Some thoughts on Tom Finney, and on how Bangu lost out to the force of Flamengo

The legacy of the late Tom Finney is not mirrored in Brazil - Action Images
Last Saturday I gave a lecture in Rio where I was honoured with the presence of Juninho Pernambucano in my small audience.

I prepared my material the day before, and in an aside about the historical depth of English football, I sought to make a few points by using the example of Tom Finney.  Poignancy was added when the news came through that Finney had died at the age of 91 – certainly one of the candidates for the title of England’s best ever footballer.

 

I knew, though, that even a student of the game as diligent as Juninho would not have heard of Finney.  Although the great man had played in Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, it was not a moment on which Finney could look back with much pride.  And why should a Brazilian born in 1975 have heard of a player from previous decades who spent his entire career with Preston North End?

This neatly brings us to a point I was trying to make in my lecture.  If English football is currently so successful, and is held up all around the world as a reference, then part of that is explained by a simple equation.  The new money entering the game has proved so effective because the old culture is so strong.  And some of this can be explained by the example of Finney.

He played at a time when top footballers in England were deplorably treated.  With no freedom of contract, they were bound to their club for as long as the latter desired.  And the maximum wage was still in operation, meaning that even an artist like Finney, capable of filling stadiums up and down the country, could earn little more than a skilled factory worker.

Palermo came in with an offer that would have made Finney a wealthy man.  He was not even told about it.  Preston were not selling, and that was that!  And there would have been little point, in financial terms, in making the short move to Manchester United.  With the maximum wage restriction, he would not be able to earn at Old Trafford any more than he was getting at Preston.  And so, during the close season, he continued to work as a plummer.  And he played all of his club football for a team from a town so small that the entire population could fit into the old pre-modernisation Maracana stadium.

This is clearly absurd.  Yet it is also undeniable that something positive came from these grossly unfair restrictions on the players’ mobility and earnings potential.  By such measures, the process of concentration – where all the top players drift towards the biggest clubs – was retarded.  Not every club could boast a Tom Finney, but all of them, at some time, had players of great talent around whom the club could build a tradition and an identity.  All of this filters through to the current day, when clubs from all over England, with far more tradition than hopes of contemporary success, continue to draw crowds that are the envy of the Brazilian game.

Juninho acknowledged the point.  The division typically made in Brazil between big clubs (with mass support) and small ones (with next to no fans) was not one that could be easily applied to European football, especially in England.

Like much of the rest of South America, Brazilian football has had to fight against a centralisation which its roots in economic history.  Being an exporter of raw materials created strong ports and a weak hinterland – and thus most of the continent’s big teams are clustered in those bustling ports or nearby trade centres.

But even inside some of those big cities, the process of football centralisation is striking.  Take the example of Bangu, from Rio’s working class North Zone.  They have a long and proud tradition.  Some great players have worn their red and white stripes, such as legendary centre back Domingos da Guia and Zizinho, the idol of the young Pele.  They have a huge catchment area, and yet, no longer a national force, they survive on tiny gates towards the wrong end of the table in the Rio State Championship.  One of the Carnaval samba schools with the biggest following is Mocidade from the neighbouring district of Padre Miguel.  If Mocidade can agglomerate a mass support from Rio’s North Zone, then surely Bangu should be able to do something similar.  Put a club with the tradition of Bangu in the context of London or Buenos Aires and they would be huge.  But not in Brazil.  Why?

Radio has something to do with it.  Football in England pre-dates the electronic media, giving the sport a chance to grow locally and organically.  In Brazil, radio did much to spread the game – and as radio came into the peak of its power in the late 30s and 1940s, there was one club with whom it was very hard for the likes of Bangu to compete – Flamengo.

Between 1933 and 38 Flamengo had a visionary for a president.  Jose Bastos Padilha saw and understood the changes that were taking place in Brazilian football and society.  Professionalism came in, rocking the game’s amateur ethos.  Meanwhile, the relatively benign tropical fascism of Getulio Vargas sought to set up a cross-class alliance, forming a country where for the first time the black Brazilian was included in the national identity.

Flamengo responded by signing the leading black players of the day, including the son of Bangu, Domingos da Guia.  Even more important was charismatic, controversial and magnificently talented centre forward Leonidas da Silva.  At a stroke Flamengo rebranded themselves; they had been a club of the South Zone elite.  Now, dramatically, they had acquired the popular touch.  The clubs from the working class suburbs could not compete.

After a decade with Flamengo, the great Zizinho played some of his most mature football in a seven year spell in the red and white of Bangu.  He is a contemporary of Tom Finney, and there are similarities in their styles.  But even if Bangu had possessed an entire team of Finneys and Zizinhos it is hard to see how they could have avoided having their support base eaten up by Flamengo.  The local fan did not just want to associate himself with his own neighbourhood.  When he opted for Flamengo it was as if he was buying a stake in the new Brazil, the land of the future.

 

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