Cup competitions, it’s fair to say, are not what they were. The FA Cup, the oldest soccer competition in the world, has become the sick man of the English game, steamrollered by the financial juggernaut of the UEFA Champions League, with top clubs fielding reserve teams and games often played in front of more empty seats than fans. Knockout competitions in Spain, Italy and Germany have long played second fiddle to the more dependable and lucrative pleasures of league play, while the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has a certain venerable charm, but little real sporting kudos.
Perhaps it is a reflection of our times – what chance really, does the romance of a Ronnie Radford (scorer of a memorable goal to help minnows Hereford upset Newcastle at a mud splattered Edgar Street in the 1972 FA Cup) moment have against another Messi versus Ronaldo Clásico clash of the titans? Move over David. Today, we want only Goliath versus Goliath.
The Copa do Brasil has faced similar problems to its northern counterparts, with the competition weakened further by the fact that, until recently, it ran at the same time as the Copa Libertadores, meaning the best Brazilian teams could not take part. Even with that problem now rectified by moving the competition to the second part of the year, the Copa still seemed to lack a certain pizzazz.
All that changed this year, however, with Cruzeiro taking on Atlético Mineiro in a two-legged Belo Horizonte clássico decider. The crushing of Brazil’s World Cup hopes at the Mineirão stadium this summer notwithstanding, the tie marked the climax of a remarkable two years for the city. Galo (Atlético’s nickname, meaning rooster) recently set aside its reputation for being a perennial hard luck loser by wining the Libertadores in 2013, while Cruzeiro celebrated its second consecutive league title last Sunday. With “BH,” as the city is invariably known, having overtaken Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to become the country’s new soccer capital, it was bound to be a combustible, and uniquely Brazilian, sporting affair when its two biggest teams went head to head.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, things got ugly right off the bat when Atlético announced the first leg would be played in the cramped surroundings of its home stadium, the Independência, rather than at the larger, more practical, Mineirão. Then blowhard chairman Alexandre Kalil said his club also wanted its 10 percent visiting fans allocation for the second leg despite Cruzeiro claiming both clubs had previously agreed away supporters would not be permitted at Belo Horizonte clássicos after serious crowd trouble at a league derby game in September.
“I never promised anything,” growled Kalil. “He (Cruzeiro chairman Gilvan Tavares) is a liar, and out of control.” Cruzeiro claimed to have Kalil’s promise on tape (painting a rather odd picture of the subterfuge that seemingly goes on at meetings between Brazilian soccer executives), although the recording was never made public.
But the great Belo Horizonte ticket war of 2014 was just beginning. There was the Battle of the Independência, when Atlético claimed Cruzeiro could not be given its full 10% allocation for safety reasons. Cruzeiro rejected Galo’s offer of around 8%, and the first game was played in front of home fans only. Not that supporters of either team had much to celebrate – the average ticket price was 400 Brazilian real, well over half Brazil’s monthly minimum wage.
Cruzeiro fought back stubbornly at the Battle of the Mineirão, however, by announcing Atlético fans would be charged an eye-popping 1000 real to watch the second leg – five and a half weeks work for a minimum wage employee. Not only that, as Cruzeiro had been selling tickets to its own fans all over the ground, Galo could only be given 1,800 tickets for the game. The writs, injunctions and verbal insults flew, a court decision forced Cruzeiro to reduce the price of away tickets to 500 real, and everyone could finally get on with the soccer.
Due to the astronomical ticket prices, however, neither game was a sell out, and there were over 15,000 empty seats at the Mineirão for the second leg. While the directors engaged in their extended bout of ego-wrestling, the people who really suffered, as ever, were the fans. “When Cruzeiro most needed their supporters, they treated them like consumers,” is how Rio de Janeiro-based BBC journalist Tim Vickery neatly summed up the shambles.
Away from the boardroom babies, things were a little more civilized on the pitch. Cruzeiro had looked tired in the weeks leading up to the game, undoubtedly the result of playing more than 70 games this year, and was swept aside 2-0 in the first leg in front of a baying, partisan Atlético crowd. That set the scene nicely for the second leg, especially after Cruzeiro had clinched the league title in front of 57,000 at the Mineirão on Sunday. The stadium was not as full for last night’s decider, but the atmosphere was still incendiary, with the rowdy pocket of Galo fans up in the corner, protected (or kept under control) by a cordon of riot police, doing their best to compete with the aural tsunamis pouring from the massed ranks of the blue clad Cruzeiro fans behind the goals.
Watching the game, it was hard not to remember that steamy afternoon at the same stadium back in July, when those remarkable German high priests said the last rites over the corpse of Brazil’s World Cup dreams. The memories and legacies of the summer were everywhere, some good, some bad – the raucous version of Argentina’s memorable anthem Brasil, decime qué se siente sung by the Galo supporters; the images of grinning, wealthy-looking fans beamed onto the stadium Jumbotrons every few seconds; the sense that the vast majority of ordinary supporters, priced out of attending, were watching at home or in bars.
Unfortunately for Cruzeiro, the World Cup analogy would not end there. The aforementioned fatigue may have played a part, but from the outset the home team was outmatched by a far hungrier looking Galo side, who over the last two years have put together a remarkable run of knockout performances. There were two last-ditch, come from behind victories in the Copa Libertadores last year, and then, in this year’s Copa do Brasil, the overturning of three-goal deficits against both Corinthians and Flamengo in the quarter and semifinals.
Fittingly, the goal that finally put Cruzeiro out of its misery came from Atlético idol and recent Brazil call-up Diego Tardelli, a player of estimable ability and intelligence, who nodded home a Jesús Dátolo cross just before halftime. Cruzeiro, me diga como se sente, roared the delirious Galo fans as the riot police nervously fingered their truncheons.
With Cruzeiro needing four goals, the game faded somewhat, and the best entertainment came from the stands. A clutch of Galo fans were found in the Cruzeiro end and first protected, then arrested by police. A bench-clearing scuffle on the pitch near the end inflamed passions further, with police called upon to separate players from both sides. The Cruzeiro fans on the giant screens looked decidedly less happy than they had earlier on.
And then, suddenly, it was over. As the Atlético players lifted the trophy aloft, the Jumbotrons switched to showing images of Cruzeiro’s victorious league campaign, the roars of approval of the remaining home fans drowning out the Galo supporters. There was still time for a final, eminently Brazilian snapshot of the evening – Cruzeiro players dancing jubilantly in front of their fans, minutes after losing a cup final to their hated rivals, then forming a ragged line at the half way line to make sure the celebrating Galo players did not stray onto their turf. Whether it was petulance or pride only Deus knows, as they say in these parts.
Then it was time to go – to bed for the Cruzeiro supporters, to Belo Horizonte’s traditional post-match celebration spots for the Galo fans, to set off fireworks from alarmingly unsafe looking homemade launchers, to drink too much beer, to shout and roar Galooooo into the night innumerable times, to sing abusive songs about Cruzeiro until hoarse.
Thankfully, for this potentially explosive clash – a Cruzeiro fan was beaten to death by a group of Galoucura (Atlético’s torcida organizada, which means supporters’ club or hooligan gang, depending on your perspective) in 2010, and during a raid on the same group’s headquarters before last night’s game, police found iron bars, rockets and a pistol – casualties were kept to a minimum, although one Atlético fan fell to his death while “surfing” atop a city bus in the early hours.
Still, the celebratory car horns and occasional leftover firework that continue to disturb the afternoon peace today show that for Belo Horizonte at least, this is one Copa do Brasil that will not be forgotten for quite a while.