The King of Palmeiras
Ademir da Guia looks back on a hugely successful career played out in the shadow of Pelé
"You're here to interview Ademir da Guia?" asks the clearly intrigued Clemente Pereira Júnior, an elderly and rather wealthy-looking ex-vice president of the club, who had struck up conversation as we lingered by the gates of the Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras. "Well, I can tell you a thing or two about him. Ademir was the second greatest player I've ever seen, after Pelé. He used to glide across the pitch, football was easy for him."
We'd been waiting for quite a while, but Brazil being Brazil two thirty can mean any time before four. Bruno, the club-historian-cum-press-officer sent to greet us at the gate, had already had time to give us a full guided tour of the place: perusing the busts of selected club legends near the entrance, including Ademir's, which takes pride of place, taking in the wood-floored hall that doubles up as a venue for futsal and volleyball, passing the pristine tennis courts and swimming pool, before finally arriving at the sparkling five-storey building that houses a gym, two restaurants and a plethora of rooms for everything from judo to zumba as well as the entire administrative staff.
Palmeiras, like most clubs in Brazil, is just that, a sports club. Or a 'Sporting Society', as their full name would have it. It just so happens that their professional football department is one of the biggest and most successful in the country.
We are here to meet their most distinguished member, a man who played 901 (or 902, Bruno insists, depending on whether or not you count a friendly he featured in after having officially retired) matches for the football team during the most successful period in their history and appeared 14 times for Brazil. For someone who was the second-best player that Clemente Pereira Júnior had ever seen, that number of caps seems meagre. Why?
"It was all political," he says, shaking his head, "at that time there was huge rivalry between the [state football] federations. So, they picked players because of that. But you couldn't leave Pelé out, of course." And with that, his chauffeur arrives to whisk him off to some gathering of influential, moneyed types.
A few more minutes elapse before Ademir eventually appears through the gate, dressed in a sports jacket and t-shirt with close fitting jeans and a golf-resort baseball cap perched on top of his wispy, paper-white hair. He looks sprightly for his age and, as he saunters across, he offers a friendly "Hello", in English, obviously amused by the fact that two young(ish) men from the other side of the Atlantic have requested an audience.
"Where do you want to do the interview?" he asks. "There's a bench over there, or we can do it walking, or running." He still looks like he could outpace all three of us, despite the 40-odd year age gap, so Bruno kindly suggests that we go to a quiet room in the aforementioned glistening edifice.
On the walk towards it, Ademir greets all and sundry with a smile and a wave and regales us with an anecdote about his only visit to Britain, when he was 19 and playing for his first club, Bangu, a traditional but modest outfit from Rio de Janeiro. He couldn’t recall which teams they played or exactly where they went, but noted that he was enamoured with London and that it was more than a tad chilly.
For the record, they took on Sunderland, Everton, Crystal Palace, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen over the space of ten days in April 1961. It was part of a bigger European tour that saw Bangu tick off games across Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Scandinavia, including a 4-3 loss to Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
Ademir had already established himself as a regular feature of the Bangu first team after leading their youth side to glory in 1959. "That was when we were Rio champions," he tells us. "Then there was a tournament in New York and they took four of the players who had been champions in the youth team, and from then on things started to get quite a bit better."
Ademir, it becomes clear, is a master of understatement. He went to New York for the International Soccer League and was named player of the tournament, leading Bangu to victories over the likes of Sampdoria, Crvena Zvezda and Sporting, before defeating Kilmarnock in the final.
His talent was no surprise to anyone back home, however. There, he’d already been talked up as a potential future star for some time. When still just 17, and yet to make his professional debut, the weekly magazine Revista do Esporte ran a four-page feature dedicated to him . Given that his father, Domingos da Guia, was one of the preeminent Brazilian footballers of his generation, the furore around his emergence was understandable.
Domingos, after also coming through the ranks at Bangu, had gone on to play for Vasco Da Gama, Nacional of Montevideo, Boca Juniors, Flamengo and Corinthians, winning trophies at each and every club, including national titles in Uruguay and Argentina. Ademir, though, only witnessed the twilight years of his father's career.
