Not all revolutionaries get the fame, or the notoriety, they deserve. Before Sócrates and the democracia corintiana, and after Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, a different Brazilian rebel with a cause was raising his fist in both protest and celebration. José Reinaldo de Lima, better known as Reinaldo, Atlético Mineiro’s all-time leading scorer with 255 goals and the Seleção’s centre-forward during the ill-fated 1978 World Cup campaign, has not been granted a place in the hall of fame of Brazilian greats alongside the likes of Garrincha, Pelé, Tostão and so many others. That is a shame – for Reinaldo’s is a life lived to the fullest, both on and off the pitch. 

A few weeks after Fifa-approved Brazil unfurled itself in front of the planet – filled with gleaming new stadiums, corporate sponsorship and levels of public safety and infrastructural efficiency jarringly unfamiliar to those who live here – it was revealing to sit down with Reinaldo and remember a very different nation – the Brazil of the 1970s, when a country largely isolated from the rest of the world lay under the yoke of a 21-year military dictatorship. 

“The pay was good for footballers back then,” Reinaldo recalls. “Not spectacular, but good, compared with what most people got. But the economy was very different. The currency was worth nothing and there was hyperinflation. You can’t compare it with today. It was a closed economy. There were no imports. The only things people could buy, even footballers, were records or books. It was another reality. Brazil was a very shut-off, rural country in those days.”

As is so often the case in societies that lack the freedom and entertainment options that so many of us take for granted today, it was football that filled the gap. 

“Football, going to the stadium, was the leisure activity of the masses back then,” remembers Reinaldo. “Crowds of 80,000 or more were common. And all the great stars played here. I played against Pelé and Rivellino when I was still just a kid.”

Reinaldo’s rise to fame is another story that feels very much of its time. Born in 1957 in the small town of Ponte Nova, 170km from Belo Horizonte, his success appears a simple, almost predestined process. 

“I picked up a reputation for being a good player when I was very young, playing at school and in street games. I was only eight years old when I played for the local junior team. I was up against much older boys and as there were no boots for really young kids in those days, the club made a special pair for me. A few years after that, in 1971, the Atlético youth team came to play in Ponte Nova. The coach of our team knew the Galo1 manager, Barabatana, and recommended me to him. Then Atlético took me to Belo Horizonte, to their headquarters in Lourdes. There were lots of boys there and we slept under the stands. After a week my mum came to see how I was getting on, because there were no phones in those days.” 

When one thinks of the pantheon of Brazilian stars, beginning with arguably the country’s first footballing idol Arthur Friedenreich and running through to Neymar, it is tempting to think that there must be a certain complacency in the country when it comes to the emergence of young craques – who, in the past at least, seemed to be as plentiful as botecos in Rio de Janeiro. Even in such a rich footballing environment, however, some manage to stand out from the crowd. Reinaldo was one of them. 

“I was pretty lucky,” he remembers. “I was there for a trial, but one day we played in a training game against the first team, who were the Brazilian champions at the time. The manager was Telê Santana [coach of Brazil at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups]. I came on at the end of the game. No one knew me, but I scored, and dribbled and passed the ball pretty well. I did enough in 20 minutes to catch their eye. So they gave me a contract. I was the top scorer for the juniors that year, with 38 goals. Suddenly I was famous. They called me the ‘baby craque’.”

Much glory was to follow. Reinaldo became a professional when he was just 16 (“only Pelé started younger than me – I was the youngest in the league,” he says) and, despite a string of debilitating knee injuries that would restrict his powers in later years, soon established himself as one of the brightest stars in a league dripping with talent, finishing as the Campeonato Brasileiro’s top scorer in 1977 with a remarkable 28 goals in 18 games. Unfortunately, Atlético’s eternal role as Brazilian football’s bridesmaids (after winning the first official national championship in 1971, the club went 42 years before lifting its next major trophy, last year’s Copa Libertadores)meant major silverware was to elude him throughout his career, though Galowere league runners-up in 1977 (when the team went unbeaten, only missing out on the title thanks to an away-goals defeat against São Paulo) and 1980.

Regardless of goalscoring awards or titles, however, there is no doubting Reinaldo’s remarkable talents, which can be verified by a quick YouTube search. Strong, fast and graceful, he possessed a remarkable flair and coolness in front of goal. “If it hadn’t been for the injuries and the knee surgeries… Reinaldo is the player who would have come closest to rivalling Pelé,” said no less a judge than Zico on Brazilian TV last year. 

