In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro fans turn to their club to forget World Cup rout

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – No other graveyard in the world could be this festive, this crowded, this loud. The Estádio Mineirão, where Brazil’s World Cup hopes were cut to pieces—seven, to be precise, one for each German goal—and buried without honor, is ablaze with life. A crowd that will swell to 42,000 is on its feet, waving huge blue-and-white flags and chanting to the insistent beat of bass drums. And the game hasn’t even started.

Barely five weeks after the most humiliating home loss ever suffered by a World Cup contender, soccer fans here are again finding hope and joy in the game. That’s partly because, in a fine bit of redemptive irony, the Mineirão is the home pitch of Brazil’s best football club: Cruzeiro, the defending first-division champion and a favorite to repeat. And on this overcast Sunday afternoon it’s hosting a solid side from Santos, Pelé’s old team, newly fortified by the return to Brazil of Robinho.

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It’s enough to make you wonder if, in the city where futebol seemed to have died, the World Cup has already been forgotten.

“Forgotten, yes,” says Geraldo Regadas, a retired professor of marketing and a Cruzeiro fan since the mid-1960s. “And thank god for that. It was the worst shame I’ve felt in my life. Imagine: four goals in six minutes! That’s one goal every minute and a half!”

Maybe mostly forgotten, then. It will be decades before Brazilians stop shuddering at the phrase “seven to one.” Still: In BH, as residents refer to it, league soccer is in no way shameful, thanks to a team that bears comparison to . . . well, here comes another reminder.

“We compare Cruzeiro to Germany,” says Carlos Henrique Maciel, a psychologist, ultramarathoner and mad Cruzeiro fan. “Every player plays only for the team. There are no stars.”

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When pressed, Maciel admits that Cruzeiro might have a few standouts after all: attacking midfielder Ricardo Goulart, the league’s top scorer, with eight goals in 14 games before Sunday; fellow midfielder Éverton Ribeiro, second in the league with five assists; and team captain Fábio, the veteran goalkeeper whose specialty seems to be stopping unstoppable shots. And don’t forget the coach, Marcelo Oliveira, for whom this game will be his 100th with A Raposa (the Fox), as Cruzeiro is known, in the singular, after its mascot.

“Oliveira never lets up,” Maciel says admiringly. “One game we were ahead 4-0, and he was running up to players and yelling at them to play harder.”

Of Oliveira’s 99 games with Cruzeiro before Sunday, the Fox has won 66.

Especially pleasing to Cruzeiro fans is the fact that in Oliveira’s playing days, in the 1970s, he was with Atlético Mineiro, BH’s other first-division club and the Fox’s bitter rival. Almost everyone in the city identifies with one team or the other, the loyalty and enmity often passed down through generations. Before Atlético-Cruzeiro derbies at the Mineirão, two access roads to the stadium are cordoned off so that arriving fans of one team won’t come into contact with supporters of the other. (“When I think of Atlético,” says Maciel’s college-age son and fellow Fox fanatic, Mateus, “my skin crawls.”)

But the rivalry doesn’t prevent fans of both teams from coexisting under the same roof. In one of the inevitable Capulet-Montague romances, my Brazilian sister-in-law Célia married a cruzeirense even though her atleticano roots go back to the Pleistocene.

In the Mineirão this Sunday, though, it’s all cruzeirenses, kitted up in royal-blue jerseys and anxious to see the Fox regain its grip on the top spot in Série A. After tying its last two games, both on the road, Cruzeiro has slipped a point behind Porto Alegre club Internacional, but it can take back the lead with a win against O Peixe (the Fish, also singular), as Santos is known.

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In an interview in Saturday’s BH newspaper Estado de Minas, Oliveira stuck to bland pronouncements about sound preparation, unselfish play and the honor of reaching his personal century mark with Cruzeiro, but the team’s fans are hoping for an old-fashioned pancada, or ass-whipping. To underscore the importance of this and the next few games, Cruzeiro’s Bolivian striker, Marcelo Moreno (tied for third in the league with five goals), has begged off two upcoming friendlies in the U.S. with his national team.

At the Mineirão and other Brazilian stadiums, some things have reverted to the norm after the World Cup’s temporary changes to local futebol culture. Beer is no longer sold inside the gates, as it was during the Cup in deference to Budweiser. And seat assignments are once again all but meaningless. In the new, smaller Mineirão, fans rush into the sections for which they have bought seats and take the best ones available.

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Carlos Henrique, Mateus and I head straight to the top of the western stands, near the midfield line, where the view of the pitch is panoramic and we don’t have to worry about obstructing anyone’s view by cheering on our feet.

“I have only one rule,” says Mateus. “No sitting except at halftime.”

