The television set was a big old picture-tube contraption.
The sequence of moves that you saw that Sunday could not have been more than ten seconds long, but with Murilo’s interruptions it lasted for several minutes as he unhurriedly provided a commentary, pressing play, pause, rewind, play, on what at the time had been commentated on in utter astonishment.
What you first saw was a still image that was immediately identifiable as from the 1970 World Cup, judging by the shorts worn by the Brazilian team, which were a lighter shade of blue than normal, as well as scandalously brief by today’s standards. Tostão, with his unmistakeable big head, and wearing the number 9 shirt, was in possession of the ball, being watched at some distance by a guy in a light blue shirt and black shorts. Murilo let the footage play for three seconds, with Tostão in possession of the ball, and when he paused it again Pelé could be seen in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and you felt your stomach lurch as if the movement of the earth had suddenly speeded up, as if someone had switched on a particle accelerator. The old man was providing his homemade commentary: “So,” he said, “just look at this, we can see what Tostão has also just seen, Pelé charging in from the right side of midfield like a wild animal, a panther with the blood of a cheetah.”
The momentum was immediately contained, edited, rewound, played, paused, re-played. The ball left Tostão’s foot, returned, left, returned. “The pass is perfect,” Murilo said, sitting near to you on the sofa next to the open fire, like a child playing with his laser gun. “A milligram more or less of force and it would have been almost perfect, virtually perfect, but no, it is perfect, struck by Tostão from the left of midfield with his left foot on a diagonal line worthy of the man who designed Brasília, just the slightest curve, heading for the centre of the penalty area.” At that moment the image began to move forward again at an extremely slow pace. “Suddenly, all we can see,” the old man’s voice was low and hoarse, having lost its commanding tone of the old days, “all we can see is Pelé running towards a white ball, but here comes the goalkeeper and now the ball is between him and Pelé, nearer to the great black player but increasingly nearer to the goalkeeper, namely the famous Mazurkiewicz, who decides to go into battle and comes out of the penalty area with all guns blazing, not a fear in the world.”
Pausing the image once again Murilo turned his gaze to you. “How old are you, Tiziu? Almost fifty? Oh, you’re more than old enough to know from experience that reason plays no part in this, that our pre-historic hunter brains are able to work out incredibly quickly the calculations involved in a problem of this type, who will get to the ball first. We don’t even call it a calculation any more, since these mental operations are so fast. We call them instinct. Our instincts tell us that Pelé is going to get there before Mazurka, don’t they? But it will be a close thing. The Uruguayan keeper does what he can, entering the semicircle a fraction of a second before Pelé but not in time to intercept the ball. The ball is still in between the two of them, and again we sense, like Mazurka is also sensing, that it is nearer to the black player who is thundering towards it. What the good goalkeeper of La Celeste does then is kneel down and, even though he is outside the penalty area, what else can he do, he opens his arms wide.”
The frozen image on the old videotape had become distorted. The black player in the yellow shirt and the white player dressed all in black gave the impression that they were going to collide, maybe even merge into one, luminous formsseeking to forget that they were once flesh.
“Look at Mazurkiewicz,” the old man said. “You don’t need to be telepathic to know that he is hoping that Pelé will shoot from right there. It’s what most forwards would do, and then the goalkeeper would have a chance at saving the ball. He can only pray that the Brazilian will not do what a player of his standing will probably prefer to do, that is, go past the goalkeeper to the left, easy enough given his pace, a move that would lead to one of two outcomes: either the goalkeeper would grab Pelé’s legs, committing a foul, or Pelé would complete the move by striking the ball with his left leg towards the open, or virtually open goal, protected only by the defenderwho, soon enough, is going to enter the frame panting for breath as if he is about to miss his last train, and fall head over heels on the ground. The name of this unfortunate character was Ancheta, just for the record.”
We don’t even call it a calculation any more, since these mental operations are so fast. We call them instinct.