“Reinaldo was a genius,” said Marcelo Oliveira, his former Atlético teammate and current manager of Cruzeiro, Galo’s Belo Horizonte rivals and the reigning Brazilian champions, in another TV interview. “I’ve seen him do everything, score every type of goal, whether he’s sliding into the box, scoring with his head, flicking the ball over the defenders, dribbling round the keeper, or his speciality, feinting, then finishing with utter coolness. I agree [with Zico]… he first injured his knee in a game against Atlético Paranaense, and I don’t know if the surgery was performed badly or not, but he ended up suffering from it for the rest of his life. He was such a special player.” As the interview comes to an end, Oliveira’s voice begins to crack and his eyes moisten as he remembers the glories – and disappointments – of his friend’s career. “We played together, spent our free time together, for many years. He would come over to my house, I would go over to his house,” Oliveira explains. YouTube will also reveal the brutality of some of the tackles attacking players were subjected to in those days, which undoubtedly contributed to the ruined state of Reinaldo’s knees and the nagging sense that despite all that he achieved there would have been even more to come, had it not been for the injuries.

One of those disappointments came at the 1978 World Cup. Reinaldo began the tournament as Brazil’s first-choice No. 9 and scored the Seleção’s opening goal of the competition in a 1-1 draw against Sweden. But Brazil’s bid to lift the Mundial on enemy soil would ultimately end in failure. Set against the backdrop of General Jorge Videla’s military junta and the dirty war, a relatively stilted Brazil side (at least in comparison to the much feted boys of summer from 1970 and 1982) made its way unspectacularly to the second round and into a group with the hosts, Poland and Peru. After Brazil and Argentina fought out a goalless draw, the qualifying spot for the final came down to goal difference. Argentina needed to score four against Peru to edge out the old enemy – they got six. The conspiracy theories that have swirled around Brazil ever since (Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon ‘El Loco’ Quiroga was born in Argentina, a shipment of grain was said to have been sent to Lima in thanks, the junta reportedly agreed to imprison (or “disappear”) a number of Peruvian political dissidents) have gained credence following the declaration last year by former Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma that a deal was struck between Videla and the Peruvian government during the tournament. Reinaldo has no doubts. “Of course it was a fix,” he says. “It was obvious Brazil were going to win. We went home unbeaten.”

Even though Brazil’s campaign ended in frustration, the tournament marked the most high-profile (at least in an international context) sighting of Reinaldo’s traditional clenched fist goal salute. While the World Cup in Argentina would be ultimately overshadowed by the horrors of the political environment that surrounded it, back home Brazil was being smothered by a less gruesome but equally abhorrent military regime. 

Inspired by ufanismo (basically the nationalistic trumpeting of Brazil’s endless natural riches and dizzying potential, often at the expense of reality), the Seleção’s glorious 1970 World Cup win was co-opted by the Brazilian government as a patriotic symbol of the country’s progress. How did Brazil’s people, and its footballers, deal with the fact that their sporting success was being used to promote a dictatorship? As Reinaldo points out, the times were very different and awareness, political or otherwise, was limited. “There was a certain sense of helplessness. Even as players, we didn’t have much perspective in terms of our careers. It was just the Campeonato Mineiro and the Campeonato Brasileiro and playing for Brazil. There was no talk of going to Europe. The World Cup was our only chance to see how other countries played. When we saw Holland play in 1974, we were amazed. We didn’t know anything about football outside Brazil. 

“But on the other hand, our isolation gave us real determination. ‘I’m going to beat England,’ we used to say, or, ‘I’m going to beat Germany.’ It was our dream from when we were kids. It’s different today, but then there was a real glamour, a grandiosity, in playing at somewhere like Wembley. The games had tremendous importance for us, and we really wanted to win. They matter today too, but they’re absorbed by other things. There was a campaign for reaffirmation going on, a lot of talk about national pride and being proud to be Brazilian. Of course it was all a political strategy in the end.”

In such a setting, his raised clenched fist was clearly an inflammatory, political manner of celebrating a goal. “It was a revolutionary, socialist gesture,” he explained once on Brazilian TV. “I started doing it in 1976, in the middle of an era of repression, to try to accelerate the arrival of the democratic process.” Today, he makes something of an unlikely revolutionary hero. Thick-set and bald, he looks much like the other overly garrulous elderly gentlemen who spend their mornings sitting outside the Tres Corações café in the leafy Savassi neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte, arguing about Galo and Cruzeiro.

