A Cruzeiro Story

Debt. Problems. Phone calls engraved into Brazil football folklore and relegation that haunts the club to this day – but how did it come to this? And will Ronaldo turn the tide?


Cruzeiro was founded in 1921 and is one of the traditional Brazilian clubs and a member of the G-12 [the 12 best and most historic clubs in Brazil]. It has a long-standing mark on the development of football in the Land of Coffee as it also “gave birth” to some of the most legendary players to wear the Seleção jersey.


Names such as Joãzinho, Palhinha, Zé Carlos, and many more, including Ronaldo (the Phenomenon) who is now looked at as “The Messiah” much like he was when he first burst out on the scene. But we’ll get to him later on in the story, at least at its very end.


The club is also one of the most illustrious in the nation, having won the Libertadores twice, the Sudamericana once, the Serie A four times and the Copa do Brasil – six. Alongside those sit a grand total of 39 regional Campeonato Mineiro trophies.


All of these have come during various different periods in the club’s 101-year history. So, yes, Cruzeiro is a household name when you want to talk about Brazilian football…and yet here we are – at the start of another Campeonato Mineiro, but most importantly, a couple of months before Cruzeiro’s THIRD season in the Serie B.


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Before 2019, the club was one of four to have never been relegated alongside the likes of Flamengo, São Paulo, and Santos. But how has it come to this? How can a club be run into the ground so bad that it is closer to potential bankruptcy than returning to the top-flight of Brazilian football? Allow me to answer that.


As stated above Cruzeiro have maintained success throughout their history. This didn’t change at the start of the 2010s as the club was even famed for its expressive style of football at one point with Uruguayan coach Diego Aguirre (then at Peñarol) naming them “Barcelona das Americas.”


The side did miss out on both the Brasileirão and Libertadores initially but went on to achieve back-to-back Serie A triumphs in 2013 and 2014. That side featured some fantastic names such as Fábio, Dedé, Lucas Silva, Éverton Ribeiro, Ricardo Goulart, and others. 2015 and 2016 were rather uneventful before the side ended up winning the Copa do Brasil twice – in 2017 and 2018.


Another event from that period that is definitely worth mentioning is that [2017 to be precise] Cruzeiro’s presidential election was won by Wagner Antônio Pires de Sá – a man synonymous with Cruzeiro’s subsequent downfall.


With him came promises of silverware and glory that echoed in the fans’ ears and brought excitement, only to be squashed a mere two years later. As such we can finally fast forward to 2019… A year to forget for fans of Raposa. 


The side was already evidently declining and there were some whispers around the league that they weren’t in an ideal financial position. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Cruzeiro and its higher-ups in investing in players such as Dodô, Fred [he arrived in 2018 but his wages remained pretty big], Pedro Rocha, and others.


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The side needed a bit of a rebuild and that’s exactly what they sought out to do. Was that really the correct decision, however? You have to realize one thing – a vast amount of clubs in Brazil are in debt like almost every big club out there.


They rely on revenue, tv deals, and sponsorships just as every other club, and those investments are what keep them afloat and maintain their survival in the Brazilian football scheme. Cruzeiro was no stranger to this and everybody is pretty certain Wagner de Sá knew this.


How did he aim to fix the growing debt? Well, on May 26th, 2019 TV Globo’s Fantastico program aired an exclusive that the Civil Police had launched an investigation into Cruzeiro’s financial dealings on suspicion of money laundering, forgery of documents, and misrepresentation that are directly or indirectly in breach of both CBF and FIFA rules [and obviously Government such, as well].


In order to salvage some loans that will subsequently be added to the side’s financial troubles, Wagner’s management team included part of the young [and potential] players’ economic rights to the creditor. As such, various different players saw a certain percentage owned by a third party and therefore trumping any potential moves [to an extent] due to UEFA rules prohibiting such “ownership.”


Thus was the case with players such as David, Raniel, Cacá, Vitinho, and others. On top of that, over the course of this and the years to come various different players and clubs have come out to sue the club for unpaid player image rights, wages, loan fees and etc.


This has seen the club have a transfer ban until certain debts were paid – such being the case in mid-2020 when the club signed a couple of players but was unable to register them and they ended up training for months without the ability to actually feature in the Serie B.


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Such is the case even now with FIFA imposing another ban until the club stump up a sum in between 15 and 20 million Reals. Reason being? Failure to pay off certain transfers way back in 2015 – Giorgan De Arrascaeta’s move from Uruguayan club Defensor and Duvier Riascos’ move from Mexican side Morelia.


On the pitch results absolutely deteriorated. Before the exclusive that revealed all of these issues, the side had picked 6 points out of 5 games and there was already pressure on Mano Menezes to alter things but the dark cloud that had just been undercovered affected the club.


They went on to suffer 2 months of non-stop poor performances, finally winning on the 18th of August against Santos and two weeks later against Vasco. Because of this Menezes was sacked, replaced by Rogério Ceni who lasted about a month before also being shown the door.


