When Sao Paulo Ruled The World

9 09 2010

I thought it’d be nice to revisit a piece from last September that many of you may have missed … (basically it took ages and nobody was reading this blog then!)

2010 sees the 50th anniversary of the World Club Championships. Previously a contest between the club champions of Europe and South America, the competition has now been extended to include other continents to better represent the global nature of the game. In all that time, only 4 teams have retained their title and thus won the competition back-to-back. The first was Pele’s Santos. The second was the legendary Inter side of Helenio Herrera, the grand wizard of Catenaccio. The third team to do so was Arrigo Sacchi’s incredible AC Milan of the late 80s. The last side to claim the honour, however, was one that is often overlooked. The club was Sao Paulo, and they achieved the feat in 1992 & 1993 by conquering Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ and Fabio Capello’s miserly Milan. Let us take a look back at that remarkable outfit.

The coach, Tele Santana

For Santana, leading Sao Paulo to become World Champions was blissful redemption. The culmination of his ‘Jogo Bonito’  (Beautiful Game) philosophy that had been so damaged by his experiences with the Brazilian national team. Santana was the coach of the Selecao in the 1982 & 1986 World Cups. The ’82 side in particular is commonly regarded as the finest side never to reach the World Cup Final. Some slack play against Italy allowed Paolo Rossi to score a hat-trick and eliminate Santana’s side – Toninho Cerezo was particularly culpable for a thoughtless pass across his own goal to allow Rossi through. Four years on, Zico’s penalty miss in normal time preceded a shoot-out loss and Brazil were again eliminated from the World Cup, this time at the hands of France. Santana left his role with the Selecao as Jogo Bonito was pushed to one side and the Brazilian national team went for a more pragmatic approach. Santana, however, was not done with his particular footballing philosophy and he was to rebrand it with spectacular results when he joined Sao Paulo in 1990.

This Sao Paulo side was built on quality defence. In those early days, there was the centre-back partnership of Antonio ‘Zago’ Carlos and Ricardo Rocha to rely on. Rocha was soon to move on to Real Madrid but the two combined to provide the base for Sao Paulo’s Campeonato Brasiliero win in 1991. Of more devastating attacking significance was Santana’s use of the full-back positions in his side:

The man who was to go on to become the most capped Brazilian footballer of all-time was arguably the key figure in Sao Paulo’s dominance of club football in the early 90s. He played in both of the club’s Copa Libertadores wins in 1992 and 1993 as well as each of the World Club Championship successes in those same years. Cafu’s calm nerve in the penalty shoot-out was to serve his side well – he scored in the ’92 Libertadores win over Newell’s Old Boys, the ’93 Recopa Sudamericana defeat of Cruzeiro and the ’93 Supercopa Sudamericana victory over Flamengo. When Cafu moved on to enjoy further success with Zaragoza and beyond, the titles dried up and Sao Paulo were simply not the same side.


Long before the days when Leonardo was oozing class in the Milan midfield, he was being utilised everywhere from left-back to right-wing by Tele Santana in order to win trophies with Sao Paulo. Leonardo played a vital role in the 1991 Brazilian league title success before moving to Europe with Valencia. However, he was to return to his homeland in glorious style by scoring in both legs of the ’93 Supercopa Sudamericana, helping Sao Paulo defeat Milan in the famous game of ’93 and even scoring in the ’94 Recopa Sudamericana success over Botafogo before moving to Japan after the ’94 World Cup.

The beginning of Sao Paulo’s continental clean sweep came with their first ever Copa Libertadores win in June 1992 over Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina. A 1-0 defeat away from home was reversed in the home leg in front of a huge crowd though to be upwards of 100,000. Rai’s penalty in normal time was repeated in the shoot-out with Cafu also on target as Sao Paulo finally claimed South America’s greatest club prize. It was to begin a rush of continental trophies that would secure this team’s legacy as one of the greatest the world has seen.

The hero that day had been Rai. A mercurial playmaker of considerable talent, Rai is justifiably regarded as one of Sao Paulo’s greatest ever players. He was later to enjoy success with Paris St Germain but endured a bitter-sweet ’94 World Cup – earning a winners medal but having to relinquish the captaincy to Dunga and sitting on the bench for the final 3 games.  His finest moment, however, surely came 6 months on from that Libertadores success when he led Sao Paulo to victory against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the World Club Championships in that December of 1992. Down 1-0 to a Hristo Stoichkov goal, Rai was not only to equalise but also grab the winner with a picture perfect free-kick late in the 2nd half (shown below with Osmar Santos’ memorable commentary).

After edging past Newell’s Old Boys and Barcelona in 1992, the 1993 Copa Libertadores was to be Sao Paulo’s most emphatic success. Their old rivals Newell’s were dispatched 4-0 in the 2nd leg of their last 16 clash before Flamengo were disposed of in the Quarter Finals. After shutting out Cerro Portero of Paraguay for 3 hours in the Semi-Final, only Universidad Catolica stood in the way of back-to-back Libertadores triumphs. The first leg in front of 100,000 people in the Estadio do Morumbi was to be the final confirmation that Sao Paulo were the kings of South American football. The Chilean outfit were destroyed 5-1 with Rai again amongst the scorers with a beautiful chested goal in what was (for now at least) to be his farewell gift to the club.