According to Reinaldo, while a resistance movement existed in Brazil in those days, society on the whole was not a hotbed of political debate. “Really the masses didn’t know what was happening,” he recalls. “And those that did, didn’t protest. There were reprisals, or even disappearances. So people behaved themselves. And of course we weren’t educated, so we didn’t have strong opinions. We were told all the time that Brazil was a great country and that the economy was growing by 10%.”

“I felt isolated,” he says of his political stance. “There were no organisations for players, or workers of any type, in fact. There were no unions. Any type of association was banned, even things like building meetings in apartment blocks. It was a dictatorship, after all. None of the players I knew were politically engaged. The life of a footballer isn’t really part of society. Plus in those days footballers were ignorant. Plenty of players couldn’t read or write. It was common. It was difficult time for Brazil in general.”

According to popular belief, Reinaldo’s opposition to the dictatorship ultimately cost him a place at the 1982 World Cup. “Telê [Santana] should have taken me to the World Cup. But I had my political position and he was a reactionary,” the player is on record as saying. Santana’s son Renê has said that his father did not select Reinaldo due to injury and that he “had not kicked a ball in six months” – despite the fact that Reinaldo had in fact played regularly for Galo in the 1982 Campeonato Brasileiro, which ran until the spring of that year. 

In January 1982 Placar magazine wrote that “in the second half of 1981, Telê began to snub Reinaldo, either because of the player’s friendship with homosexuals, his fights with his girlfriend or his connections with the Workers’ Party,” while Santana himself said that “the only thing Reinaldo knows how to do is play football. But they like to make him think he is an intellectual who needs to help the Indians, Lula [Brazil’s Workers’ Party president from 2003 to 2011], and Frei Betto [a writer, religious and political figure who spent four years in prison during the dictatorship].” 

The threat of rather more serious reprisals than being dropped from a football team was never far away. “In football you are a public figure. My protest came when things were already relaxing and opening up in Brazil, slowly. People had started taking their heads out of the sand. But the directors and presidents of the clubs were linked to the military. So of course we suffered retaliation. Not openly or obviously like it would have been in the past, there were no murders or disappearances, because by this stage things were changing [the most brutal years of the dictatorship, known as the Anos de Chumbo (“The Years of Lead”) were between 1968 and 1974]. But I knew they had a file on me and I was being watched. The CBF [the Brazilian football federation, known as CBD at the time] was run by the military, from the president to the trainer.” In 1974 the president of the CBD was Admiral Heleno Nunes, while the coach of the Seleção in 1978 was the former military man Captain Claudio Coutinho.

Reinaldo says he had little contact at the time with Sócrates, who was noted for his political activism. “It wasn’t as planned as that,” he says. “We were timid, very reserved, for a long time. Even the press. When I gave interviews it was for the alternative press, the left-wing press, the unions who were just starting to appear. It wasn’t for the Estado de Minas or O Tempo, the big newspapers. Not to talk about politics, anyway.”

I talked with Reinaldo twice – once over lunch at an echoing, almost empty Italian restaurant in Belo Horizonte and a few weeks later over a coffee at the Tres Corações. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the World Cup, the current troubled state of Brazilian football and of course the ‘Massacre at the Mineirão’ – Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final humbling against Germany.

“The 7-1 can have a positive effect. It should serve as a spark for change in Brazilian football. From the current legislation down to the directors, both at the clubs and the CBF,” says Reinaldo. “It’s a joke. José Maria Marin? He’s a torturer! [A reference to the CBF president’s shady pro-military, right-wing political role during the dictatorship]. These old wolves. He’s more of a crook than Ricardo Teixeira. Do you remember when he stole that medal? [Soon after his appointment, footage emerged of Marin pocketing the winner’s medal of a young Corinthians player at a youth tournament] They’re playing with the feelings of the Brazilian people. They’re a stain on Brazilian football.” 

The often shambolic conditions of the Campeonato Brasileiro, plagued by low crowds, fan violence, an overcrowded, chaotic fixture calendar and clubs that seem perpetually on the verge of financial ruin, is an easy target for Reinaldo’s wrath. “Did you watch the World Cup?” he asks me. “And you watch the Brazilian league too? Isn’t it a like a street kick-about in comparison? Did you see Germany, even Bosnia, control the ball and pass it? Brazil players can’t control the ball. Why can the European players do what Brazilians can’t? We have to get organised in our tactics, the way we play the game. We aren’t organised at all.”

Warming to his theme, Reinaldo explains his theory on what has gone wrong with Brazilian football. “What killed Brazilian football was something everyone can see but no one talks about,” he says. “Brazil doesn’t have wide players. There’s no one to open the game. Holland has them. Even Japan has them. Every team has players that can open up the game. That’s what changed, ever since Telê Santana. There are hardly any teams in Brazil that play with wide players. That was the tactical change.”

