Brazil’s triumph at the football World Cup in 1958 was immediately ranked among the country’s greatest achievements up to that point. Beyond elevating Brazil to the top table of international football, it provided a significant boost of self-esteem for the entire country. In the words of famous playwright Nelson Rodrigues, the World Cup win ended Brazil’s “stray dog complex,” serving as a much-needed pick-me-up after losing the tournament at home in 1950.
But very few people were able to watch the 1958 World Cup on television. Supporters listened to the matches on the radio, waiting days before being able to see grainy highlights on the news. In that respect, the world only started seeing the Brazilian national team in action as of the 1960s — which goes some way to explaining why the 1970 World Cup-winning team was so revered, as opposed to the champions in 1958 or 1962.
In the 1950s, the only way for audiences in Europe to see Brazilian players in action was to bring Brazilian club sides over the Atlantic Ocean to play exhibition matches. And not long after the 1958 World Cup, Spanish giants Real Madrid did just that, inviting the club it believed to be the champions of Brazil for a high-profile friendly at the Santiago Bernebéu stadium.
Selling out the Bernabéu
With flyers plastered on walls all over the Spanish capital and huge press coverage, the match between Real Madrid and the “champions of Brazil” was the talk of the town. Eighty thousand paying spectators filled the stands of the Santiago Bernabéu to see its star-studded team — including such greats as Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, and Francisco Gento — take on their opponents from Brazil. But the fans and players were in for a surprise.
The “Brazilian champions” were not champions at all. The guests of honor were part-time side Bela Vista Futebol Clube, from the small southeastern town of Sete Lagoas. Far from being champions, Bela Vista had never once won a trophy and spent their 32 years of existence without ever playing in a national Brazilian tournament. But there they were, in the Santiago Bernabéu, about to take on one of the most fabled clubs in football history.
The mysterious agent
The man behind bringing Bela Vista over to Spain to play in the Bernabéu was a shady football agent named “Mr. Fauszlinger,” a German man who never revealed his first name. Taking advantage of European clubs’ ignorance about Brazilian football, Mr. Fauszlinger managed to sell a bumper 30-match exhibition tour, in which the tiny Bela Vista would take on clubs from all around the continent.
He billed the Sete Lagoas club as “the greatest team in Brazil,” despite Bela Vista being almost completely unknown in their home state of Minas Gerais.
However, once the ball started rolling, Bela Vista were able to give the greats of Real Madrid a decent game, despite the massive disparity in quality between the sides.
The game was closely contested, with Real Madrid winning 2-1 thanks to a stoppage-time goal from Francisco Gento.
The dream cut short
From Spain, Bela Vista traveled to the south of France, where cracks began to form within the club’s part-time delegation. After losing 3-1 to Olympique Marseille, coach Orlando Rodrigues and several club board members visited a local racetrack. They enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to abandon the European tour, spending the rest of their time (and money) betting on horses.
With the players let loose in a completely unknown world, without a coach, it was a matter of time before Bela Vista’s performances on the pitch went downhill.
The team still had matches scheduled in Italy, Switzerland, East and West Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and England. And they managed to honor most of their commitments, even with a depleted squad. Forwards Assis and Marinho deserted the club in the middle of the tour, seduced by offers to play for European clubs.
Despite the adversities, Bela Vista continued proudly playing match after match against traditional European opponents, such as Grasshoppers (1-1), Bologna (2-3), and Hamburg (0-1).
The death blow eventually came in England, when Bela Vista lost 12-1 to Newcastle United in front of 25,000 fans at St. James’ Park. This drubbing sounded the alarm among Brazil’s sporting authorities, who had been receiving regular telegrams about the previously unknown “Brazilian champions” and their European tour. Upon hearing the scoreline, the Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded Bela Vista return to Brazil, so as not to “dirty the name of Brazilian football abroad.”
After the warning from the government, Bela Vista played another four matches in Europe — losing all four — before returning to Brazil to compete in the Minas Gerais state championship of 1958. On their European odyssey, Bela Vista won three matches, drawing two, and losing 19, scoring 29 goals and conceding 74.
Upon arrival in Sete Lagoas in October 1958, Bela Vista’s players and staff were surprised to see the local population lining the city’s streets to welcome them home. The delegation was paraded around town, with a banner from one local fan summing up the mood of the celebration: “They can talk bad about us, but at least they’re talking about Bela Vista.”