"I was born in 1942 and in 1944, my dad, who was playing for Flamengo, came to play for Corinthians,” he said. “My dad played four years at Corinthians. We arrived here in ’44, when I was two, and my dad stopped in ’48, so I don’t remember too much of him playing because I was only six [when he retired]. But what I heard is that my dad went to the World Cup in 1938, I think they lost to Italy. I just remember that his fame was enormous, people said that he was a very technical centre-back… He played in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Rio and in São Paulo. He was a really versatile and technically competent player. It’s just a shame that they weren’t world champions, they lost to Italy and finished in third place."
That World Cup in France was a key moment in the history of Brazilian football. It was the first to be broadcast live on the radio across the nation, therefore spreading the popularity of the game, and Domingos was one of its outstanding players. According to David Goldblatt, in his book Futebol Nation, "This time Brazil were the only South American side at the tournament and the two undisputed stars of the squad were black: striker Leônidas da Silva – the Black Diamond – and central defender Domingos da Guia."
Both were included in the team of the tournament and their race was particularly significant at a time when Brazil was desperately trying to deal with questions of its own identity; the mix of African, Native American and European cultures being a central part of the discourse. The sociologist Gilberto Freyre, a towering but contested figure of Brazilian academia, had published his magnum opus Casa-Grande & Senzala – Big House & Slave-Quarters – just five years previously.
The work was hugely influential and dealt with the relationship between black slaves and their white owners on Brazil's sugar plantations, painting a now-discredited picture of (relative) harmony and racial miscegenation that led to a new, exclusively Brazilian identity: a positive and non-discriminatory racial democracy that differentiated Brazil from other countries and in particular from the United States.
Freyre, an avid football fan and writer, wrote in the Correio da Manhã newspaper the day before the Seleção's 2-1 semi-final defeat to Italy, “Our style of football seems to contrast with the European style because of a set of characteristics such as surprise, craftiness, shrewdness, readiness and I shall say individual brilliance and spontaneity, all of which express our 'mulattoism' ['mixed-raceness'].”
As well as his father, Ademir's uncles were professionals at Rio's leading clubs. "There were four and all four played. They played for Flamengo, for Bangu, but I don’t have a lot of memories. At that time there wasn’t television, there was only the radio." None of the other three had quite the success of Domingos, although Ladislau da Guia remains Bangu’s all-time leading goal-scorer with 229 goals in 333 games between 1922 and 1940.
It was not a coincidence that the brothers found themselves pulling on the red-and-white-striped shirt of Bangu, given the club's reputation as a pioneer for black, working-class footballers. Indeed, it was Bangu that fielded the first black player in an official football match in Brazil, when Francisco Carregal was part of the team that defeated Fluminense 5-3 on 14 May 1905. In 1907, the Liga Metropolitana, Rio's foremost championship at the time, banned the inclusion of black players in affiliated clubs' squads and Bangu, rather than acquiescing, decided that they would abandon the league.
The dispute based around the race and social standing of the players rumbled on for some time and as late as 1924 Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminense and America-RJ split from the Liga Metropolitana in protest after Vasco da Gama won the tournament with a team that included several black, mixed-race and working-class members. The elite clubs would not permit Vasco's entrance into their breakaway Associação Metropolitana de Esportes Athleticos, using the excuse that they did not possess their own stadium. They did, however, offer Vasco exemption from this demand on the condition that they removed 12 players from their squad. All of those 12, of course, were the black and working-class players who had helped them to the title.
His family's standing within the game, and especially at Bangu (Domingos's name is even included in the official club anthem), helped a young Ademir take his first steps in his chosen profession, a fact not lost on the man himself. "My beginnings were interesting. We lived in Bangu and we had a group of lads in our neighbourhood and every afternoon we’d meet up on this big bit of land to play football. One day one of my mates said, ‘Let’s go for a trial at Bangu.’ So both of us went for the trial.
