Fernando Bellucci will have to sit this one out.
If the Toronto resident had it his way, he would be there when his beloved Palmeiras tries to win the Libertadores, the most important trophy in Latin American football, for a second time.
They’ll face rivals Santos, a three-time winner, at the legendary Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.
Since there won’t be any tickets on sale due to the pandemic, Bellucci, who owns a skyscraper painting company in the Greater Toronto Area, won’t be able to repeat his famous trips to Brazil to watch decisive Palmeiras games.
“My wife only finds out (that I’m on the way to São Paulo) afterwards, when I’ve landed,” said Bellucci on an interview via Zoom.
He was at the Palmeiras’ stadium the last time they faced Santos in a final, for the 2015 Brazil Cup decision.
“I broke my hand drumming the floor tom. The stick broke and I continued playing the instrument with my hand. I felt it was broken the next day.”
The 32-year-old São Paulo native saw his team hoist the trophy that day. Just like he did in 2018, when he flew there again to watch Palmeiras win the 2018 Brazilian league.
“People were calling me crazy, mad”
If you think Bellucci was only there for the good moments, think again.
When Palmeiras got relegated for the second time in 2012, he spent nine months following the team in the 2013 Brazilian second division, sometimes taking 36-hour-long bus rides.
“We sold almost everything here and went there. We saw 36 out of the 38 games. Me, my wife and the two kids, following Palmeiras on the Série B. It’s a craziness that you can’t explain.”
To break down this sentiment is indeed a hard task. Yet, he tries to.
“People were calling me crazy, mad. They would say, ‘what does the team get you in return?’. Man, it’s like loving a child. You do it not expecting anything back,” he said before alluding to the background of the Zoom call – a room full of Palmeiras gear. His full collection includes 267 Palmeiras shirts.
It’ll be the third time in Libertadores history that two Brazilian clubs clash in the final – now a single game decision since 2019 – and the first between two clubs from the same state, and lifelong rivals.
Santos fan Pedro Henrique Pires Lourenço came to Toronto in 2016 to play as a striker for the York Region Shooters in the Ontario Soccer League.
Data from that year’s census profile accounts for 14,705 Brazilian immigrants in Ontario.
Coming from Ourinhos, a city in the countryside of São Paulo 376 kilometres away from beach-side Santos, the closest he’s ever been to his club was a tour in their famous stadium, Vila Belmiro.
“That was some months before I came to Canada. We couldn’t watch a game, but it was emotive to get to know and see the stadium,” said Lourenço.
Lourenço decided to retire from the sport due to an injury in 2019. When the dream of dribbling past the opposition and scoring goals was still alive, Neymar was his inspiration.
“When he scored in the final, I thought ‘one day I want to do that. I want to be like him and score a goal in the Libertadores final’. There’s a lot of memories of seeing the plays he used to make and how the supporters would cheer from him.”
Now considered one of the best players in the world, the Brazilian winger won the Libertadores for Santos in 2011, being named the best player in the competition in the process. It was the first time the club got its hand on the trophy since Pelé lead them to it in 1962 and 1963.
“This time around it was much more unexpected than last time. The squad is good, but nothing like 2011. But you can say they are ‘fighters’ more than that team, for all the challenges they had to go through. This can be a decisive factor for the final,” he says.
Now living in Belleville, Ont., Lourenço named a FIFA transfer ban, late salaries, an impeachment suffered by the former Santos president during the Libertadores campaign, and the pandemic as reasons that made this campaign an unpredictable one.
Another Santos fan, Marcel Pereira da Silva, a 31-year-old construction worker living in Etobicoke is quick to explain what it means to support a club from afar.
“Thank God for the internet,” he said on a Zoom call as he watched Santos play Goiás in the Brazilian league. “I used to always go to games, both in Santos and in São Paulo. I miss it a lot because it was part of my routine to follow it more closely.”
He agrees that not many saw this Santos team making it to the final.
“I don’t know what happens there, if it’s luck or planning. They never sign a lot of players, but always do well in competitions. For this season, the willpower and desire to win made it so that the quality of the team was not that important. Palmeiras is ahead when it comes to the squad, but Santos has a chance.”
Santos manager Cuca won the Libertadores in 2013 with Atlético Mineiro, a team that had the legendary Ronaldinho Gaucho and propelled youngster Bernard, now a Premier League winger with Everton.
This time around, wingers Marinho and Yeferson Soteldo, from Venezuela, are his stars. They have combined for six goals and three assists in 12 Libertadores games so far.
Passion over distance
Engineer Ivan Queiroz de Souza has lived in Mexico, France and Greece before coming to Toronto. A Palmeiras fan, he never let the distance come in the way of following his team.
“In France, it was difficult because of the time difference,” said Queiroz. “Brazilian league games there happen late at night, but I’m always following the games and news.”
The Etobicoke resident believes in the new Palmeiras manager, Portuguese Abel Ferreira, who was hired in late October and has registered a 4-1-1 record in the Libertadores knockout stage.
“He gave a new look to the team. Some players who were discredited, started performing well. But it will be a difficult game. If we win 1-0, we’ll take it and consider it a blowout”.
Palmeiras is also in the Brazil Cup final and will play Grêmio in home and away games with the dates yet to be announced.
The Libertadores final kicks-off at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.