Reinaldo, who dabbled briefly in politics, and recently (unsuccessfully) managed the Minas Gerais lower division teams Villa Nova and Ipatinga, now runs a junior team near his home in Nova Lima, which he says gives him a unique perspective on the effects that the country’s social progress has had on Brazilian football. “At the start of every year 300 kids turn up, all dressed in replica kits, with boots. And I think wow, these kids must know how to play. They’re certainly dressed like footballers, anyway. Then they play and they can’t do anything. They want to become Messi and Ronaldo in a day. Maybe three or four of them will be OK. But a real star, a diamond, is very rare. Kids don’t play football anymore. Where do you play, anyway?” He points out the window of the restaurant at a busy street filled with traffic. “You used to be able to play football out there. Not now. It’s easier to play on the computer.”

Chewing on his bife à milanesa, Reinaldo is lively, affable company. Yet he carries with him a sense, not of bitterness, but of mild regret, perhaps that in the end, stymied by injury and his refusal not quietly to accept the stunted state of his country, all that glorious, expansive talent did not result in more – more major trophies, more World Cup appearances, a greater, longer lasting awareness of his ability among football fans outside Brazil. Zico compared him to Pelé on the pitch – but it is hard to imagine Pelé today huddled over an espresso and a cigarette in the Praça da Savassi on a chilly Belo Horizonte morning. 

Life did not run perfectly smoothly after he hung up his boots, either – in 1997 he was sentenced to four years in prison for involvement in drug dealing, when three men were arrested in possession of cocaine in a car registered in his name. The verdict was overturned on appeal and Reinaldo was cleared of any wrongdoing, but not before his involvement with the drug had come to light. 

“In those days it was snowing cocaine in Brazil. We had easy access to it and little information about the dangers. It’s a very seductive drug. It takes you prisoner. I wasn’t an addict or anything like that and it was after I’d stopped playing. It was just for a couple of years, but I saw how it can destroy you. Now I just have one or two beers. I never even have a hangover.” 

The ghoulish spectres of his past, Reinaldo believes, were involved in his arrest. “I was never a drug dealer,” he says, “but I was charged with being one. It had a lot to do with what went on in the dictatorship. It wasn’t an accident.” 

There is also bitterness over the way he has been treated by the club for which he sacrificed so much. “In Brazil an ex-player is a disease. You devote your entire life to football, but after your career is over you have no place in the game. The president of Atlético [Alexandre Kalil] said he doesn’t want ex-players, idols, hanging around the place. He wants the fans to sing his name instead, a guy who has never kicked a ball. Ex-players at Cruzeiro have a card to get into the stadium. I don’t. I’m Atlético’s all-time top scorer, and it’s hard for me to get into the stadium to see a match. It’s all about the ego of the directors these days. They exploit the clubs. What contribution do they make? I took kickings and beatings for Atlético, I was operated on countless times. At the club’s centenary celebrations, none of the old players were invited. It makes me sad. I don’t want money. I just want to be treated with respect.”

Respect. It sounds like the very least a man like Reinaldo – one of the most gifted players ever to emerge from the famed Brazilian production line of talent, and who, in the strength and courage of his convictions, puts better known but more politically acquiescent legends, such as Ronaldo and Pelé, to shame – deserves.

Which would probably be a good place to end. But perhaps talk of being snubbed by blowhard football chairmen, or undervalued by the fickle, media-and-success driven world of international reputation, is not the right way to sign off. And YouTube clips never tell the full story of a player or a life. I decide to put in a call to another Belo Horizonte footballing legend, Tostão, one of the heroes of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win. Tostão’s career ended far too soon when, in 1973, aged just 26, problems with his vision forced him to abandon the game. Reinaldo made his debut for Atlético that same year, though the two never played against each other. Now a columnist for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper and one of Brazil’s most intelligent football thinkers, Tostão, while a warm and highly educated speaker, is not always enthusiastic about talking to journalists, particularly when called at home, unannounced, on a Friday morning. When the subject turns to Reinaldo, however, he cannot say enough. 

“He didn’t play for as long as he should have, because of the injuries. But he was a truly spectacular player,” he enthuses. “If he’d played more he would have achieved everything that Romário and Ronaldo did. He even played a little like Romário in his younger days, the way he would carry the ball from deep, and his finishing, fooling the goalkeeper then chipping it over him. There is a slight sense of missed opportunities, because he could have achieved more. But Reinaldo was majestic.”