Rituals, superstitions, and Brazilian football

. Apr 27, 2020
Rituals, superstitions, and Brazilian football Photo: Daniel Augusto Jr. / Ag. Corinthians

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, with relegated Cruzeiro getting into debt with a priest, we look back at the history of superstition and faith in football, featuring a curious tale about a toad. Also, São Paulo’s Pacaembu stadium turns 80 years old, and we pay tribute to a true temple of football, and an architectural gem. Enjoy your read!

Priests and toads: superstition in Brazilian football

In their unsuccessful fight against relegation in 2019, Belo Horizonte club Cruzeiro hired the services of Reginaldo Muller Pádua, a pai-de-santo. In the Afro-Brazilian religions Umbanda and Candomblé, a pai-de-santo is a priest figure who is in charge of contacting spiritual deities known as orishas, and administering blessings and counsel.

After employing Mr. Pádua, Cruzeiro beat São Paulo 1-0 and the pai-de-santo received the first installment of the BRL 10,000 fee agreed upon with the club. Cruzeiro then went on to have their best run of the season, going eight games unbeaten and, for the first time in 2019, it appeared they might just escape relegation.

However, after paying Mr. Pádua 60 percent of the agreed value, Cruzeiro were defeated by bottom-of-the-table CSA, and relegation looked near impossible to avoid. The club stopped paying their pai-de-santo and never did manage to recover. When the Brazilian championship starts up again, Cruzeiro will be playing in the second division for the first time in their 99-year history.

And they still have to pay their priest.

Though talk of rituals and spirits might sound somewhat unorthodox for a European or American audience, Brazilian football actually has a long and rich history of superstition — which only adds to the mystique of the sport.

For one of the most famous — and almost certainly confabulated — tales of curses and superstition in Brazilian football, we have to go back to the 1930s and Arubinha’s Toad.

In 1937, reigning Rio de Janeiro state champions Vasco da Gama were set to play away from home against the lowly Andaraí, from the north of the city. On their way to the match, one of the cars transporting Vasco’s delegation was involved in a car crash, delaying the team’s arrival for several hours. Andaraí were left waiting in the rain, and despite having the right to be awarded the points, the club agreed to play the game as normal, only asking that Vasco — the best team in the state at the time — did not take advantage of their goodwill.

Despite benefitting from this act of good sportsmanship, Vasco’s players showed no restraint whatsoever and destroyed Andaraí on the pitch, with the game finishing 12-0. Incensed, one of the defeated players, Arubinha, knelt on the touchline and prayed to the heavens, cursing Vasco to go for 12 years without winning a single trophy: one year for each goal. 

Legend has it that Arubinha completed the jinx by burying a toad underneath the pitch at Vasco’s São Januário stadium.

Vasco paid little notice to the threat until they began losing championship after championship. Their paranoia was pushed so far that the club actually dug up their pitch, looking for Arubinha’s toad, but there was nothing to be found.

In 1945, nine years after the fateful 12-0 against Andaraí, Vasco sought out Arubinha, begging him to dig up his toad and lift the curse. He claimed he had never actually gotten around to burying an amphibian under the São Januário turf, and promised that Vasco’s hoodoo had been lifted. Sure enough, a matter of months later, Vasco lifted the Rio de Janeiro state championship trophy once more.

80 years of the Pacaembu

Pacaembu today. Photo: Prefsp via Fotos Publicas
Pacaembu today. Photo: Prefsp via Fotos Publicas

On April 27, 1940, the São Paulo municipal government inaugurated the Pacaembu stadium. The largest stadium in Latin America at the time, its doors were opened by President Getúlio Vargas and the construction symbolized the country’s plan to build a strong nation through sporting prowess. 

Modeled on the Olympiastadion in Berlin, the Pacaembu stadium was an Art Deco masterpiece, with an imposing, dramatic façade, sweeping horseshoe terraces, and an acoustical shell at one end for musical performances.

It hosted matches at the 1950 World Cup and went on to become one of the most iconic symbols of football around Brazil, principally in São Paulo.

Today, 80 years on from its opening, the Pacaembu is being used for a different function. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the pitch has been transferred into a field hospital, underlining the importance of the stadium not just as a football venue, but as a piece of the city’s heritage.

This link is reinforced at every football match staged there, as the stadium announcer begins every event with an emotional welcome to “my, your, and our Pacaembu.”

And seeing a game at the Pacaembu is a unique experience. In many ways, the stadium is much the same as the one that hosted matches at the 1950 World Cup and then renovated in the 1960s, removing the acoustic shell and replacing it with a steep standalone terrace fondly nicknamed the Toboggan, from which stadium-goers can enjoy a superb view of the pitch, the stadium, and the surrounding city.

Last year, as part of the local government’s divestment project, the Pacaembu stadium was finally sold to the private sector. By law, it is no longer “mine, yours, or ours,” instead belonging to faceless consortium Allegra. The plan — before the coronavirus outbreak saw it requisitioned once more by the local government and turned into a hospital — was to renovate all of the old terraces and knock down the Toboggan, making way for a shopping center.

Perhaps now, with the people of São Paulo remembering just how dear the stadium is to their hearts, the consortium may have a change of heart. 

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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