This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of The Football Pink magazine – ‘Hotbeds Volume 1’

MARK GODFREY visits Belo Horizonte to examine the relationship between the city’s three major clubs and how they view themselves against their rivals from the rest of Brazil.

Sunday morning, 11am. A low, inviting drone emanates from Belo Horizonte’s Mercado Central, the city’s iconic indoor market. Once inside, the cacophony of sound is only rivalled in the sensory war by the rich, pungent mix of aromas from every type of saleable goods imaginable; from exotic birds to freshly butchered meat for that evening’s rodizio; ripe Minas Gerais cheeses to loose rolling tobacco and much more besides. This is the city’s heartbeat, its soul.

As thousands of weekend shoppers shuffle through the endless maze of gangways, tucked away by entrance number 5 a seemingly good-natured racket is ensuing. Bar do Julio is not the only place in Mercado Central to gather and refresh, yet it is possibly the liveliest. Around 50 people squeeze neatly into this relatively small space, occasionally spilling out into the thoroughfares when conversations become more animated. Faces come and go as groups exchange but the energy, the buzz; it does not diminish as the day progresses.

Behind the tight, compact bar there is a constant blur of movement as the staff juggle orders of caipirinha and freshly fried liver and jilo to satisfy the appetites of their excited patrons. Talking football in Belo Horizonte is very thirsty work.

Two small TV screens are mounted on the walls in opposite corners of the bar. One shows football – highlights of América MG’s defeat at Atletico Paranaense the day before – while the second broadcasts live volleyball, Brazil’s other, lesser sporting pre-occupation.

Bar do Julio

One does not need to understand this slangy, sing-song version of Portuguese to know what is being discussed. The body language, hand gestures, facial contortions and voice intonation are self-explanatory. The roars of laughter and snorts of disdain litter the pointed but light-hearted mickey-taking. For anyone accustomed to a more progressive, less chauvinistic culture, the tone and gesturing is enough to make one blush – Atlético Mineiro fans questioning the collective sexuality of Cruzeiro fans; Cruzeiro fans’ implications of incestuous behaviour by their Atlético counterparts. The two normally vehemently opposed groups combine mischievously to round on anyone allied to the city’s undoubted poor relations, América. There is seemingly one such person in the bar; he takes it in good humour while concentrating intently on his newspaper. So long as the cachaça flows, the fragile peace is maintained.

The state of Minas Gerais is a powerhouse in its own right. Less famous and regarded as its neighbours to the south – Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – its economic output and cultural heritage is as rich and significant as anywhere else in Brazil. Its people are witty and self-deprecating to a fault, yet fiercely proud of their history and identity. They grudgingly accept their place in the shadows. The capital – Belo Horizonte – epitomises that spirit. The distribution hub of the state’s dairy products, meat, metals and that most potent fermented sugar cane drink; this city of over 2.5million inhabitants has played a key role in Brazilian and international football through the decades.

Most famously, perhaps, it was the scene of two of the greatest shocks to occur in international football. The first, in the 1950 World Cup finals, was the absolute definition of David slaying Goliath as the apparent no-hopers of the United States defeated the supposedly mighty England thanks to a goal by unlikely hero, Joe Gaetjens. The second – at the semi-final stage of the 2014 renewal of FIFA’s showpiece – shook Brazil and its football obsessed population to its very foundation. Although evenly matched with their opponents Germany on paper, the 7-1 pounding (now known as the Mineiraço) handed to the Seleção by the eventual world champions in the Mineirão stadium was an inconceivable humiliation, the like of which Brazil have avoided since the infamous Maracanaço loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final.

The torment was a fitting culmination to a perfect storm that enveloped the country both in the build up to the tournament and during it, as civil unrest, financial meltdown and a succession of political scandals took a vice like grip on the nation. Oddly, many Brazilians accepted the national team’s evisceration with a certain amount of inevitability rather than the expected fury. The vast majority of the squad were based overseas, and while they were enjoying the lavish lifestyles afforded to them by their staggering salaries, the average Brazilian lived with the daily instability of the country’s economic and civic climate. That’s not to say that there wasn’t resentment; it’s just that ordinary life had, for once, become far more important than o jogo bonito.

