and Luizinho passed their time like any other child in their street. Football became their home, and the pickup games on the beach became their education.

It was just as well for Edmundo, who showed no interest in academia. “Dinho”, as he was known to his family and friends, was focussed on one thing and one thing only. Even at a young age his talent was evident, a diminutive dribbler with a charring swagger, whose talent with the ball was matched only by the sharpness of his temper. He knew he was good and he wasn’t shy about it.

It was his aunt who first spotted his talent. Maria had taken to minding the boys whilst their parents worked, and she would ferry Edmundo to practice and back as well as into the city to watch his beloved Vasco. It wouldn’t be long, though, before he graduated from fan to the first team. Aged 15, Edmundo was invited to trial with Botafogo’s youth wing. Fogão coach Tinoco knew genius when he saw it, and the youngster left Teixeira de Freitas behind for the big time.

It’s at this point in the story where the prodigy defies the odds to succeed. But Edmundo’s tale isn’t one of romance or glamour, and it was at Botafogo that his nascent talent for self-destruction first became evident. With Maria struggling to afford the transport to and from the Botafogo facilities, Edmundo moved into the club’s youth lodging, but barely after joining he was expelled for walking naked through the grounds.

Luckily, Vasco didn’t mind exhibitionists. Perhaps they were swayed by an astonishing goal Edmundo had scored in a youth game in August 1991, where he had slalomed past an entire defence and goalkeeper before depositing a casual finish into an unguarded net.

After impressing for the reserves, Vasco coach Nelsinho gave him his debut in January 1992. The result, a 4-1 rout against Corinthians, augured well for a season in which the Vazcaínos would win the Carioca State Championship. Edmundo had been a revelation, dovetailing superbly with the mercurial Bebeto as his side finished third in the Brasileirão, but his strong personality led to continued clashes with his teammates.

The previous 17 years had been a disaster for Palmeiras fans. They had watched on trophyless as Corinthians and São Paulo won their first national and international titles respectively. In 1992, however, they would be rescued by the investment of the multinational conglomerate Parmalat.

With Verdão surging thanks to Italian capital, coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo set about building one of the finest teams in Brazilian football history. Roberto Carlos, César Sampaio and Rivaldo were bright-eyed wunderkinds, but it was the capture of Edmundo for a record fee of $2m that captured fans’ imaginations. Vasco president Eurico Miranda was less than magnanimous, suggesting he was glad to get rid of a player who had been “a problem” for the dressing room.

Nevertheless, Edmundo would lead his new side to two straight Brasileirão titles and a State Championship. But “O Animal”, as he was christened by commentator Osmar Santos, once again found time to marry triumph with treachery. On 30 October 1994, São Paulo hosted Palmeiras at the Morumbi.

Like any Paulistano derby, it was a hot-blooded encounter, but both sides were resigned to a draw as the minutes ticked down. That was before Edmundo was on the receiving end of a particularly dodgy tackle near the touchline. Incensed, he raged at São Paulo coach Telê Santana on the bench, before seeking his retribution against striker Euller moments later.

A scrum ensued, with Edmundo punching André Luiz and slapping Juninho Paulista, prompting a full-scale fight between the teams in the process. By the time his teammate Antônio Carlos dragged him into the tunnel, six players had been sent off. Edmundo scored both his side’s goals that day, but nobody remembers them.

It wasn’t the only sour note. The year before, he had been given a 40-day suspension for pushing a referee in the face, whilst he also found time to get into a fistfight with Antônio Carlos, the very man who had rescued him from the ravenous São Paulo players. Repeated fallouts with Luxembergo, meanwhile, were par for the course. Five red cards in one season spoke of a man seemingly incapable of self-restraint.

In 1995, he would even be detained by Ecuadorian police, his frustration at missing a penalty in the Copa Libertadores causing him to kick out at a local cameraman. It was only with the intervention of the Brazilian government that his release from the country was negotiated.

Despite winning everything with Palmeiras, the allure of Rio always held sway for Edmundo. In 1995, he joined a club that boasted 15 per cent of the country’s population as fans. Flamengo wanted to build an “attack of dreams”, with Dinho starting alongside Romário and Sávio as the club set their sights on continental domination.

Unfortunately they didn’t know how to defend, a leaky defence and problems off the field scuppering their chances. A terrible year was summed up in the most brutal of fashions when, during the 1995 Supercopa Sudamericana against Vélez Sarsfield, Edmundo was knocked out cold by a vicious punch from Flavio Zandoná. Except for Palmeiras fans, hardly anybody was sympathetic.

Off the field, Edmundo had endured a nightmare, but on 2 December 1995, his life descended into hell. After partying in a nightclub during the carnival, an inebriated Edmundo got into his Jeep Cherokee before driving straight into a Fiat Uno in the Lagoa suburb of Rio. The car, which had been travelling at 60mph in a 40mph zone, careened straight into a telephone pole. All three passengers died from their injuries.

A tearful Edmundo was charged with involuntary manslaughter, whilst Flamengo tore up his contract. Not only did he face a possible jail sentence, but he also found himself without the one thing that had been constant in his life: football.

It would be Corinthians who offered him hope just 45 days later. As Edmundo’s lawyers interceded on his behalf, his attempts to concentrate on football hit an immediate snag, with the striker walking out on the club before he had made a single appearance. Eurico Miranda, the man who had greeted his departure from Vasco with such disdain years earlier, successfully sought to bring him back home.

