Welcome back to another edition of the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, Robinho returns to Santos — and sparks fierce debate in Brazil, after the forward’s rape conviction in 2017. And Cruzeiro, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, are beginning to sink without a trace. Enjoy your read!
Talent always gets another chance
Under normal circumstances, it would be a reason for celebration. Robinho, who got his start at Santos before taking on European football and breaking into the Brazil national team, has now returned once again to his boyhood club. He will surrender the large salary he was earning at Turkish side Istanbul Başakşehir FK, taking a minimum wage at Santos until the end of the year. However, the public discourse is not about a prodigal son’s return, focusing instead on events that occurred in Milan in 2013.
- In October 2014, Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport published revelations of Robinho’s involvement in the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old Albanian woman at a Milanese nightclub, during his spell playing for AC Milan.
The case. Three years later, while Robinho was back in Brazil playing for Atlético-MG, the player was tried in absentia and was found guilty, with Italian courts sentencing him to nine years in prison. Due to Italy’s lengthy appeals process — not too dissimilar to what is seen in Brazil — the sentence is pending and the player is not a fugitive from justice.
The debate. Pundits and fans have rushed to condemn Santos for resigning Robinho, questioning the message transmitted by employing an individual convicted of rape, and lauding him as a hero. By and large, however, Santos supporters and the club itself have defended Robinho’s reputation, claiming his innocence and celebrating the return of a fans’ favorite.
Quandary. In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have assessed the ethical questions behind football clubs employing players who had been convicted of crimes. The example of the time was Bruno Fernandes, once the most talented goalkeeper in Brazil and national champion with Flamengo, who was sentenced to 22 years in jail for ordering the kidnapping, torture, and murder of his ex-girlfriend Eliza Samúdio. After six years behind bars, he was granted release due to the delays in his appeal process, and he has bounced around a number of small Brazilian football teams, in a series of controversial signings.
- The Robinho situation is different, in that he has yet to serve any punishment for the crime, and the legal case is technically still ongoing. However, while playing for Istanbul Başakşehir, Robinho refused to travel with the team for continental matches away from home, reportedly for fear of being arrested.
No moral judgment. Indeed, by the letter of the law, Robinho remains at liberty until proven guilty by a final and unappealable decision. However, as with Bruno being repeatedly resigned by small-time Brazilian clubs, the problem here is that the ethical ramifications of signing Robinho have never been taken into account by Santos. As opposed to offering an opportunity to someone they believe to be innocent and is awaiting appeal, Robinho has been signed for purely business and footballing reasons.
Under the carpet. Speaking to newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Santos president Orlando Rollo said criticism of Robinho’s signing came from “jealous” fans of other clubs, and played down the player’s conviction. “Who are we to throw stones at Robinho? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said.
Talent gets a second chance. Brazilian football — along with many professional sports leagues around the world — is full of cases of players continuing lucrative careers despite criminal convictions. Indeed, if we go back to 1987, Santos’ current manager Cuca — then a player for Porto Alegre side Grêmio — was convicted of the rape of a 13-year-old girl during a pre-season tour of Switzerland. He never served time and went on to have an illustrious career in playing and management. Where there is talent, there will always be a club willing to give a second chance.
Cruzeiro hit an iceberg
In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have covered the plight of Belo Horizonte football club Cruzeiro, mired in corruption investigations, Fifa punishments, and eventually relegation at the end of 2019 — the first time the club has dropped below Brazil’s first division. But just when it seemed that Cruzeiro had sunk as far as they could go, the giants plumbed new depths.
Double relegation? Approaching the halfway point of the season in Brazil’s second division, Cruzeiro are currently 19th in the table, seeing their hopes of a quick bounce-back to the top flight slip away — and staring the terrifying threat of dropping down to the third division in the face. The club, with an estimated 8.4 million fans, has won only two of their last 11 matches, and they are now looking for their seventh manager in the space of 14 months after binning latest coach Ney Franco.
Fall from grace. Beyond being one of the Big Two clubs in Brazil’s second most-populous state of Minas Gerais, Cruzeiro are in this mess despite being one of the most victorious clubs of the 2010s. They were national champions in 2013 and 2014, and grabbed the Copa do Brasil trophy in 2017 and 2018.
Reap what you sow. The desperation of the situation was perhaps best summed up by Cruzeiro’s long-serving goalkeeper and captain Fábio, in a post-match interview off the back of another embarrassing home defeat. “We are reaping what we have sown. (…) There has been terrible administration [of the club] for a long time, the titles hide that. And now it’s blowing up on the people who are here at Cruzeiro. The others who made a lot of errors have all jumped ship and the responsibility was left to us. (…) We’re here, but everyone who made bad decisions in the past is watching at home.”
Relegation: a chance for rebirth? Unlike major European leagues, big teams in Brazil are no strangers to the dreadful fate of relegation. Of the current top flight, only Flamengo, Santos, and São Paulo have never once dropped below the top division, with the rest all having their spells in the second tier.
- With this, comes an often overlooked silver lining: big sides are put under less pressure in the second division, playing against weaker opponents and with less of a media spotlight. As such, they can go about rebuilding their squads, restructuring wage bills, and coming back stronger than before.
- However, with constant chopping and changing and no real stability at the top, Cruzeiro are not benefitting from the extra breathing room allowed by second-division football. The giant club is now facing another year outside of the top flight, which would extend even further if they are relegated for a second time.
What else you should know
- Internationals. Brazil kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign with an easy 5-0 home win over Bolivia on Friday. The team are likely to face sterner competition tonight against Peru in Lima, but Tite’s men are fully expected to come away with two wins in two.
- Corinthians. The women’s side of São Paulo giants Corinthians gained increased attention last week, after footage of a spectacular team goal they scored in mid-September went viral worldwide on social media. Maiara’s finish after a wonderfully flowing passing move was called “the best goal we’ve ever seen” by popular football Twitter account FootballJOE.
- The Robson Case. In March 2019, Brazilian citizen Robson Oliveira was arrested in Russia for entering the country while in possession of controlled substances, reportedly requested by the family of Spartak Moscow footballer Fernando, who employed Mr. Oliveira at the time. The substance in question was methadone chlorhydrate — commonly used for the treatment of heroin addiction but also found in chronic pain medication. It is a banned substance in Russia and Mr. Oliveira has been in jail ever since. However, the case took on a new twist last week, when Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to speak with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in order to negotiate Mr. Oliveira’s return to Brazil. The case will be dealt with in full in future editions of the Brazil Sports newsletter.