He says the atmosphere in the stadium has changed since its renovation for the Cup required an increase in ticket prices and an influx of fans who are elitizados, using the Portuguese verb form of elite.

“It was more animated,” he says of the old, more working-class, mostly standing-room Mineirão. “Maybe the new seats are too comfortable.”

The most expensive seats are down low on the east side of the stadium, and many of them are empty. In the western stands, all the fans are on their feet, singing and jumping up and down as the game begins. Cruzeiro immediately goes on the attack, advancing with quick passes on Santos’s goalie, Aranha (Portuguese for Spider), who has been the object of chants of a proctological nature from the many Cruzeiro supporters’ groups, such as China Azul, Torcida FanatiCruz, Máfia Azul and the torcida alcoolizada (basically, drunk rooting section) Cachazeiros.

But the Fox can’t finish until the 25th minute, when Éverton Ribeiro sends a gorgeous free kick with prodigious English into the area and Moreno flicks a header past the flailing Spider. The noise level is ratcheted up as the Fox supporters yell, Nós somos loucos, somos Cruzeiro! (We’re crazy, we’re Cruzeiro.)

Up to this point the Fox defense has been firm, closing spaces on Fish counterattacks, especially by Robinho, who repeatedly probed Cruzeiro’s left side. Henrique, the holding midfielder, stripped several Santos attackers. But after Moreno’s goal the Fox drops the pace on offense and the Fish begins to control the ball on Cruzeiro’s side of the pitch. To the audible relief of Fox fans, Santos misses two open shots on goal that might not have challenged Mr. Magoo. The half ends with Cruzeiro up 1-0.

Sitting at last, Mateus comments at halftime that despite having been a volunteer at the Mineirão during the World Cup, he didn’t see any of the games. “My Seleção is Cruzeiro,” he says. (Carlos Henrique adds, “Many Brazilians actually rooted against the Seleção in hopes that Brazil losses would hurt the government. That’s just ignorant.”)

Mateus thinks most Brazilian soccer fans feel a greater connection to their club squads than to the national team. That doesn’t make the drubbings by Germany and then the Netherlands in the third-place game any easier to bear, but now the focus is back on the true heart of futebol, the annual Campeonato Brasileiro.

Everton Ribeiro's (17) form for Cruzeiro was rewarded with a call-up by Dunga to the Brazil national team.

Everton Ribeiro's (17) form for Cruzeiro was rewarded with a call-up by Dunga to the Brazil national team.

As the second half begins the sun breaks through, and so does Ricardo Goulart. Three minutes in, the 23-year-old midfielder adds to his league-leading goal total with a sharply angled left-footed strike into the left corner of the Spider’s net. The Fox faithful thunder, Eu sou Cruzeiro até morrer! (I’m Cruzeiro until I die.) Now down 2-0, Santos again surges, but it misses another open shot, and then Fábio makes a spectacular save, diving to his left to slap away a sure goal from unmarked forward Thiago Ribeiro. The crowd yells, Puta que pariu! Melhor goleiro do Brasil! (The first half of the chant should not be translated on a family website. The second half means "best goalie in Brazil.")

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Meanwhile Oliveira, Cruzeiro’s coach, has sent in Júlio Baptista, the former Real Madrid and Roma midfielder who is closing out his career back home in Brazil. Looking heavy and rusty, Baptista muffs several plays before righting himself and serving up a beautiful ball in the Santos area to Goulart, who pushes it just past the left post. Then, in the 42nd minute, Baptista muscles into the box, takes a pass from Éverton Ribeiro and nails a right-footer to the Spider’s left corner for the coup de grace. In the ensuing pandemonium, one Cruzeiro chant rings above the others: Não é mole, não! O time de Cruzeiro é melhor que a seleção! (No, it’s no joke. Cruzeiro’s team is better than the Seleção.)

Perhaps it is. On Tuesday Dunga, the new national team coach, called up Ricardo Goulart and Éverton Ribeiro (both for the first time) for two friendlies early in September.

“Maybe Germany would have beaten Cruzeiro, but certainly not by as much,” a soccer fan in Salvador had told me on Monday. You wouldn’t have gotten an argument from the crowd at the Mineirão as it lingered in the stadium after the final whistle, seemingly reluctant to go home. The victory over Santos was deeply gratifying: The Fox was back at the top of the table, two points clear of Internacional; Oliveira was a winner in his 100th game with Cruzeiro; and the Fox had won its 998th game at the Mineirão. And perhaps an even more satisfying triumph awaited on Thursday, when Cruzeiro would host Porto Alegre’s other first-division team, Grêmio, and its coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari.

That’s right: Felipão, the Brazil World Cup skipper who, against all evidence of looming disaster, stuck with Fred. The Fox would beat Scolari’s team 1-0. That’s not 7-1, but it’s another big step on the road to forgetting. 

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