Also among the scorers that day was Sao Paulo’s striker supreme, Muller. He, along with fellow attacking force Palhinha, were virtual ever presents through this period of success for Santana’s side. A strong forward of some skill, Muller was already an established star in the game having enjoyed an impressive spell at Torino in Italy as well as scoring for Brazil in the 1990 World Cup. He added the 5th that day against Universidad Catolica with a sumptuous left-footed lob but was to miss out on Sao Paulo next major triumph – the 1993 Recopa Sudamericana.

The Recopa Sudamericana is now the South American equivalent of the European Super Cup. In September 1993 it was contested between Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro over 2 legs. The football was something of a non-event, with both games finishing goal-less, although Sao Paulo’s shoot-out victory was remarkable in that it featured a high-profile penalty miss by Cruzeiro’s teenage sensation, Ronaldo. Zetti, Sao Paulo’s Brazilian international goalkeeper, was to prove the shoot-out hero once more by tipping Ronaldo’s effort over the bar with his left-hand having dived to his right. Cafu was among the 4 scorers for Sao Paulo and the trophy was in the bag. A few weeks later, yet more silverware was to follow with victory in the Supercopa Sudamericana and the emergence of another superstar…

Juninho Paulista had caught the attention of Tele Santana whilst playing against Sao Paulo for minor outfit Ituano in the Sao Paulo state championships. Santana wasted little time in acquiring the young starlet and before long he was exerting his influence at the Estadio do Morumbi. Juninho really took centre-stage in the Supercopa Sudamericana, a competition between previous Libertadores winners, when he scored in both legs of the final against Flamengo. Each game ended 2-2, with returning hero Leonardo also scoring in both legs, before Sao Paulo completed their now customary penalty shoot-out victory (Leonardo, Cafu and Muller all scoring from the spot).

By this point, what may now be seen as the final piece of the jigsaw in the Sao Paulo side was in place. Toninho Cerezo, the rangy midfield dynamo who had been the villain in Tele Santana’s unsuccessful tilt at the ’82 World Cup, was back to play under his old mentor. Cerezo had first played for Santana at Atletico Mineiro as long ago as 1971 and was now 38 years of age. He was, however, a remarkably young 38. He’d proven this by winning Serie A with Sampdoria just a couple of years earlier and then playing in the 1992 European Cup Final for them against Barcelona. Now Santana had persuaded Cerezo to return to his homeland after a decade in Italy. It was a masterstroke by the wily old coach – the veteran midfielder had one final great performance in him.. and he would save it for the grandest of stages.

December 12th 1993, Sao Paulo 3-2 AC Milan

Their finest hour. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan were filling in for the now disgraced 1993 Champions League winners Olympique de Marseille but this did not make Sao Paulo’s task any easier. Far from it in fact. Milan were on their way to winning the 1994 Scudetto by conceding just 15 goals and their season was to culminate in a 4-0 demolition of Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ to clinch the Champions League. That victory would see Milan hailed in Europe as the best team in the world. This was a view unlikely to be shared by their South American counterparts who had keen memories of the match the previous December when Sao Paulo had done battle with Milan in the National Stadium, Tokyo..

There is just so much to enjoy in Sao Paulo’s performance that day. The opener is a thing of beauty as Cerezo sweeps the ball out left before a crossfield ball falls perfectly for Cafu to pull it back behind the much vaunted Milan defence, where Palhinha is waiting to turn home. Milan’s equaliser is less aesthetically pleasing as Sao Paulo fail to clear a long throw before Marcel Desailly lumps an ugly ball into the box for Daniel Massaro to fire home. 1-1. Just before the hour mark Sao Paulo are ahead again as Palhinha finds Leonardo in the inside left channel where he jinks to the byline before finding the mustachioed figure of Cerezo at the far post for his fairytale goal. Again Milan hit back. Roberto Donadoni chips the ball into the box to find Massaro who heads on for Jean-Pierre Papin to nod home. 2-2. Still Sao Paulo are not done. Good work from Leonardo finds Cerezo – who else – and the old man threads a ball in between Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi that the Milan keeper Sebastiano Rossi can only push against Muller for the striker to bundle home. 3-2 and Sao Paulo are the Champions of the World for the 2nd time in succession.

It is a feat yet to be repeated.

There were other good days to follow. The Recopa Sudamericana was won again the following year, 3-1 vs Botafogo with Leonardo on the scoresheet. Shortly after this, Brazil won the World Cup for the first time in 24 years. Zetti, Cafu, Leonardo, Muller, Rai, Ronaldao & Ricardo Rocha were all in the squad. Sadly however, the team was breaking up. Cafu moved to Europe and Cerezo was approaching retirement, while Ronaldao & Leonardo had already agreed deals to head to Japan. Muller followed them to the Far East later that year – but only after amusingly making a fool of Everton manager Mike Walker by pulling the plug on a move to Merseyside just minutes after a press conference had been called. Juninho did pitch up in England with Middlesbrough the following year, joined later (and somewhat less spectacularly) by Doriva – the youngster who’d done much of the covering for Cerezo that day in Japan.

Decline was confirmed when, finally, Sao Paulo were undone by a shoot-out – losing to Velez Sarsfield in the final of the 1994 Copa Libertadores with Jose Luis Chilavert the hero, scoring at one end and saving at the other. The great Sao Paulo side had been knocked off its perch and the players that had taken them there were moving on. For Tele Santana, the glory days were behind him and he was forced to retire in 1996 after suffering a stroke. Ten years later he sadly passed away having left the world with memories of a sensational Brazilian national side that couldn’t quite lift the greatest prize of them all… and a truly wonderful Brazilian club side that most certainly did.




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