It was the best season of Edmundo’s career, as he broke the Brazilian scoring record with 29 strikes. His form was so impressive that some argued for his inclusion as a starter over Ronaldo for the 1998 World Cup, but coach Mário Zagallo resisted, citing his disruptive influence on the squad.

Despite a last-minute change of heart that saw him included in the final selection, Zagallo would be proven right. Edmundo would spend the entire tournament complaining about a lack of minutes, even contacting a Rio radio station to air his frustration publicly. When Ronaldo suffered a seizure before the final in Paris, Edmundo seemed to have finally been given his chance, only for the young superstar to emerge for the game amidst accusations of cover-ups and veiled suggestions of conspiracy.

No matter. His 38 goals in 44 games had piqued Fiorentina owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori’s attention, and Edmundo was brought to Florence to augment one of Serie A’s most fearsome attacks. Alongside Rui Costa and Gabriel Batistuta, Edmundo would be charged with bringing domestic and European glory to La Viola. More importantly, though, it was a fresh start a thousand miles away from the flashbulbs and straplines of his home country.

Things went well at first, with the Brazilian combining lethally with Batistuta to fire his club to the top of Serie A. By the time Milan visited the Artemio Franchi in February, the home side had a chance to cement their lead, before Batistuta collapsed to the turf with an injury that would rule him out for two months.

Any normal footballer would have assumed the goalscoring mantle. Any footballer except for Edmundo would have been focused on delivering his team’s first Scudetto in 30 years. The Brazilian, however, was nowhere to be seen, having exercised a clause in his contract that allowed him to attend the Rio carnival back home.

Batistuta, like most of his teammates and the supporters, was incensed. “He was the right man if anyone wanted to have fun,” admitted the Argentine. “But to win something, he was not right.” By the time Edmundo returned to the club, his strikerless teammates had surrendered their lead, and would finish 14 points behind Lazio in third.

In each of his 18 months on the peninsula, Edmundo had made clear his desire to return home. When Eurico Miranda and Vasco called for him a third time, the transfer was as good as done. Back at his boyhood club and with the love of the fans behind him, Edmundo regained something close to his best form. The arrival at the club of Romário six months before the 2000 World Club Championship, however, reopened old wounds.

The pair had been friends until 1998, before falling out after Romário’s beach bar in Rio was found to contain a derisory painting of Edmundo on one of the bathrooms stalls. When Romário refused to take it down, the pair fell out in spectacular fashion, so much so that when he joined Vasco, their relationship became a massive media circus. Their feud has been covered in excruciating detail in Brazil and beyond; suffice to say, these two giant talents and their commensurate egos found cohabitation difficult.

Even the intercession of Vasco’s own priest, Padre Lino, couldn’t resolve their differences – not that Sir Alex Ferguson would have noticed. Romário and Edmundo combined with brutal efficiency to annihilate Manchester United in January 2000. After setting up Baixinho for the first, Edmundo had watched his partner capitalise on a second Gary Neville error to put the Brazilians two goals up.

On 43 minutes, Edmundo joined in himself, scoring a goal that summed up everything about what made him a special, irascible talent. Receiving an innocuous ball from Gilberto on the edge of the box, Vasco’s number 7 spun Mikaël Silvestre with the outside of his right boot, before sliding a finish past a hapless Mark Bosnich.

It was a moment of pure relief. Three months earlier, Edmundo had been strongly criticised by animal rights campaigners, after he was pictured giving beer and whiskey to a chimpanzee at his son’s first birthday party. He’d also spent a night in jail as a result of his ongoing trial, before his lawyers intervened to appeal. If he was trying to stay out of the headlines he was doing a very bad job of it, but the goal against United ensured he would finally be making waves for the right reason. It proved to be a brief respite.

The “worst moment” of Edmundo’s career would arrive in the final of the same tournament, his missed penalty consigning Vasco to the runners-up medal at the hands of Corinthians. It was his last meaningful contribution at the highest level.

Brief but tumultuous spells at eight clubs – including a further two stints at Vasco and another at Palmeiras – followed, but Edmundo failed to recapture the violent genius that had been his unmistakable trademark.

More tragedy would befall him in 2002, when his brother was found murdered in the back of his car in Rio. By the time the body was found, it was already in an advanced state of decomposition. Edmundo, overcome with grief, couldn’t bear to attend the funeral.

In 2011, the shadow that had hung over Edmundo’s life for 16 years was lifted. Magistrate Joaquim Barbosa ruled that, in the case of the fatal car crash that had claimed three lives, the statute of limitations had expired. Edmundo was free, but the grief of the moment still lives with him every day. “I am an eternal repentant,” he admitted in an interview with Brazilian media. “This sadness does not pass.”

There is no doubt that Edmundo’s career, with its litany of violent indiscretions and scurrilous headlines, makes less than pretty reading. But is he really, as one Brazilian journalist put it, “a liability to mankind”, or is he simply a deeply flawed human being, a man who struggled to reconcile a blessed gift with a cursed temperament? It’s a question that foregoes a simple answer. But what is simple is that Edmundo Alves de Souza Neto remains one of his country’s greatest talents. On the pitch at least, he is unassailable.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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