The Short Unhappy Life of Dinorah De Assis
Love, betrayal, murder and the end of a striker’s glorious career
The tapestry of Brazilian football history is long and splendid. Its first stitchings might include the man who brought a football, a pair of boots and the rule book to the country, Charles Miller, and perhaps the nation’s first footballing star, the great mestizo striker Arthur Friedenreich. Then might come someone like Leonidas da Silva, one of more than a few players credited with inventing the bicycle kick, before the sumptuous mid-section, including Didi, dubbed the “Ethiopian Prince” by the great writer Nelson Rodrigues, Garrincha and Pelé. Next are the early modern artists of the 1980s, Socrates and Zico, before the glorious flourishes of the 1990s/2000s end-piece, featuring Romário, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Perhaps the likes of Neymar or even Gabriel Jesus will add new sections in the future, though they will be hard pushed to match the craftsmanship of the past.
There is no room for Dinorah de Assis on the tapestry, although in his day he made plenty of headlines. But Dinorah was famous not for goals or flicks but for more macabre reasons. If there is a work of art in his honour in Brazilian football’s hall of fame it will not be a tapestry but a Dorian Gray-style portrait in the attic, absorbing all the world’s tragedy and darkness so that the samba boys of World Cup summers can frolic in the eternal sunlight.
In 1908 football had existed in Brazil for just 14 years but its popularity was already growing, with the game transforming from an idiosyncratic import from English public schools into a sport which would soon achieve genuine popular appeal. State championships had already begun in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, and many of the biggest clubs in the country today, such as Fluminense, Grêmio and Botafogo, had been established.
A definable terrace culture was also emerging. In Brazil, perhaps reflecting the sinuous physicality and often overwrought energy of the country, fans are known not as supporters but as torcedores, or “twisters”.
The verb “twist” means to turn, fold, bend, curve, etc… The noun “twister”, however, means the condition where crossing your fingers for a team, you twist almost all your limbs, in the impassioned hope of a victory…1
Football was becoming part of the Rio de Janeiro social scene too, as early versions of today’s WAGS or Marias Chuteiras (Maria Football-Boots) emerged.
The players relaxed, surrounded by young women, each wanting to date one of them. The next day they’d be on the terraces, chewing on lace hankies, giving little shouts, cheering for a Flamengo victory…2
The naval cadet Dinorah de Assis was 18 or 19 in 1908, and played as a zagueiro or central defender for the Rio club América. Strappingly built and smoothly handsome, he was unlikely to have been short of female admirers, especially when accompanied out on the town by his brother Dilermando, a military cadet and keen fencer and equally striking physical specimen.
Although Dinorah’s career would come to a tragically early end, reports suggest he was a talented athlete.
“He was tall and slim, but also quick. His mission was to stop the other team’s attackers, but he also risked joining the attack every now and again. He scored a few goals – nine in his 26 games for Botafogo, six of which came in a 13-0 win over Haddock Lobo,” wrote Alexandre Alliatti in a Globoesporte article in 2012.
At América, he played alongside one of the game’s most influential early figures, Belfort Duarte, one of the founders of the first club in São Paulo created by and for Brazilians, the Associação Atlética Mackenzie College. Later, as a director of América, Duarte would open the doors of the club to black players. Apparently a stickler for discipline, as recently as 2009 Brazilian football presented the player who committed the fewest fouls in a season with the Belfort Duarte Award.
Yet in a strange foreshadowing of the tragedy that would stalk Dinorah’s life, Belfort Duarte was murdered in a dispute over land in 1918, aged just 35. According to his daughter Mary he was wearing an América shirt when he died.
In 1909 Dinorah moved to Botafogo, where he helped the club win the Campeonato Carioca in 1910.
But it is not for his sporting prowess that his name is remembered today. Rather, it was for his involvement in a bloody scandal that would shake the foundations of Brazil’s then fragile society.
For this was a country rocked by the kind of seismic shocks that can beset a nation struggling from decadence to modernity. When the ‘twisters’ were cheering on Dinorah and América in 1908 it was a mere 19 years after the monarchy had been deposed and a republic declared in 1889, and just two decades since slavery had been abolished.
As an episode, the passage from empire to republic was almost a lark. The years after 15 November 1889 made up for that ease, however, for they were years of tremendous uncertainty.3
There were two naval revolts against the fledgling government, with admirals threatening to bombard the then capital, Rio de Janeiro, plus a civil war in the south of the country, known as the Federalist Revolution, which costs thousands of lives.