"We arrived at Bangu, we trained and then the coach called me over and asked, ‘Are you Domingos’s son?’ I said, ‘I am,’ and he said, ‘Blimey, your dad’s a close friend of mine, we played together here.’ I asked, ‘Am I going to stay?’ and he said, ‘Yes, you can.’ And then everything was a bit easier because the coach was my dad’s friend. I stayed at Bangu and so did my mate and we started to play. In truth, though, at the beginning my dad helped me a lot. If I wasn’t his son that coach wouldn't even have wanted to know who I was. Are you Domingos’s son? I am, yes. Then it was all easier [laughs]. The start of any profession is difficult and at the start my dad really did help."
Indeed, the manager who handed Ademir his professional debut, Elba de Pádua Lima, better known simply as Tim, was a team-mate of Domingos at the 1938 World Cup. That maiden outing came on a visit to São Paulo state and would prove instrumental in the young player's future.
"In 1960, we played two friendlies in Campinas. We played on the Wednesday against Ponte Preta and on the Sunday against Guarani. And the Guarani coach, who was Renganeschi, went to Palmeiras after. Having seen me play in Campinas, he put my name forward in order for Guarani to buy me. But Bangu didn’t sell me. After that, he came to Palmeiras in 1961 and kept on recommending me. Then, Bangu granted my passage in August of 1961 to Palmeiras because of this coach who liked my style of play."
Even though Ademir went to Palmeiras at the request of the coach, he still had to fight for his place in the side. "I played in a team that was pretty small in Rio because Rio had Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo,” he said. “So Bangu was a small force. And coming to Palmeiras, that was a team accustomed to being champions, at 19 years old, just a boy… So, for me it was a great difference, coming from a small team to one that contained players who played in the World Cup, who had been champions in ’59 against Pelé’s Santos, the impact it made on me was huge. But what was good for me was that I had some time to adapt. Because, when I arrived, we were playing Chinesinho [in my position]. Chinesinho played in the 1962 World Cup but was later sold to Italy.
"When we were crowned state champions, in ’63, I became a first-team player and this time to adapt was incredibly important as I was able to get used to futebol paulista – a type of football that was much faster and more physical, and the teams from the countryside were very difficult to beat. But it was a change that was very important for me; to change my style of play."
That style, Ademir's grace, poise and tranquility on the pitch are what earned him his nickname: O Divino – the Divine One – and also won him the Campeonato Paulista’s player of the tournament gong in his inaugural season as part of the Palmeiras first team. That elegance, and the nickname, were things he had in common with his father, who in his day had been referred to as the Divine Master in the Brazilian press. When asked which modern player has similar traits, he pauses for thought, but Miro Moraes, another club historian who has joined us in the room, immediately pipes up with the response: "For people who never saw Ademir play, I would compare him to Zidane."
"Zidane?" Ademir ponders, before adding another comparison. "Yeah, that’s true. There was a difference, Rivellino and Zidane were players who played from the middle to the front. I was obliged to come back and mark. We only had one defensive midfielder, so I had to get back and then get up front. Today the more technical players play further forward, they don’t come back... Zidane headed well as well, he scored goals with his head, he was a sensational midfielder."
Once more, the mind boggles as to how the supposed Zizou of his generation could continually fail to secure a starting berth for the national team. You’ll hear no conspiracy theories out of Ademir, though, who instead prefers to put this down to the embarrassment of riches Brazil boasted in the centre of the park during his era: “We had Gérson who was more less in the same position. Rivellino. We had Dirceu Lopes, more or less the same position. We had Dicá, we had Zenon. We had great midfielders here in Brazil who didn’t have the chance to break into the national team. Great midfielders from futebol mineiro, gaúcho, the countryside of São Paulo state. Rio. Very technical players.”
Overlooked for Mexico 1970, despite having won both the national title in '69 and the then highly-regarded Ramón de Carranza Trophy in Spain, secured via a 2-0 victory over Real Madrid in the final, Ademir would only be called up for the following World Cup in West Germany, which the hosts were to claim for themselves.
That tournament featured a second group phase, with the winners of each pool qualifying for the final. Ademir watched from the bench as, in the ultimate dethroning of one highly-regarded, revolutionary approach by another, Total Football usurped o jogo bonito at the apex of the international game with Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff getting the goals in a 2-0 win for the Netherlands. Ademir was given his only start of the campaign in the third-place play-off, a second successive loss, this time against Poland. “It was a shame that Pelé didn’t come as we missed his presence,” he said.
