“In Sao Paulo we have…the football club of the Germans, of the English, of the Portuguese, of the international and even of the Catholics and the Protestants, but a club that might be composed exclusively of Italian “sportsmen,” and our colony [is] the largest in the state, [yet] still nothing has been tried!”
– Taken from a 1912 article in ‘Fanfulla’, the newspaper of Sao Paulo’s massive Italian population (quoted in Futebol Nation, David Goldblatt, 2014)
“To explain the emotion of being a Palmeirense (a Palmeiras fan), to a Palmeirense, is totally unnecessary. And to those who aren’t Palmeirense… it is simply impossible!”
– Joelmir Beting, journalist and broadcaster
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of thousands of Italians left their villages and towns looking for a better life in the new world. Their influence on the US, particularly in New York, was huge, shaping the history and culture of that city. But it was not the only metropolis in the Americas that the Italians helped build. While it may not be as well celebrated in in popular culture, Sao Paulo became an equally important destination for Italian immigrants. Today it’s estimated around 10 million residents of the city can trace their roots back to Italy, making it the largest community outside the homeland. While the Italian legacy can be seen all over the city, from it’s love of pizza to the fascist architecture of it’s City Hall, perhaps the most notable inheritance lies in football. Palmeiras, or Palestra Italia as it was once known and is still often referred to as, is one of Brazil’s most prestigious and successful clubs, and one that takes great pride in it’s roots.
Palestra Italia was founded in 1914. The four Italian founders seemed very keen to ensure no one would have any doubts as to which community the team represented. Besides the name, Italian for “Italy Gym,” the team played in green, white and red, the colours of the Italian flag. It’s first badge, meanwhile was the Savoy shield, the emblem of Italy’s royal family. The very patriotic symbolism was intended to instil a sense of nationhood into Sao Paulo’s Italian communities, many of whose members had never actually lived in a unified Italy, which had only been created in 1861.
While most ethnic Italians have now largely assimilated into Brazilian culture, with little highlighting their background besides a surname, Palmeiras retains this proud identification with Italy. During the Second World War, the club decided, under much pressure from the Brazilian government which had declared war on the Axis nations, to change the name to the less Portuguese Palmeiras. The colour red was also removed from the team’s kit. Ultimately these changes were only superficial. Today the old badge and name can be seen displayed by fans and celebrated by the club itself. This season’s shirts also feature all the colours of the tricolore.
But their Italian association isn’t Palmeiras’ only source of pride. The club won six national titles between 1960 and 1992, before lifting the cup in back to back years in 1993 and ’94. The club also added it’s first Copa Libertadores victory in 1999. World Cup winners and legendary names Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Zinho all turned out for the team.
But after ’94, the club entered a relatively difficult period. True, Palmeiras won two Brazilian cups after winning their last title but they were also relegated twice to the second tier. To add salt to the wound, their cross city rivals, Corinthians, were enjoying riding high, adding five titles to their trophy cabinet.
This years title then has been a major cause for celebration. Once again back at the summit of Brazilian football, Palmeiras have regained bragging rights over Corinthians and Sao Paulo FC, both of whom have been wallowing in mediocrity for the season.
The scenes following the trophy being confirmed showed how long the fans had been waiting to celebrate a league title again. The streets around the Allianz Parque were in a state of pandemonium, with beleaguered looking bus drivers trying to pick a way through the sea of green without running over a flare wielding reveller. The chanting crowds were indifferent to their struggles however, and some chose to use the buses as impromptu stages, climbing on top to dance, lead songs and wave flags. The sky was a constant fizzle of firecrackers, punctuated by the boom of fireworks over the stadium and clouds of green and white smoke from the flares.
The tragic footnote to the festivities of course was the fate of the team Palmeiras had defeated 1-0 that day. Any celebrations were abruptly cut short by the news of the Chapecoense tragedy. The final games of the season have been postponed and with them any thoughts of commemorating another title. Palmeiras have applied to play their last tie, where they will lift the trophy, in Chapecoense shirts. Whether this will be permitted and when the game will be played remains to be seen, and at this time appears irrelevant in the wake of one of the most terrible days in Brazilian football history. But it is good to see the historic club putting football aside and showing compassion towards the victims and their families.
Football, meanwhile, as churlish and cold as it seems, will eventually go on. Gabriel Jesus, the star of the side this season, has already completed a deal with Manchester City. Jesus, Sao Paulo born and a product of the Palmeiras youth academy, will be pleased to leave his club with a fitting parting gift before he tries to reach international stardom in Europe. It has been by all accounts a great year for him, saved from the ignominy of being included in the Brazil team for the Copa America Centario due to the lack of a US visa, he collected a gold medal in front of the Maracana as part of the Olympic team. To have just won a league title and an olympic gold, preparing to join England’s richest team and, some would argue, the world’s best manager in Guardiola, is not a bad position to be in at 19 years old.
Palmeiras, meanwhile, will be left in the unenviable position of having to find a replacement. But while retaining the title may prove difficult, most fans will just be thankful that the drought is finally over.