The struggle which most gripped the public and creative imagination, however, and to which Dinorah and his brother were indirectly linked, was the War of Canudos – described as The War of the End of the World by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in his epic historical novel of the same name.
He was as dry as a stick, sleeping on the ground and sometimes near death from his fasting… he was neither a fanatic or an imposter…they called him Antônio Conselheiro or Antônio the Counsellor4.
Across the barren backlands of Bahia in the northeast of Brazil, impossibly distant from the relatively sophisticated national capital of Rio, the Counsellor, an itinerant preacher, wandered, drawing people to him. Mainly they were the desperately poor – the starving, the freed or escaped slaves, even the cangaceiros [bandits] of the drylands. He spoke the word of God and called for social change and the return of the monarchy, describing republics as the “inventions of atheists and Masons.”
By the time the Counselor settled his flock, which would soon swell in size to 30,000 people, on the Canudos Farm near the Vaza-Barris River he had become an intolerable affront to property and to the fledgling republic. Following a dispute over the purchase of timber needed for the construction of a new church, a group of settlers were ambushed by around 100 policemen. But the authorities were quickly driven off.
They had no battle plan. The rare travellers who met them on the road were amazed to learn that they were marching to war. They looked like a crowd heading for a fiesta; a number of them were dressed in their fanciest clothes. They were carrying weapons and shouted “Death to the Devil and to the Republic”, but even at such moments the joyous expression on their faces softened the effect of the hatred in their voices5.
Then 500 troops marched on the settlement from the state capital of Salvador. When they arrived, however, they found ten kilometres of scorched earth around Canudos. Not a building, not a tree. They marched into an ambush and after 12 hours of fighting retreated in confusion, fired on from the surrounding scrub on all sides by the Counsellor’s men6.
Next, 1300 men were sent to smash Canudos. But in March 1897 they too were routed, defeated by the now heavily armed settlers, the harsh backlands environment and the strategic position of the town.
Now there were howling mobs that raged through the big cities after the army’s latest disaster… national mourning decreed in Rio, the masses for the dead soldiers and queues of volunteers from the best families lining up to join the forces of retribution7.
Dinorah was just seven at the time, but he might have heard dizzying whispers of the war from family members or friends, or caught a glimpse of the headlines of newspapers hanging from street kiosks. After all, the war was big news across the country – one of Brazil’s greatest writers, Machado de Assis, recalled hearing a “simple woman who he thought didn’t know how to read” asking a Rio newspaper seller for a paper “with a picture of that man who’s out there fighting8.” The Counsellor, in other words.
In the end, however, it would not be Machado de Assis, but another great writer who would connect Dinorah, Dilermando, the War in Canudos and football. And he would pay for it with his life.
The fourth expedition against Canudos involved what felt like the entire Brazilian army marching against the settlement (there were 8000 men, as well as three generals and the minister for war). This time they were accompanied by the press. One of the journalists was Euclides da Cunha, a Bahian [someone from the northeastern state of Bahia] by family and partly by upbringing, but born near Rio and every inch a south-easterner in his ways9.
The army subjected the Counsellor and the settlers to a siege that lasted months and the town to nightly bombardments that killed thousands on both sides. Da Cunha, impressed by the determination and dignity of the settlers and the stark beauty of the drylands and dismayed by the savagery of the army’s tactics, which included the rape and throat-slitting of civilians, wrestled with his conscience.
His inner turmoil lasted for four more years after he returned to Rio, a period during which he would write his masterpiece, Os Sertões, or The Drylands. He finished in 1902, long after Canudos had been razed to the ground and the body of the Counsellor, who had died from an illness a few days before the end, was exhumed and had its head hacked off and paraded around Salvador on a spike. The book made Euclides a literary sensation.
This weird work of epic journalism became, and stayed, the great Brazilian book. It gave the feeling of meaning to the terrible slaughter. Its success was as unlikely as the recognition of Moby Dick as the great American novel, and came far sooner10.
It was around this time that the events that would lead, directly or indirectly, to the death of at least four more people were set in motion. While Dinorah had always seemed happy with the simple life, playing football and attending naval school, his brother Dilermando was more restless. In 1905, aged just 17, he fell passionately in love with a 33-year-old woman named Anna. His feelings were reciprocated and at the Pensão Monat, No. 17 Rua Senador Vergueiro, in the Rio bairro of Flamengo, the two began an affair that was to last for years.
