Time will tell if Seedorf can Samba

Sun, Jul 29 2012


After three weeks of unprecedented anticipation, on 22 July, Brazilian football got its newest superstar.


Botafogo were playing Grêmio at the Engenhão in Rio de Janeiro.  The attendance that day was 34,621.  Away fans are uncommon at Brazilian league matches, owing to the massive travelling distances involved.  For example, Grêmio's fans would have to make a 3,000km trip to make it from their home city of Porto Alegre to Rio and back again.  So the overwhelming majority of those fans were undoubtedly cheering for the home team.  


That night's attendance was double the attendance of Botafogo's previous home game, a local derby with title-chasing Fluminense.  The game against Grêmio was only the third time this season Botafogo has had an attendance of more than seven thousand at a home game.   The other two games, with Fluminense and Bahia (20,746), were both played in the last month.


So where has the sudden surge in Botafogo's support come from?  It's quite simple: A single man is responsible for all this.


That man is Clarence Seedorf.  


We all know who he is and what he is capable of, even if he is entering the autumn years of his career.  He is the only player to have won the Champions League with three different clubs.  He was named in Pele's FIFA 100 list and in Real Madrid's Team of the Century.  He has played for three of the world's most famous clubs and was crucial to each of those sides' successes while there.  


He also made 87 appearances for the Netherlands national side, playing in major tournaments.  He is a household name in Europe and has consistently been one of the highest-rated midfielders in football.


So who are Botafogo then?  


They are one of Brazil's most famous clubs, while simultaneously being one of the least successful of that group.  They are one of the big four teams in Rio, but they are the smallest.  


Their greatest period of sustained success came during the early 60's when another midfield magician led the side: Garrincha.  The celebrated winger, who proved crucial in Brazil's World Cup triumphs of '58 and '62, scored 243 times in 612 games for Botafogo.  He was joined by Brazilian's first-choice left-back of the time, Nílton Santos, and Botafogo's record goalscorer, Quarentinha, who scored 306 times in 444 apperances.  


In this period, they won a host of local and national tournaments.  They are something of a sleeping giant in Brazilian football and also like a small club that's seemingly punching above its weight.  Their greatest success, winning the Brazilian title, came in 1995 in a period which had seen them win two major tournaments in almost twenty-five years.


On 30 June, Botafogo officially announced the signing of Seedorf on a two-year deal.  The week before, less than seven thousand fans watched Botafogo host Ponte Preta.  The week after the announcement, over twenty thousand turned up for a match against Bahia, even though Seedorf wasn't even playing.  


Because of complications with visas and registration, Seedorf was unable to make his debut until the 22nd of July.  Seedorf was presented to the crowd before the Bahia game and, in the time since, he has been an ever-present in the Brazilian media.  


His progress in training and his adapting to the Brazilian way of things has been noted in its entirety, including his arrest for driving without a Brazilian license.  When he had his first training session, cameras were there to pick up footage of his three 'golaços' (Portguese for 'great goals').  Today, even, Lance!, the Brazilian sports newspaper, have an interview with him on the topic of racism.


While there are superstars in Brazilian football, they are almost entirely Brazilian and, if they are really good, they will be lured to Europe.  There is a growing trend of youngsters staying in Brazil, though.  Neymar, arguably the most famous footballer not playing in Europe, seems more than content to stay at Santos for the foreseeable future.  


However, few European superstars make the switch to Brazil, the country most identifiable with football.  Seedorf is the biggest name to do so and, perhaps, it could be a shot in the arm or the beginning of a new era, much like the arrival of David Beckham in the MLS.


So what effect is this having on Botafogo?  


André Accioly is a a 23-year-old lawyer.  He has been a Botafogo fan since the day he was born.  His first Botafogo game was a semi-final defeat in the Copa do Brasil in 1998.  Botafogo drew 2-2 with Palmeiras but lost 4-2 on penalties.  For him, there's something different about following Botafogo.


"Supporting Botafogo is way different than supporting any other team.  Like Armando Nogueira used to say: 'Botafogo is much more than a club - it's a predestined star'.”


André believes that Seedorf's signing could prove to be the most important ever in Brazilian football. He points at the surge in support to justify this.  


When I ask him what Seedorf will do for the side, he replies: "I don't know, man.  Time will tell."