Bellini, Brito, Mazinho, Ademir de Menezes, Juninho Pernambucano, the great team in the late 90s with Romario and Edmundo. You hear all these names and if you’ve ever had a remote interest in Brazilian football you associate them with one thing and one thing only – Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama.
I could go on about other players with ease but it’s not really needed as the name speaks for itself. Vasco’s one of the G-12 which is 12 of the biggest football clubs in Brazil.
It’s a name engraved in Brazilian football folklore and it’s given birth to numerous players, moments and events that build the historical landscape of the “Country of Football”. In recent years, however, the side’s been a bit on the outskirts.
No major trophies and a couple of relegations coupled with financial issues that trouble almost every club in Brazil have seen Vasco plummet.
This will now be their second season in Serie B after failing to bounce immediately back to Serie A for the first time and this begs the question – what is going on with Vasco? Let’s take a dive into the history of one of Brazil’s most emblematic clubs.
Vasco was initially founded as a rowing club in 1898 by Portuguese immigrants and descendants that had gathered in the Saude neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.
It was only up until 1915 that the football Lusitania became a part of the Vasco “corporation,” making their footballing debut a year later in the then third tier.
One of the most emblematic things that Vasco did for that period as well as integrate black players which pretty much set the tone for the side to be the main figure when it comes to the fight against certain inequalities that have been a longstanding issue in Brazil and in world football in general.
By 1923, the side had already managed to reach the [what then would be] Campeonato Carioca and win it in their first appearance there.
They were the first big side that had no issue with having their squad built up by players of different races and origins [poor/working-class background], as mentioned, and that made their achievement even more monumental.
The other clubs such as Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo were against playing players who were black and after failing to exclude Vasco from the league the three aforementioned clubs formed a different championship leaving out Vasco and refusing to accept their application.
The statement was that Regatas could enter the League only if they released 12 of their players, who were all black, on the grounds that their profession was “dubious”.
Then-president Jose Augusto Prestes sent a letter to the league representatives refusing to succumb to said conditions and gave up joining the league. It went down as one of the most historic messages against racism in football in general, let alone Brazil.
Despite all the issues and hardships, by 1925, Vasco had managed to integrate itself back into the AMEA[the original big league’s name] and due to the same racial hardships, they opted to build their own stadium in 1927 so that there was no issue for players of color to play under the Vasco flag.
Sao Januario became the birthplace of Vasco da Gama and up until 1930 when the Centenario stadium in Montevideo was built it was the biggest stadium in South America.
Over the next couple of years, the side managed to be successful especially in the 1940s when the “Expresso da Vitoria” team was formed led by star striker Ademir de Menezes.
Having won a couple of titles such as the Torneio Relampago and the Municipal Tournament twice, with both these competitions resulting in wins v Flamengo, Fluminense or Botafogo [then the country’s biggest teams] the side was invited to participate in the Championship of Champions which is hailed as the predecessor to the Copa Libertadores.
In the 1960s there was a deep political crisis in the club which saw the President being impeached and a new generation of Vasco players emerged. A side led by Roberto Dinamite and Argentine goalkeeper Andrada saw a new influx of success.
The side won the Serie A in 1974 for the first time in its history and slowly started integrating some of the biggest idols of the fans such as Acacio, Mazinho, Bismarck, Geovani, and the very famous Romario. These were the names for the next decade and it showed at Vasco.
During the 1980s, the side won a grand total of 13 National and International titles – these include tournaments such as the Colombino de Huelva which took part in Spain in 1980, the Joao Havelange Tournament in 1981, the Gold Cup in the USA, and the Trofeu Ramon de Carranza in 1987, 88 and 89 which took part in Cadiz and involved sides such as Nacional from Uruguay and Atlético Madrid.
On top of those mentioned, three state titles were added in 1982, 87 and 88 and the Serie A for a second time in 1989. Vasco carried on building upon their success and with the departure of Roberto Dinamite in 1993 another era of success followed.
Led by Edmundo [nicknamed o Animal] in his prime, Carlos Germano, Juninho Pernambucano, Pedrinho and others the side started to dominate the regional Carioca championship winning three in a row [in 1992 to 94] and another in 1998.
Just a year before their 100-year anniversary, the club was crowned champion of the Serie A for a third time. As mentioned, o Animal, in particular, was the highlight of the campaign netting an impressive 42 goals in 51 appearances before sealing a move to Fiorentina the following year.
Even with Edmundo’s departure, Vasco had built up a fantastic team. On top of the names mentioned above the team added names such as Junior Baiano, Ramon Menezes, Vagner, Evair and others.
Despite ending up as runners-up for the 1st FIFA Club World Cup [which was different in the way it was set up then] the side ended up as Serie A champions for the fourth and final time in their history in the year 2000.
It’s definitely worth noting that in the same year they became champions in the Copa Mercosul but it isn’t just the trophy that matters..far from it. The side won what is now voted as the greatest game in Brazilian football history beating Palmeiras 3-4 in a packed Parque Antartica.