It was Rivellino who had received the nod ahead of Ademir throughout and had been pivotal in prolonging Brazil’s involvement in proceedings. After scoreless draws against Yugoslavia and Scotland, the Corinthians star became Brazil’s top scorer of the tournament with vital goals against Zaire, his country’s sole successful effort against East Germany and then the opener in a 2-1 defeat of Argentina.
After the shock of the defeat to the Netherlands, Brazil abandoned the attractive, passing style that had won them the World Cup in 1970. With the Seleção under the control of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-85 and ex-army captain Cláudio Coutinho installed as manager, they opted to combat the physical, high-pressing game they had encountered in West Germany with their own version of the same system, based on military-style preparation and organisation .
When asked about the effect the dictatorship had on football in Brazil during his playing days, however, Ademir is fairly ambivalent. "No, I don’t think it had any influence for us, who played in the Paulista and Carioca championships. What did change a bit with the military [dictatorship], was that there was a Brazilian championship [in 1974] … that had 40 teams. This meant that the championship was truly national, in all of Brazil."
This was a policy designed by the military to increase its popularity in the vast North and North-East regions of the country and, Ademir continues, "It gave us the chance to go to lots of places. Normally, you only had [teams from] Rio, São Paulo, Minas and the South, and then Coritiba came in, but it was extended to a lot of [state] capitals. So, we went to Manaus, we went to play in Bahia … In this sense, it changed a bit… But I think it was good because it gave opportunities to players from the North, it was a way for them to show their football."
Despite being second choice behind Rivellino in West Germany in '74, at club level Ademir would come out on top. It was a year that produced the fondest memory of not just the rivalry between Palmeiras and Corinthians, but of his career. “What I remember the most was in ‘74 when we had the chance to play a [Campeonato Paulista] final against [Corinthians]. They’d last won [a title] in 1954, making it 20 years, and they were sure the championship was theirs, but our team was really good. We played them in the Morumbi and if I’m not mistaken there were 120,000 in attendance. I think 80% of them were Corinthians fans because they really believed they would end their trophy drought.
“We managed to win this game, and, without a doubt, it was important for us to leave them waiting once more and their drought went 21, 22, 23 years until they won in '77 against Ponte.”
Deemed culpable for his side falling short, Rivellino was made a pariah and driven out of Corinthians. “For their players it was really bad,” Ademir said. “Rivellino, the craque of the team, never played again after that. He went to Fluminense. But it wasn’t his fault. Sometimes mistakes happen. A goalkeeper makes a mistake. A defender makes a mistake. But it’s a team effort. When you lose, 11 lose. When you win, 11 win.”
With back-to-back Brazilian championships in ’72 and ’73 to add to Paulistão conquests in ’72 and ’74, this was a Palmeiras side – fondly remembered as the Esquadrão Imortal (Immortal Squadron) – at the height of its powers during the golden years of the club’s second academia de futebol. “We had two academias. The first one was with Filpo Núñez, but it had great names. It had Djalma Santos, Djalma Dias, Vavá, Chinesinho. It was really a great team. I arrived while this team was at its peak and, as I explained, was made to wait a year and a half to be able to get in.
"The second was under Osvaldo Brandão and started in 1972. It was a team that played the most times with the same coach and won the most titles. Most fans of Corinthians, Santos and Palmeiras remember it: Leão, Eurico, Luís Pereira, Alfredo and Zeca; Dudu, Ademir and Leivinha; Edu Bala, César Maluco and Nei. It was a team that as well as winning two Brazilian titles, won two state championships, various tournaments, tournaments in Spain against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Carranza.”
As Bruno and Miro nerdily giggle at the question of what Ademir would be worth in today’s hyper-inflated transfer market, we ponder whether these emphatically successful sojourns to foreign climes ever resulted in Europe’s elite attempting to open negotiations for the capture of his signature. “No,” he cuts us off. “Here, you know, at that time, there were some players that were non-negotiable. When we won the Carranza Trophy, it was very complicated for Leivinha and Luís Pereira to leave for Atlético Madrid. Palmeiras didn’t want them to go, but I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Me, for example, I stayed 17 years and Dudu stayed for 12. At that time, players stayed at their clubs for longer.”