Belo Horizonte is the birthplace of two greats of the Brazilian game – underrated schemer of the 1970 World Cup winning side, Tostão; and Toninho Cerezo – the disciplined anchor who gave licence to Zico and Socrates to weave their magic for the Seleção during the 1980s. It was also where a very young Ronaldo – original Ronaldo, if you will – began his glittering professional career aged 16, scoring 44 times in 47 games for the Cruzeiro club before PSV Eindhoven and the riches of European football came calling in 1994.

When moving around the city, one of its most striking features is the continual rise and fall in elevation; one minute you’re atop a steep incline, the next at the foot of a hill. The landscape is ever-changing. Belo Horizonte’s mountainous geography is an apt metaphor to describe the constant fluctuation in fortunes of not only its football clubs, but for those around the whole of Brazil. While in Europe we are becoming more and more accustomed to a narrow band of clubs hogging the power and success in our top leagues, in Brazil any such certainty has not, does not, and probably never will exist. One minute you’re up, the next you’re down – it contributes significantly to the dynamic between rival sets of supporters.

The three major clubs in Beagá (the locals’ abbreviation for the city is BH, pronounced Bay-aga as per the Portuguese alphabet) are Atlético Mineiro, Cruzeiro and América. On this particular Sunday in July – the height of Brazilian wintertime, although you wouldn’t think it to be winter judging by the weather; a brilliantly sunny, mild day rarely experienced at home in the north east of England – I would be paying a visit the second of those, Cruzeiro.

Raposa – or fox as they are nicknamed – are the youngest of the trio. Formed in 1921 by the Italian immigrant community of Belo Horizonte, they were initially named Società Sportiva Palestra Italia and played in green, white and red – the colours of the Italian flag. With those migrant workers, perhaps, came some of the Fascist ideologies that were gripping their homeland in the early 1920s; it would take Palestra Italia four years before they would field anyone that was non-white or non-Italian. And it was events across the Atlantic Ocean that forced the club into a change of identity in 1942. Upon Brazil’s entry into the Second World War on the side of the Allies, all uses of terminology and symbols of any of the Axis powers was forbidden and thus; they were renamed to represent the Southern Cross star constellation – which also features prominently on the national flag and coat of arms of Brazil. It was a remarkable rejection of the club’s heritage in favour of the new, internationally included Brazil who, during the war, even sent troops to Italy to fight. The new Cruzeiro Esporte Clube did, however, retain some connection to the old country; choosing the Azzurri’s blue shirts as their new primary colour.

When I reach the Mineirão Stadium – the recently renovated home they occasionally share with the enemy, Atlético – around an hour before the kick-off of Cruzeiro’s game with Vitória, I fully expect things to be rather sedate; after all, it has barely gone lunchtime on a Sunday and the cachaça hangovers are fierce. However, there are blue-shirted revellers everywhere – and I use the term ‘revellers’ advisedly. They are loud and excitable, like Friday night drinkers in any British city before too much alcohol sours the vibe. From some distance away, I hear the incessant beating of drums and singing of songs. Even from outside you get a sense of how stirring an experience a home game for Cruzeiro is. Inside – I warn myself as I approach the entrance gate – must be visceral, frightening even. I wasn’t wrong.

I’m already exhausted by the time the game has begun, so it must take some feat of endurance and devotion to drive the different sections of the torcida to such commitment. The banners, the flags, the musical instruments, the choreography. It’s a spectacle in itself – the Mafia Azul, Cachazeiros, the Torcida Fanati-Cruz and other supporter groups – simultaneously united and in competition to see who can best demonstrate their passion for the club.

The game finishes 2-2, and although pretty entertaining for the neutral – and I certainly felt isolated in that respect – I came away from the stadium thinking of it as a side show to the theatrical display in the stands.

