Vasco da Gama, Estádio São Januário

Much like their cross city rivals, Vasco were formed as a rowing club in 1898 opening up their sporting club to football 17 years later. Named after the Portuguese explorer, Vasco have a large support base in the Portuguese community around Rio. The Gigante da Colina were at the forefront of the battle for diversity in the 1920’s. Football in Brazil in the early 20th Century was for the elite, played by white men from rich backgrounds. Vasco won their first Championship in 1923 with a team of white, black and mixed race players of different classes. The following season the Metropolitan League pressured Vasco into banning players that it didn’t deem adequate to play in the league. When Vasco refused Flamengo, Fluminese and Botafogo formed a breakaway association banning Vasco from entering. Former Vasco President José Augusto Preste wrote a response to the ban, now known in Brazil as Resposta Histórica. The letter lead to a sea change in Brazilian football and sport as a whole. In 1925 Vasco were reinstated to the league, their black, mixed race and working class players had put out the nose of the upper class teams. Although not the first club to be represented by black players, they were the first to win.

I was drawn to Vasco thanks to their exploits in the 2000 FIFA Club World Championship, held in Brazil. This was the tournament that Manchester United skipped the FA Cup for after qualifying thanks to winning the Champions League. A different tournament to the Intercontinental Cup, it was seen by the FA as the perfect platform to push their 2006 World Cup bid. Featuring the Champions of each Confederation, Real Madrid who were Intercontinental Champions and oddly Corinthians as “hosts” the tournament featured two groups of 4. Vasco at the time with their strike partnership of Romario and Edmundo tore United apart racing to a 3-0 lead at half time in the Maracanã. United would pull one back through Nicky Butt, but the damage had been done. The Champions of Europe were humbled and went out in the group stage, Vasco would go on to lose in the final. The black shirts with white sash and Maltese Cross did make an impression on 13 year old David. When I saw they were home to Goiás in the Copa do Brasil I had to go.

After a busy day of tourism taking in Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açúcar and Ipanema we settled down for some food on Copacabana before planning our Uber to Vasco. The area around the ground we were advised was “not the best” so it was best to get dropped directly at the ground. After a ride punctuated by residents trying to shepherd us into their carparking spaces we were dropped around a 5 minute walk away. We made our way to the ticket office and decided to get some seated tickets costing around £10. We made our way around the ground to see the stand we would be sitting in, the façade is listed by National Historical and Artistic Heritage and is frankly stunning. Ornately detailed and with supporters buzzing in the streets around it, the scene was incredibly similar to the previous night while being utterly different. We made our way into the old ground, I got a beer and walked up to the back of the stand where we found some fantastic carved stonework that had been painted to match Vasco’s red Maltese Cross.

As always the atmosphere was frantic, nearly 18,000 supporters had packed into the old horse shoe shaped stadium. Nothing about the stadium made sense, it was a right pickle. No stand down one end of the ground, but a statue placed behind the goal. During the day you would be able to see Christ the Redeemer behind that end. The other three sides were a real mixture of old and a little bit newer. The place however, was bouncing and the match was underway. Goiás dominated and were unlucky not to take the lead after an overhead kick was well touched over the bar. A strike from outside the box was well saved by the Goiás before being followed in and turned home by a Vasco forward. The end to the left of us exploded, beer everywhere, limbs all over the shop. Meanwhile down the other end of the ground the goalscorer was being booked for a clear handball, it was still 0-0. As the first half moved on around 5 heavily armed coppers stood around 5 yards from us, no idea why but it only added to the tension. Just as half time appeared to be coming with the scores level, Goiás swung a ball in from the left side, a Vasco head flicked it on and it was bundled in. A deserved half time lead for the visitors, and an absolute tantrum by the Vasco staff and players. Around 25 people surrounded the ref and lino but nothing was doing, and rightfully so.

The second half was frankly a non-event, Vasco were poor and the only home team of the trip not to win. While they kept the ball, they didn’t have that last ball, possession wasn’t turned into chances and the crowd were getting more and more annoyed. After around 70 minutes we saw the first signs of trouble, a flashbang went off on the opposite side of the ground. A boom echoed and the crowd around the area it happened dispersed. Around five minutes later around 20 yards from us at the front of the stand another boom, again the crowd moved away from the explosion. Young kids were near that area and their fuming fathers remonstrated with the area the projectile had come from. With around 5 minutes to go we decided to make a move. Around the time, just as we made it out running battles started on the terraces. Matheus who had been our guide the previous night text to check if we were ok. By that time we’d bundled ourselves into a taxi outside the stadium and were making our way through the crowd.

We got back to our hotel, I’m not sure what had happened or what had really gone on but we’d made it out alive. The next day we flew back to Buenos Aires after a fantastic couple of days in Rio. Unfortunately while in the airport it became increasingly clear we’d have to cut our trip short. Games in Argentina had started being played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 crisis. We’d heard that in the next couple of days Argentina would be stopping flights in and out of the country. While back in our Airbnb we sorted changed flights home and told Owen about the ongoing issues. A day later we were back at the airport flying home. An abrupt end to a truly wonderful trip. River, Racing, Penarol etc would have to wait. I’ll be going back, there is absolutely no doubt about that. South America, you were wonderful.

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