By Amanda Romanelli
Photos: Courtesy of the São Paulo Futebol Clube
Charles Miller, the son of English parents, returned to São Paulo in 1894 after ten years of studying abroad in his parents’ homeland. His luggage was stuffed with balls, uniforms, and a rule book for a sport that was very popular in England, but virtually unknown in Brazil: soccer. Thanks to Miller, one year later a soccer ball rolled across a Brazilian field for the first time, making Miller the father of what is now the supreme national passion.
If Miller was the father of soccer, its birthplace would have to be the central part of São Paulo state. The first soccer game in Brazil was played on a makeshift field not far from the home of the city’s eponymous team, later identified by its colors: red, white, and black. Even the founding date of the São Paulo Futebol Clube (São Paulo Soccer Club) ―January 25, 1930― is symbolic, honoring the date Jesuits founded the Brazilian metropolis in 1554.
The São Paulo Club has encountered some difficult times during its eighty-six years of history: it had to be reformed and faced a long title drought as its stadium was being built. But its efforts eventually paid off and it is now the only Brazilian team to have been victorious three times in the Libertadores de América Cup and once in the FIFA World Club Cup. It is also the only team to have prevailed in the national championship three times in a row. The team has certainly earned its nickname: “The Monarch.”
Late last year, São Paulo fielded a player who had metamorphosed into a sports legend: forty-three year old Rogério Ceni, the highest scoring goalie in the world. He ended his career in December, having never played for any other team.
The team was born during turbulent times. “The main topic of discussion between 1920 and 1930 was professionalization of soccer,” explains club historian Michael Serra. Until then, Brazilian soccer was a sport of the elites, played only by club members. As the sport grew, the need for professionalization became obvious.
Despite opposition from the founders of the Club Atlético Paulistano ―created in 1900 as the city’s principal team at the time― the São Paulo Club survived when professional sport replaced the amateur game. In contrast, the Atlético Club ―the São Paulo state champion and holder of eleven titles― dissolved its team rather than give up its amateur status.
However, the São Paulo players had no place to practice, so the team sought assistance from the Asociación Atlética de las Palmeiras, another important team, which opened its stadium to the São Paulo Club for training. This helped them walk away with the championship in 1931, when they beat Corinthians 4-1. In 1935, various administrative and political problems forced the team to merge with Club de Regatas Tietê, essentially reforming the team and starting over from zero.
Circumstances improved —albeit slowly— with the São Paulo Club managing one title in 1943, when it could already boast the services of Leonidas da Silva, the greatest Brazilian soccer idol before Pelé and the best scorer of the 1938 World Cup, played in France, in which Brazil took third place.
Their idol led the team to five São Paulo state titles in seven years: 1943, 1945, 1946 (undefeated), 1948, and 1949. Since the national championship would not materialize until 1959, state titles were extremely important at the time.
The Cícero Pompeu de Toledo Stadium, better known as Morumbi for the neighborhood where it is located, was constructed between 1952 and 1970. It was a period of great difficulties for the club; São Paulo earned state titles in 1953 and 1957 before facing a thirteen-year title drought.
Roberto Dias’ aggressive style made him an icon during this time. In fact, Pelé recognizes him as his greatest influence, which is no small matter, since during that time the King racked up seven São Paulo state titles (with the Santos team) and two World Cups with the Brazilian team.
“If you’re going to dream, dream big,” was the motto for the construction of Morumbi Stadium, inaugurated on January 25, 1970. The 1977 final of the São Paulo state championship drew 146,072 fans to the stadium. It has been remodeled several times since then and now holds 67,000 spectators.
For Michael Serra, the stadium laid the foundations for everything the team would later accomplish: “Thanks to Morumbi, the São Paulo team increased its fan base while also turning a profit. The stadium was the longtime home of major São Paulo state soccer games, and it also serves as a venue for large events nowadays.” Morumbi was the springboard for the team’s conquest of Brazil, the Americas, and the world.
After becoming the São Paulo state champion in 1970, 1971, and 1975, the Club won the Brazilian Championship for the first time in 1977; they were the runner-up in 1971. During this period, the team was able to invest in players, such as mid-fielder Gerson (1970 World Cup champion) and goalkeeper Waldir Peres (member of the 1982 World Cup team), and it opened its doors to Uruguayan players who became Club idols, such as Pablo Forlán (father of Diego Forlán, Best Player in the 2010 World Cup), Pedro Rocha, and Darío Pereyra.
The São Paulo team gained the state title again in 1980, but it achieved true greatness during the second half of the decade. With incredible young stars like Muller, Silas, Pita, Careca, and Sydney, the team was dubbed the “Menudos del Morumbi” (Morumbi Kids),” a play on the name of the famous Puerto Rican teenage band Menudo which was incredibly popular throughout Latin America. The team garnered three São Paulo state titles (1985, 1987, and 1989), not to mention Brazil’s National Championship in 1986.
In October 1990, the team inked one of the greatest contracts in its history, signing Telê Santana, the man who helmed Brazil’s team during two World Cup competitions (1982 and 1986). Under his tutelage, the team played beautiful soccer, but victory eluded them. Demanding Brazilian fans gave him a nickname meaning “bad luck,” but the designation has long been forgotten in light of his later success in Morumbi Stadium.
The combination of a great trainer and a talented team pushed the São Paulo Club to its apogee: the two Libertadores de América Cup championships and the FIFA World Club Cup win. Playing an all-around game led by Raí, São Paulo’s greatest ever number 10, the team defeated Newell’s Old Boys (Argentina) in the 1992 final and the Universidad Católica de Chile in the 1993 final to conquer the Americas. In 1992, the São Paulo Club defeated Barcelona to win the Intercontinental Cup for the first time. The following year they had to play without Raí, who had transferred to Paris Saint-Germain (France), but players like Cafú, Leonardo, and Muller allowed them to defeat Milan. There was no holding back São Paulo.
This phase of glory was followed by a flat period of little success between 1994 and 2000. The club needed the help of homegrown players, one of whom turned out to be one of the brightest stars in its history: Rogério Ceni, who became the team’s goalie in 1997. That same year he revealed his incredible talent by showing that he was as good a goal scorer as he was a goalkeeper. He scored his first goal in the São Paulo state championship on a foul and never looked back. The team’s official free kicker, he produced 129 goals (as of June 6), a figure that makes him the team’s tenth-best goal scorer, outdoing Raí.
Fans have honored Ceni with the catchphrase: “Everyone has a goalie, but only we have Rogério.” The multi-talented player captained the team to a new golden era from 2000 to 2010. São Paulo regained its Libertadores de América Cup title in 2005. An extraordinary performance and great defense in the final of the World Club Cup bested Liverpool 1-0. São Paulo had reached the top again, extending its domination to the national level.
The team had not won a Brazilian National Championship since 1991, but it ended the drought with an unprecedented three straight titles from 2006 to 2008. Rogério, who started with the team in 1990, has played more games (over 1,200) with the same team than anyone in the history of soccer. He announced his retirement at the end of 2014, shortly before his fortieth birthday, but extended his contract to the end of last season, since he wanted to win one more Brazilian championship. “The São Paulo Club is like home for me; it’s part of my family. It is my life’s passion. I think my greatest achievement is being with the club for twenty-five years,” he said, with emotion.