I returned to my hotel in the Luxemburgo neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte to warm down, so to speak. The barman, Flávio, speaks fluent English – the result of a grandmother born and raised in Bournemouth, of all places. Although his name may give the impression of Italian heritage, that notion is quickly dispelled when I tell him where I’ve been for the past few hours. He is, by his own admission, a lapsed Galo fan (Galo – Portuguese for rooster – is the nickname of Atlético Mineiro) but seems to recoil at the very mention of Cruzeiro. “They do not like us, we feel the same about them”, he explains, “but it’s only football. We work together and can be friends, or even in the same family.” The way he speaks, the things he says; it’s very reminiscent of the relationship between Everton and Liverpool back in England – a kind of pantomime mutual loathing between neighbours, although the uneasy harmony can, and often does, lead to bouts of violence. Unlike the rivalry on Merseyside, success – especially recently – has been more or less evenly distributed between the Belo Horizonte pair, meaning the narrative behind their relationship is one of one-upmanship and perpetual heightened tension rather than a settled, fixed pattern.

Credit: Rodrigo Lima CC 2.0

If the atmosphere at Mineirão is raucous for Cruzeiro, when Atlético play their big games there – and at Independência, their other home – it has taken on an almost spiritual significance in recent years. Borrowing heavily from the ‘Yes we can’ campaign slogans of former US President Barack Obama, the mantra ‘Eu acredito’ – ‘I believe’ – was born as the soundtrack to some monumental occasions during their thrilling 2013 Copa Libertadores triumph. The chant survives to this day as a permanent reminder of the fans’ fervour that helped see Galo over the line against Olimpia of Paraguay in the two-legged final, every bit as much as the goals of Jô or the fanciful fairground flicks of Ronaldinho.

That epic campaign in South America’s highest profile competition was the moment that Atlético fans had dreamed about for longer than anyone would care to admit. For them it was the validation of their conviction that they’re not only one of Brazil’s top clubs, but also a force on the continent. It renewed a sense of self-importance that just isn’t borne out by the facts, but rather by their historical social superiority; Galo – founded by the middle class – are often seen as the bridesmaid and rarely the bride having been crowned champions of Brazil just once to accompany their sole Libertadores win. To further shatter those illusions, they lag behind the working-class Cruzeiro on the honours board nationally and internationally and, according to a 2016 Giga Institute survey, also trail in the distribution of support in Belo Horizonte compared to their fiercest rivals. As my work colleague – also called Flávio like the hotel barman – once told me, “they say they hate us, but I think they hate themselves more for wanting to be us.” It was a bold, perhaps tongue-in-cheek claim but there is a sense that Atlético, despite being the older club, are afflicted by an inferiority complex when it comes to Cruzeiro.

The third wheel in terms of football clubs is undoubtedly América. Coelho – the rabbit – is their animal epithet of choice, although it would possibly be more appropriate to call them the hare given their early sprint to dominance in Belo Horizonte and the state championship, the Campeonato Mineiro. Their reluctance to embrace professionalism in the 1930s was likely the most significant factor in them being eclipsed by their two city counterparts; the strong amateur ethos ingrained in the club since its inception by the ‘elite’ of Belo Horizonte allowed the more forward thinking, populist clubs to overhaul them soon after the Second World War. Major silverware has been a rare treat ever since; indeed, they yo-yo between divisions of the Campeonato Brasileiro and have struggled to break the duopoly of Cruzeiro and Atlético in the Minas Gerais state championship. Theirs is a largely thankless existence as the third members of what feels like a two-club town.

Belo Horizonte’s football epicentre is, of course, the Mineirão (officially the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto). Located in the Pampulha district in the north of the city, it lies close to pleasant residential areas, parks and the Lagoa da Pampulha – a man-made lake around which the architect Oscar Niemeyer embarked upon his first projects before becoming world renowned for his work creating the modernist governmental, industrial and residential buildings of Brazil’s new capital, Brasilia, and the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

In July 2016, Pampulha was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of Niemeyer’s creations, the most striking of which is the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Also built in the post-war modernist style, the new church was struck by difficulties and controversies from its very conception, in a similar vain and era to that of the nearby Mineirão, which took 25 years to come to fruition after the three football clubs’ stadiums were becoming unable to meet the increasing demands of their respective fanbases.