This decision to keep Ademir at Parque Antártica paid dividends as the club enjoyed the most trophy-laden years of its history, a feat all the more impressive considering the main rivalry at the time was not played out between Palmeiras and Corinthians, but rather the former and Pelé’s Santos.
“The games against Santos were really complicated,” he said. “Something horrible, something difficult. Mark Pelé? How am I going to mark Pelé? I sent Dudu to mark him, didn’t I? … You had to put two men on him, then you had to mark Edu, you had to mark Pepe. Santos had that attack; Dorval, Mengálvio, Coutinho, Pelé, Pepe. That attack was really dangerous. So, we trained and tried to find a way to neutralise them. The Santos defence was never very good, but the attack was incredible. So, we tried to defend, I was an attacking midfielder and had to defend as well, we tried to neutralise the attack. If we hadn’t won in ’63 and ’66, Santos would have been [São Paulo state] champions from 1960 to 1970, ten times Paulista champions.
“What was important was that we won the Rio-São Paulo in 1965, after that we won in ’67 the Robertão [a predecessor of the Brazilian championship] and the Copa do Brasil in ’69. So, whilst Santos were winning the Paulista championship, we were winning other competitions. That was important for us.”
Since hanging up his boots Ademir has stayed close to the club at which he spent almost all of his career, attending various functions and spending his free hours enjoying the facilities on offer. He has also attempted to find other ways to keep himself occupied, including a brief foray into politics around the mid-noughties, when he spent one term as a city councillor for the Communist Party of Brazil.
When brought up, however, he doesn't appear to want to dwell on the subject for too long. "No," he said, "I was never a politician. I was a city councillor for one term, from 2004. I was a councillor for four years, I managed to win. Obviously, you absorb a lot, you learn a lot, but I never managed to become a councillor. I was always more of an athlete. But it’s important that we don’t stay still. São Paulo is a very dynamic city, you need to work. So, that time was for me was good but I was never a politician, I never saw myself as a politician."
In Brazil it is not uncommon for political parties to use popular public figures as candidates, or to endorse candidates, as a strategy to win more votes, playing the proportional representation system whereby a huge number of votes for a single candidate can take some of their party colleagues into power with them. It is tactic that can be seen repeatedly, most recently with the endorsements of Ronaldinho and Felipe Melo for Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing candidate for the 2018 presidential election, and Ronaldo's backing of Aécio Neves, the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation, in 2014.
Ademir's apparent political indifference gave way to the warmest of smiles when asked what it is that keeps him firmly rooted in the country’s largest city some four decades after retirement. Cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro) usually flee São Paulo for their home town at the first chance, irrespective of their profession. To this day, though, he dines out on the back of his escapades in the golden era and revels in the adoration he receives from Palmeirenses.
“I left Rio as a 19 year old and I’ve never been back. There aren’t many who do that. Me, for example, and César, who played with me here. Cariocas, like us, it’s rare that we stay in the city. I’ve been here for 55 years already. But in truth, it’s not just São Paulo, it’s more Palmeiras [that keeps me here]. I live close by, I’m always here, I’ve got friends here, I’m at the club. Palmeiras is what tied me down, Palmeiras managed to keep a hold of me. Not just me, me and César. César is even a councillor at the club. We’re lucky to be here and it helped us not to go back to Rio de Janeiro.
“In truth, what keeps me here is Palmeiras, it’s the club, it’s the fans. This year, I turned 75 and I’ve still got a lot of events. On Thursday, I’ll have an event in a shopping mall with the Palmeiras fans, then on Saturday there’s a game in the city of Americana and then on Sunday, I’ll play a game in the city of Indaiatuba [for the Palmeiras Masters team]. So, these invitations, which I still get… it makes me feel really joyful that I deserve them. It’s Palmeiras, it’s my life.”