Down 3-0 at half-time, a side boasting the likes of Romario, Euller, Juninho Paulista and Juninho Pernambucano came out firing in the second half.
A quickfire double from the spot saw Romario return the game to 3-2 before Junior Baiano [from Vasco] recklessly tackled an opposing player to see himself sent off in the 78th min. All hopes seemed dashed but Vasco did not give up.
In the 85th minute, a lucky deflection went Juninho Paulista’s way as he equalized for 3-3 but the game was far from over. In the dying seconds, who else but Romario silenced the Palmeiras crowd with a goal that would effectively seal Vasco’s victory and crown them champions.
Verdao fans have flashbacks of the Vasco players shushing them to this day. And I can also confirm that even non-Vasco fans are amazed by the game itself and the achievement with one Cruzeiro fan even saying he gets shivers just thinking about it.
The side kept on being competitive, adding another Carioca title in 2003. In 2007, the great Romario notched his thousandth goal but it seems that that was the beginning of a downward spiral instead of a cause for celebration.
The player departed the following year whilst others had already left the club and results deteriorated as the club suffered its heaviest blow up until this point in its history.
Having never been relegated up until that point, the side finished in the bottom 4 spots of Serie A and went down to the second tier of Brazilian football.
They quickly came up beating America de Natal at the Maracana to seal their return to Serie A but things have never been the same since. The club started to follow an “up and down” trend.
Vasco won the 2011 Copa do Brasil but it wasn’t a glorious achievement rather the side scraped through it winning 1-0 at Sao Januario before managing to steal the victory due to the away goal rule as they lost 3-2 in Parana at Stadio Couto Pereira.
Just two years after that they were once again relegated as financial problems and debt started creeping up and causing them headaches.
They once again came back up immediately finishing third [4 teams get promoted from the Serie B] and picked things up winning the Campeonato Carioca in 2015…only to be relegated in the very same season, for a third time in the span of 7 years.
It was a far cry from the once-great generation that blessed Brazilian football with some of the best performances to date. At this point, it was just rinse and repeat.
While there’s not an in-depth story on their finances[like for example Cruzeiro had] Vasco’s future seemed bleak even after another immediate promotion that followed in 2016.
The side did record their best unbeaten streak ever going 34 games without losing a game but that has been their best achievement in recent years.
They kept afloat the following years as they initially finished 7th and participated in the Copa Libertadores, before barely avoiding another relegation in 2018 finishing a point above the drop zone. They followed that up with a 12th place finish in 2019 and this is where our story comes to its culmination.
In 2020 the side kicked off a pretty underwhelming Campeonato Carioca finishing 4th and losing thrice, drawing once and winning just 2 to not progress to the semi-finals.
In the Serie A they started off hot leading the league…in the 4th round. Results started to plummet and despite having some experienced names in the side such as Leandro Castan, Breno, Leo Matos and German Cano the side ultimately was relegated even despite finishing on the same level of points as 16th placed Fortaleza [it was ultimately goal difference that saw them down].
Aos 25 anos, Neto Borges já começa a mostrar o seu talento como um dos mais promissores laterais esquerdos da Primeira Liga com o Tondela de Pako Ayestarán.
Falei com o jogador brasileiro numa entrevista exclusiva de @BTLvid.
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) November 6, 2021
The club posted a loss of 10.1 million euros and a total debt of 131.5 million for that season which in itself is humongous even for Brazilian standards where every club has debt issues.
Despite attempts at restructuring the side, introducing youngsters and releasing a few of the highest earners, their financial problems piled up when a court ruling in August 2021 saw them be forced to pay a 14.7 million euro wage debt with immediate effect.
They’ve managed to successfully appeal the ruling but it caused quite a stir [Vasco lawyers argued the club would become inoperable] in what was eventually a very underwhelming season for Vasco.
They managed to finish 10th, having so many awful performances that on the final game at Sao Januario for the season v Remo, Leandro Castan [mainly] and others were booed off the field as the fans voiced their displeasure on the season and the issues surrounding the club.
It has been quite the fall from grace but there is a beacon of light or at least Vasco fans would hope that’s the case. A couple of weeks ago an investment firm named “777 Partners” acquired a 70% share of the club.
They’ve committed to investing 137 million dollars whilst also taking on the club’s long-standing debt. Owning Italian outlet Genoa and having stakes in Sevilla there is room for optimism surrounding this sleeping giant and to be quite honest, they’ve recruited very smart at the start of 2022 and have looked better but it remains to be seen just how far this side can go.
As a part of the G-12, Vasco’s story of going from scintillating football to 4 relegations in the space of what is now 15 years is a cruel one but it goes to show just how much things can change in Brazilian football and just how much bad financial management can affect your future in the long-term.
There is now a chance for things to pick up and for the club to move on to bigger and better things and hopefully that is the case. Who knows, we might be in for another Golden era given the influx of youth players in the side at the moment but only time will tell…
By: Peter Pankovski / @23Pankovski
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images