The Pampulha Modern Ensemble was a dream of former city mayor and ex-president of Brazil Juscelino Kubitschek as a gift to all Belo-horizontinos. The Mineirão was also meant for the whole city to enjoy but, unsurprisingly in the spitefully tribal turf disputes of football supporters, tensions can often boil over. In 2009, 20-year-old Atlético fan Lucas Batista Marcelino was shot dead at a bus stop by two Cruzeiro fans on a motorbike in the eastern part of Belo Horizonte before the Clássico Mineiro. And just a year later, a Cruzeiro fan was beaten to death by members of Atlético’s torcida organizada (organised hooligan group) Galoucura. The petty war of words does, on occasion, also spill over into the clubs’ boardrooms. Before the 2014 Copa do Brasil final between the pair, the presidents of both clubs became embroiled in a tit-for-tat argument over away ticket allocations which resulted in Cruzeiro trying to fleece Atlético fans for the privilege of watching the second leg at the Mineirão – a 1-0 win for Galo resulting in a 3-0 aggregate victory and the proverbial middle finger to their ungenerous hosts.

This escalation of hooligan elements in and around football matches – both spontaneous and organised – is mirrored across Brazilian football in general, and as seen elsewhere across the world, goes hand-in-hand with the country’s current raft of social and economic problems – think back 30 years or more to the issues that plagued society in the United Kingdom when football related violence reached its peak.

While that passion can turn toxic and inwards, there is a collective sense of them against the rest; or at least against Rio and São Paulo. According to a 2012 Pluri Consultoria survey, the clubs from Brazil’s two biggest cities hoover up well over 50% of Brazil’s football support, with Flamengo and Corinthians accounting for 31% between them, so although Belo Horizonte’s big three may not be a magnet for fickle fans outside of Minas Gerais, they do share common enemies which all adds more fuel to the fire of their fervent following. Add to this the disparity in historical success and distribution of TV and sponsorship deals (Belo Horizonte clubs receive significantly less than their Rio and São Paulo counterparts regardless of final league position) and its easy to understand the resentment and belief that behind-the-scenes corruption continues to stack the odds increasingly against them.

Those seemingly poor odds have been surmounted in recent years with Cruzeiro’s back-to-back Serie A wins in 2013 and 2014 and Atlético’s Copa Libertadores win in 2013 (and América even got some recognition with a 2016 Campeonato Mineiro victory) but sustaining that momentum is the illusive magic trick in Brazilian football; very few clubs have ever remained at the sharp end for more than three seasons before taking their turn in the wilderness.

Before I leave Belo Horizonte, I pay one more visit to Bar do Julio in Mercado Central. It’s a weekday, mid-afternoon; the place is empty save for one middle-aged lady with several shopping bags fiddling with her mobile phone, nursing a tall iced drink. Suddenly the TV set in the corner of the bar sparks into life. The unmistakeable sound of drums and singing fills the air. Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro are going at it, and barely a few sips of my sharp, limey caipirinha later, there is a throng of people gathering to watch. Soon the excitable TV commentator becomes inaudible over the commotion in Julio’s, while the smell of frying meat and cigarette smoke descends like a thick, heady mist.

Atlético eventually lose 2-0. The final whistle is accompanied by bellows of exasperation and arms thrown wildly in protest at perceived injustices. As the Galo fans slowly drift away, I too take my last few swigs of the local grog. There is a face I recognise tucked away in the corner. It’s the América fan who was subject to the merciless ribbing the previous week. In my passable Portuguese I say to him, “Are you happy?” to which he replies, “not really, but days like this help.” Much like Belo Horizonte itself, one man’s down is another man’s up.