By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – We round off our profiles of Rio’s top football (soccer) clubs with Vasco da Gama, the city’s second biggest club. With close to 20 million supporters across Brazil, Vasco is just behind Flamengo and roughly level with Sao Paulo club Corinthians in terms of fan base.
Just like Flamengo, Club de Regatas de Vasco da Gama originated as a rowing club in the late nineteenth century, before football became such an important part of Carioca society and the club decided to add a soccer division.
Founded by Portuguese immigrants, Vasco remains the club of the Portuguese and has strong links back to its old colonial master; the club is named after the famous Portuguese explorer of the sixteenth century.
It is thanks to Vasco’s strongly recognized roots that the club can rely on such a large fan base, eclipsing Fluminense and Botafogo by some margin. Due to its Portuguese heritage, Vasco not only has supporters in Rio de Janeiro, but all over the country where there are pockets of former Portuguese settlers, such as the North East and Minas Gerais.
However, Vasco also won favor for a very different reason; breaching social discrimination, a prejudice that featured prominently in Brazil until football, through its nationwide popularity, began to bridge the gap between the city’s elite ruling white class and the poverty and hugely unfair limitations placed on the city’s black and multi-racial citizens, considered the “underclass.”
In 1923, Vasco were crowned champions of Rio’s Metropolitan League, the predecessor to today’s Campeonato Carioca. Vasco’s team consisted not only of white players, but blacks and mixed race as well.
Because of this, the League’s governors pressurized Vasco into dropping players who were not white; in other words, those the league considered were not worthy of gracing a football pitch. The fact that these players had triumphed in the previous year’s competition had apparently eluded them.
The club stuck by their players, refusing to cast them aside. As a result, an organization called the Metropolitan Athletic Association, headed by Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo, was created, prohibiting all non-whites from playing football.
The insinuation was if Vasco refused to comply with the new rules, they would be banned from further competition. Undeterred, Vasco president Jose Augusto Prestes refused to buckle and successfully challenged the discriminatory ruling. Vasco had become the first club to legally enforce an equal ruling for all social classes in Rio.
As well as being Rio’s second biggest club, they are also Rio’s second most successful. Vasco have four national Campeonato Brasileiro titles to their name, the most recent coming in 2000, and over twenty state Campeonato Carioca crowns.
Despite their successes when the national league commenced in the early 1970s, the club’s most famous icon is Vava, scorer of 150 goals for the club between 1951 and 1964. A feared striker, Vava also bagged fifteen goals for the national side and became the first ever player to score in two World Cup finals, in 1958 and 1962.
Carioca legend Romário also turned out for Vasco, scoring an incredible seventy goals during their title winning season in 2000. He holds the record for most goals scored in a season for the club.
2010 saw Vasco promoted to the first division of the national league again, where they finished a respectable eleventh. However, under new coach Ricardo Gomes, who is leading a steady revival in this year’s state championship, Vascainas are hopeful of a push for Copa Libertadores football at Sao Januario next year.