Results were obviously not improving and the next name in line didn’t help either. Abel Braga oversaw another period of poor results most showcased by their loss to CSA 4 games before the end of the season. Now, in order to understand why this is key, we must take a small side-step.


See, CSA isn’t one of the bigger clubs in Brazil, quite the opposite. In the general scheme and structure, CSA is a minnow. But since 2019 they’ve not lost in six of their encounters to Cruzeiro, beating them four times. What makes the CSA loss a little bit more special, however, is something that was once again leaked in the media.


It all started with a phone call that to this day is engraved in every single CSA – Cruzeiro game but also highlights just how dire the situation at Toca da Raposa had become. One of the most criticized players at the club – Thiago Neves rang up Director of Football Zezé Perrella on the night before the game.


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Zezé, a former president of the club himself, who at first was very vocal in his criticism towards president Wagner de Sá was given the DoF role in order to stabilize what he can and subsequently take pressure off the president. Of course, he accepted, joining the club in early October and becoming the go-to man for footballing relations for the players.


As such, Neves sought his help kicking off the call with the famous line “Fala Zezé, bom dia cara” [Hi Zeze, good morning]. In it, he proceeded to request the part of the players’ unpaid salaries for September(two months back by that point) citing motivational reasons whilst also undermining CSA stating: “If we don’t win vs CSA.. for God’s sake” implying just how much the mighty Cruzeiro had fallen.


On the 28th of November, CSA arrived at the Mineirão and carved out a 1:0 victory and the job was done. That phone call is a meme to this day with most recently Iury Castilho mocking Cruzeiro fans after CSA’s resounding 1:2 victory against the Raposa. 


The side’s last three games were entrusted to Adilson Batista. In order to have even a remote chance of surviving the club needed to win at least one of those games and “luckily enough” they were all versus members of the G-12. They lost all three.


On the final day, fans showed their frustration the moment Palmeiras went 2-0 up with 5 minutes to go. Riots erupted with police forces clashing with fans in what can only be described as a “war zone”. For the first time in their history, Cruzeiro had been relegated. A once proud club had now been placed in the second tier of Brazilian football and its future was at a crossroads. 


Following the club’s relegation, Wagner Pires de Sá resigned. To this day he still has issues with fans who come across him on the street. The man stated that this was the toughest moment in his life but the damage was done.


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Raposa were in a huge financial hole and they were looking upwards but without a way of escape. Their problems were worsened by the COVID epidemic and the aforementioned players and clubs that started to sue them one by one.


You see, with the Mineirao no longer seeing an income of 30,000 people all contributing to the matchday revenue stream, the club’s finances were severely damaged.


Top that with cases such as Fred who filed a lawsuit for 70 million Real on the basis that Cruzeiro had failed to oblige the necessary payment following the termination of his contract or FIFA imposing a six-point deduction for the failure of payment to Al-Wahda for the transfer of Denilson (who ended up featuring a grand total of..five times for the club) and you can tell why the club’s future looked bleak.


Somehow, despite this, the club managed to survive a further relegation to Serie C which would have definitely seen bankruptcy be announced. 2021 was no different – Rogério Ceni, Rodriguinho, and others came out to file lawsuits against the club.


FIFA prompted further investigations for the aforementioned deals of De Arrascaeta and Riascos. Nothing much changed. The club kicked off the year with the ambition of returning to Brazil’s top flight only to be eliminated from every possible competition early on and have almost zero chance to finish in the top 4 places (granting promotion) two months before the campaign’s end.


Not just that, the issue with delayed wages remained and at the start of October, headed by goalkeeper Fábio (yes the same one from the start of the story), the players announced a strike not showing up to training for four days. Sources were somehow found and Raposa finished the campaign just barely scraping to avoid a serious relegation battle. 


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As the season came to a close, the club’s future remained ever so dark. Question marks loomed over potential sponsors, ways of financing, and other things that would keep the team afloat to kick off the 2022 season. Luckily, somehow, a bit of luck came Cruzeiro’s way.


Brazilian football legend Ronaldo, the man who started his illustrious career at Cruzeiro came in to become the majority shareholder at the club and therefore its sole owner. Over the years, O Fenomeno has dabbled in various different endeavors –  owning a majority stake at Real Valladolid, twitch streaming and e-sports, a racing team.


All in all, Ronaldo has become a successful businessman showing a knack for what’s new in the world. He’s now come in to save his boyhood club. Don’t get me wrong, his idea is likely financial and he’s doing it to increase his net worth, but he’s shown a desire to rebuild as he aims to gradually “kill off” the club’s debt and oversee its return to glory.


Just like it was in 1993, Cruzeiro fans have a beacon of light in the face of Ronaldo. Back then, he delivered the club’s first-ever Copa do Brasil and was the most exciting thing the fans had.


Fast forward 29 years and he’s once again seen as the saving grace. Will Cruzeiro’s fortunes finally change and will the Phenomenon restore a giant to its much-deserved place on the Brazilian football pedestal?


By: Peter Pankovski / @23Pankovski

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Cruzeiro