October 16, 2021

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One of the darkest moments in Brazilian football – and the gap that is still deep

An illustration showing the dramatic scenes in Salvador when Brazil fans burn the national flag during the 1989 Copa America opening match at home against Venezuela
Salvador’s fans reacted dramatically: he went beyond football

It took Charles Fabian a few minutes to get the full picture.

The young striker had just finished dining at the Brazilian team’s hotel in the northeastern city of Salvador when the president of the local Bahia team stormed in.

“You can pack your bags because you don’t stay here”, shouted Paulo Maracaja as he grabbed Charles by the arm.

It was June 1989. A home Copa America was about to begin and Charles, then 21 years old and a Bahia player, hadn’t been in the national team for a long time. He did not know what to do. Unable to find anyone from the Brazilian federation, he ended up following the order to leave.

As it turned out, Maracaja had taken matters into his own hands after being told that Charles was among the three to be cut by the last 20-man squad. He was furious that his player had fallen.

The omission would have dramatic consequences. What happened next continues to live in the national consciousness as one of the darkest moments in the history of Brazilian sport. It seemed like just another betrayal for a people who had long felt marginalized and who continue to feel that way today.

Short gray line of presentation

Brazil’s opening match was the following day, in the same northeastern city, Salvador.

Charles was a local icon and it had been years since a player from one of the teams in the region had been chosen for the national team.

Only 13,000 fans showed up for the 3-1 win over Venezuela – less than half the capacity – but the message sent couldn’t have been clearer. Fans burned the Brazilian flag, whistled the national anthem and forced the coaching staff to flee the bench by firing rockets in their direction. Indignation poured from the stands.

“I had mixed feelings that day,” says Charles. “On the one hand I was happy with the support I received, but on the other I was sad about what had happened. Nobody wants to see your country’s flag on fire.

“The protest was valid, even if, in my opinion, it could have been done differently”.

Clearly, it wasn’t just about football. Charles ended up being drawn into a decades-long debate about the Brazilian gap between its two main population centers: the rich southeast and the poor northeast, which falls behind in every social and economic indicator.

This is a part of the country where millions are earning less than £ 20 a month, where millions are starving, where unemployment has soared over 50%External Link during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is such a difficulty that it forces many North-Easterners to migrate to places like the southeastern cities of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But once there, life often doesn’t get much easier: prejudice is one of the obstacles that still persist.

For most of her career, Barcelona legend Rivaldo has complained that she is not treated in the same way by the media as other Brazilian superstars like Romario and Ronaldo. According to him, there was only one reason for this: he was from the Northeast. When he officially retired in 2015, the general feeling was that his talent was never truly appreciated.

O Globo newspaper report on Charles Fabian's omission from the Brazilian team in 1989
The O Globo newspaper report on Charles Fabian’s omission (left in the photo) from the Brazilian team in 1989

In Rio de Janeiro, people from northeastern Brazil are stereotyped and universally referred to as “paraibas” (someone from the state of Paraiba) regardless of where they actually come from. To some extent, the same happens in Sao Paulo, where they are called “baianos” (from the state of Bahia).

One episode is particularly famous in Brazil: the reaction of former international Edmundo, a native of the state of Rio, to being sent off in a match in 1997.

He said: “We come to play Paraiba [the game actually took place in another north-eastern state, Rio Grande do Norte] and put a ‘paraiba’ [the official was in fact from the north-eastern state of Ceara] referee the game. It could never have worked. ”

There are examples from even the country’s highest office: In 2019, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, born in the state of Sao Paulo, was surprised to refer to the governors of the northeastern states as “governors of paraiba.” in a leaked audio recording. .

In the south, people from the north-east are often considered socially or intellectually inferior. It is not unusual to see their local accents mocked and mocked.

Former Porto and Zenit St Petersburg Hulk, originally from the state of Paraiba, addressed this issue during a national team press conference ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

The 35-year-old striker was asked by a reporter, referring to people from the north-east, if “it’s their accent that makes them funny.” As a passionate son of the region, he couldn’t believe his ears.

“Unfortunately, we know that the bias is still around, regardless of your sector of work or profession,” says Hulk, who is now back in Brazilian football with Atletico Mineiro.