There was only one cloud on the horizon for the besotted pair. Anna was married to one of Rio’s, and Brazil’s, most famous literary figures – the author of The Drylands, Euclides da Cunha.
For years Euclides shut his eyes to his wife’s betrayal. Perhaps such wilful blindness was the result of pride or stubbornness. It was certainly aided by his long trips around Brazil, including the year-long expedition he took to the Amazon region in 1905, leaving Anna behind. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Dinorah, meanwhile, was in São Paulo at the same time, playing for Internacional.
Rio de Janeiro was a small place in those days and eventually the whispering and gossip about the affair would have become intolerable, even to someone as seemingly stoic as Euclides da Cunha. Concerned by how the writer might react, Dilermando wrote him a letter, pleading his innocence. He received a remarkably forgiving reply – “my house remains open to you,” wrote Euclides. Anna, meanwhile, became pregnant with Dilermando’s child, but the baby was born prematurely and died.
In 1906 Dilermando was transferred to an army posting in the south of Brazil. Yet still the affair rumbled on. In 1907 Anna gave birth to Luiz, who was blonde, just like Dilermando. All Euclides’s children were dark-haired. Like an ear of corn in the middle of a coffee field, the writer quipped darkly11.
Remarkably, it would be another two years before Euclides’s patience finally ran out. In 1909 another of his sons, Solon, overheard his father swearing vengeance on the lovers. Concerned, Anna and Dilermando asked Dinorah, now living in Rio and playing for Botafogo, to spy on Euclides to see if he was behaving in a suspicious manner.
Finally, on a damp Sunday morning in August, Euclides da Cunha dressed in his shabbiest clothes and made his way to the small house on the Estrada Real de Santa Cruz in the neighbourhood of Piedade, where the lovers were waiting. Nor were they alone – Solon was also there, as was Dinorah.
It is 10 am and the neighbourhood is quiet. Inside the small house there is an atmosphere of hushed expectation. Dinorah stands in the small garden, scanning the street. They are waiting for Euclides da Cunha, though what he will do when he arrives they do not know.
And then he is walking down the street, peering at the numbers on the houses. He is lost, distracted. Altered. Dinorah shouts into the house that he is coming. Dilermando and Anna treat the news lightly, as though they do not consider Euclides a threat.
Dilermando goes into the bedroom and dresses in his army uniform. Does he think this will scare Euclides? Possibly, for as well as the impression of strength the uniform gives the army are powerful in Brazil at this time. It was the army who declared the Republic. It is the army that calls the shots.
Anna and Solon hide in another bedroom. Euclides stands at the gate. He tells Dinorah he wants to speak to his brother. And then he forces his way into the house, shouting, “I came to kill or be killed!” He has a gun. He breaks down the door to the master bedroom, firing as he goes.
Dinorah jumps in front of Euclides, trying to protect his brother. The two men grapple. Euclides fires again, twice, and one bullet grazes Dinorah. The young man, the zagueiro of Botafogo, runs into another room, searching for a gun he thinks he is there. He cannot find it. Euclides shoots him in the back, just below the neck, and he falls.
But his brother Dilermando has a gun too. He fires at Euclides. Euclides fires back. Dilermando is hit below the neck, in the stomach and in the chest. But he survives. Euclides is hit in the right shoulder, the left arm and the right side of the chest.
It is the last bullet that kills him. He stumbles into the garden where he falls to the ground, dead.
Depending on what paper you read at the time, the last words of Euclides da Cunha were, “I suffered a lot… I killed… I die… but I forgive,” or, “I hate you, but I forgive you12.”
Needless to say the tragedy rocked Rio society. Initially the papers treated Euclides as the villain, with Dinorah and Dilermando as the victims of his paranoia and rage.
“Dinorah de Assis, as well as being an excellent young man of exemplary conduct, is a dedicated sportsman in his free time. His favourite sport is football. Due to his deep knowledge of this game, he has a position of great responsibility in the first team of Botafogo Foot-Ball-Club, of Rua Conde de Irajá. In every game Dinorah plays, whether here or in S. Paulo, he stands out due to his excellent qualities as a foot-baller,” gushed the Correio da Manhã newspaper13.
Attitudes towards the brothers were soon to harden, however. The police quickly uncovered the affair and Dinorah’s role as an accomplice in the betrayal of the widely respected Da Cunha. The player spent the following days being transferred back and forwards between hospitals and police stations.