“But the Northeast is a fighter, a winner, and he can overcome all of that. I am proud to be from the Northeast, to carry our flag and to defend our people anywhere in the world. I am very grateful for all the love and support I have always received. “

Roberto Firmino
Firmino, born in the northeastern city of Maceio, moved to Figueirense, Florianopolis, at the age of 17

Despite being the second most populous region in the country, with around 57 million people, 27% of the national population, the nine-state area has never seen a local team footballer represent Brazil at the World Cup.

In the past 15 years, only two players from northeastern clubs have been called up by the national team: Sport Recife striker Diego Souza in 2017 and Nautico left-back Douglas Santos in 2013.

Part of the problem is that talented players don’t usually stay long in these clubs, often heading south after the first profitable offer, sometimes without even making their first team debut. Rivaldo, Bebeto, Juninho Pernambucano, Dida and Roberto Firmino have taken similar paths.

With much smaller budgets, it is simply impossible for local groups to compete financially with powers such as Flamengo, Palmeiras and Gremio. So they lose their best players.

One way to combat this would be to sell their young talents directly to Europe, but although the situation has improved in recent years, this happens very rarely. The vast majority still go to the Southeast first and then to other leagues. Franco-Algerian agent Franck Henouda believes there is a reason for this.

Henouda worked as Shakhtar Donetsk’s emissary in Brazil for nearly two decades, overseeing the arrivals of Fernandinho, Willian, Fred, Douglas Costa and many more. Of the 13 Brazilian footballers he recruited for the Ukrainian team, none were from the northeast.

“If a club comes to me and tells me I have a boy from the north-east and another from the south, I will advise them to sign the latter. It might be more expensive, but the risks are lower, ”says Henouda.

“Brazil is a continental country, so it wasn’t until I moved there in the 2000s that I noticed the differences between places. And Rio Grande do Sul, Parana, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais stood out for me: they produced more footballers capable of thriving in Europe.

“The players in these areas are physically stronger and do not struggle with hunger when they grow up. They do those colonial breakfasts in the south. It is completely different in the Northeast.

“The other day I was watching an Atletico Goianiense striker from there – I like him very much, but he has a short stature and small bones, because they did not develop well due to a lack of calcium in childhood. He will be more susceptible to injury.

“When closing a deal, you have to pay attention to all these details, even the type of studs the athlete is wearing. If he’s from the Northeast, he’ll probably have been wearing rubber cleats all his life, even on wet and heavy surfaces, so when he moves to Europe he’ll need some time to get used to the metal boots. Not all teams are willing to wait for him after paying 10 million euros. “

Fortaleza fans
Fortaleza fans cheer for their team: the surprise package of the season

It is still very rare to see anything happening outside the São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro-Belo Horizonte-Porto Alegre axis getting national coverage in Brazil.

In a scenario where clubs rely on commercial ventures and television revenue, not benefiting from this exposure makes it harder for teams from the Northeast to thrive in the top flight.

For the northeastern sides, a top 10 finish remains the main goal – and only three times in the last decade has been achieved – but things are starting to change for the better.

Fortaleza increased its revenue by 10 times between 2014 and 2019. It is currently fourth in the standings and participates in the semi-finals of the Brazilian Cup, for the first time in 102 years.

Meanwhile, Ceara recorded the lowest debt in the Brazilian league and Bahia has also transformed dramatically.

They had hit rock bottom in 2006, finding themselves in the third tier. Such was the outrage among fans that 50,000 took to the streets in Salvador to protest the council. Things didn’t move quickly from there, but in 2013 season ticket holders finally got the chance to vote for the club’s president, which is very rare in Brazilian football.

The team’s 1959 and 1988 championship trophies had been found thrown in garbage bags. I am now a model club. They paid off part of the debt that was paralyzing them and introduced a new transparency policy.

“I have no doubt that there was a very strong system that disadvantaged footballers in the north-east until the 1990s,” says Bahia vice president Vitor Ferraz.

When you have a team that won the Brazilian championship, like we did in 1988, and you see that players were only given occasional chances, you realize they would have had more opportunities wearing a different jersey. What happened to Charles in 1989 proves it.

“We are now the most democratic team in the country. It attracted the attention of the national media, but we know that if a southern club had done the same, the impact would have been much greater.

“We attribute this to the prejudice that still exists. But I’m sure we’re in a much better position than 10, 15 years ago.

“From now on, what happens on the pitch will change this reality.”


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