He seemed determined that life should go on as normal, however. On the Sunday after the murder, with a bullet still lodged in his spine, he took the decision to play for Botafogo against Fluminense. It was to prove a disastrous error.
It was a shock to society. It seemed ridiculous that his young man, involved in the biggest tragedy of the year, would switch his mourning clothes for his football boots and kit, just a week after the event. But he didn’t care, and played anyway – as a striker14.
Public feeling had clearly turned against the brothers. “At 3.12, when, preceded by referee Sr Wood, the two teams took the field, they were greeted with prolonged applause and chants. It was notable that there was more sympathy towards Fluminense, which increased further when it was noted that among the Botafogo forwards was Sr Dinorah de Assis, one of the unfortunate protagonists of the tragedy in Piedade,” wrote the Journal do Brasil15.
Fluminense won 2-1 and although Dinorah failed to get on the scoresheet, he had one clear chance against Fluminense goalkeeper Waterman.
Dinorah received a good pass from Lulu and advanced on goal. The terraces roared “Waterman! Waterman!” because of the support for Fluminense. He waited serenely and phlegmatically in his position. Dinorah closed in and shot low, but Waterman caught the ball, to thunderous applause16.
Dinorah would play for the rest of the year and carried on playing the next season too, when Botafogo won the Rio de Janeiro state championship. But the hostile reception he received from the fans that Sunday was to prove prophetic. Dinorah de Assis would soon become the second victim of the Tragedy in Piedade.
The bullet fired by Euclides da Cunha was still lodged in his body and gradually he began to lose movement in his limbs. Although he played in nine out of Botafogo’s 10 games in the championship-winning campaign of 1910, in May 1911 he played his last official game for the club in a 3-0 win over Rio Cricket. In July that year, he appeared in a friendly match against Americano-SP, playing in goal as he could no longer run. It was the last game of football he would ever play. He was just 21 years old.
The spectre of the tragedy continued to cast its shadow elsewhere. Solon, Euclides’s son who had witnessed his father’s shooting, became an outcast from the family. He moved to the remote western state of Acre, where he was murdered by an armed gang in 1916.
That same year another of Euclides’s sons, Euclides Filho, decided to take revenge on his father’s killer. But in a twist of fate Dilermando, now married to Anna, shot and killed the son of the man whose life he had taken just a few years before.
Dinorah’s life, meanwhile, was quickly unravelling. His military career had been ruined by the scandal and the ensuing public hostility, and his life in football was over. He started to drink heavily, caught syphilis, and began to suffer mental disturbances. In 1913, in a psychiatric hospital in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais, the bullet from Euclides da Cunha’s gun was finally removed from his spine.
By now he was penniless and effectively homeless. In July the following year he attempted suicide for the first time by throwing himself into the sea off the Praia da Botafogo, a stone’s throw from where he had enjoyed brief sporting glory. With half of his body paralysed he would have died but for a passer-by who dragged him from the water.
At last Brazilian society began to show some sympathy for a man who was arguably as much a victim of the Tragedy in Piedade as Euclides da Cunha. Newspapers organised appeals to help him, while Fluminense suggested a testimonial. He was soon back on the streets, but friends at América at least fixed it so that he could sleep under the stands at the team’s ground, while his former teammates at Botafogo offered him a room at the club.
But Dinorah’s decline was irreversible. In 1916, in his hometown of Porto Alegre, he once again tried and failed to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest in a central square.
He was at least to enjoy a few years of peace before the end. After his most recent suicide attempt he went to live with his brother Dilermando in Bagé, in the countryside of southern Brazil. There, according to Judith, Anna and Dilermando’s daughter, he even tried to teach Lulu, his nephew, to play football. It was a touching scene: on crutches, almost motionless, playing with a ball – the object he so loved17.
It was to prove an all too brief respite, however. At around 5pm on a Sunday in 1921, after chatting with acquaintances in the downtown area of Porto Alegre, Dinorah headed towards the warehouse district on the banks of the River Guaíba. And there, 12 years after the Tragedy in Piedade and the death of Euclides da Cunha, and 11 years after winning the Rio state championship with Botafogo with a bullet lodged in his spine, the short unhappy life of Dinorah de Assis came to an end as he threw himself into the waters of the Lago Guaíba. His body was found an hour later.