Murilo looked at you, half smiling. His eyes reflected the flames in the fireplace and shone coldly in a way that you didn’t remember ever having seen, a look that already seemed almost posthumous, minute embers inside blocks of ice. “Now I’m asking you, Neto, why didn’t Pelé do that? It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? Obviously it was, phosphorescent pebbles on the pitch marking a path that he had already followed a trillion times in just the same way, hurtling in from the right side of midfield towards the centre of the penalty area in pursuit of a ball passed to him by Coutinho or Zito, or by Didi, when playing for the Brazilian national squad. But all of a sudden we are in 1970, Tostão passes the ball, and here’s the thing, Pelé by now is Pelé. He is sick and tired of hearing that he is a legend, a demigod, so what has he got to lose by trying to become an absolute god? So he doesn’t do the right thing, he does something sublime. Instead of taking the well-beaten path towards the goal, the dead-cert goal that he had scored so many times before, he opts for the uncertain goal that, as we are about to see, he would never score.”
On TV, while the two smudges slowly merge into one, the ball passes outrageously through them. As if they were porous, the spirit having forgotten flesh in advance of videotape.
“Ha,” you laughed, not so much in surprise, recognising the move seen so many times before but happy, as ever, to see it in action again. You were looking at the TV and Murilo was looking at you, studying your reaction. He seemed satisfied with what he saw.
“In his refusal to touch the ball, as if suddenly struck with Bartleby syndrome,” he said, “Pelé stripped football to its most rarefied essence. Football became a pure idea, and all of a sudden neither men, nor the ball, nobody at all was behaving as one would expect them to do in this illusory world. Taken by surprise, like the rest of us, Mazurka sees the ball passing to his left and cutting like a knife across the right flank of the penalty area, while Pelé becomes a golden and blue light flashing by towards the opposite side.”
On the TV screen the Uruguayan goalkeeper has his back to the ball, and one knee on the ground, twisting his neck to the right, looking at the forward who is moving away from him, as if a whirlwind has just passed by. And to the left of the frame, a long way from the ball, now inside the penalty area and more blurred than ever, Pelé is starting to modify his stride in order to change direction.
“What Pelé now has to do is dead easy, a piece of cake, isn’t it,” the old man cracked a smile which clearly revealed the shadow of the skull that he would soon become. “He has to brake to radically correct the angle he is coming from, to brake and at the very same moment start running again in the other direction, after the ball now, the man who was thundering along pretending to ignore it. The reign of the pure idea is over, proving to be too sublime to stand the test of time. The material world takes control again with its mass, its acceleration, and all its laws of physics. The guy has to perform a sharp ninety-degree turn without losing speed because, remember, he must get to the ball before his adversaries and still have a good angle from which to shoot.”
Murilo unfreezes the image, Pelé manages to achieve these two feats, fantastic, and he freezes the image again. “He is going to shoot and score, that’s what we are all predicting, everyone in the stadium is on their feet, and their lungs could all have been made of stone,” he said, somewhat floridly, “since they are breathing neither in nor out: he is going to shoot and score. But it turns out not to be as simple as that because Pelé is now on the wrong side of the ball, with his shoulder pointing towards the goal mouth, so he has to kick the ball in a half turn. And it is then, my God, that he makes a mistake. Pelé makes a mistake. He misses the goal that he couldn’t fail to miss, come to think of it,if he were to cement his mythical status for good.”
What you saw on screen, when the pause button was released for the last time, was the following: while Ancheta, having just missed his train, tumbles on the pitch, the ball kicked by Pelé brushes past Uruguay’s right-hand goal post. It crosses the line, a fait accompli, and the greatest player of all walks off sucking an ice cube he has got from somewhere with a slightly vexed but serene look on his face.
On TV, while the two smudges slowly merge into one, the ball passes outrageously through them. As if they were porous, the spirit having forgotten flesh in advance of videotape.
The old man stopped the video. He placed the remote control on the arm of the sofa, looked into your eyes again and said: “What happened there, Neto, was simple: Pelé challenged God and lost. Imagine if he hadn’t lost. If he hadn’t lost, the human race would never have slept peacefully again. Pelé challenged God and lost, but what a majestic challenge. That goal he didn’t score is not only the greatest moment in the story of Pelé, it is also the greatest moment in the history of football. Do you understand that? Divine intervention, the lightning bolt of eternity that fell to earth to the left of the radio and TV booths in dear Jalisco’s stadium on 17 June 1970? Well I can vouch for it that that is what happened, I was there and I know. If it was something more than that it wouldn’t surprise me at all, but that was what at the very least happened, and the videotape gives us the pleasure of seeing it over and over again, do you see? Something out of this world, Tiziu.”
Standing up with difficulty, he moved away from the ball of heat given off by the open fire and walked towards the verandah. You went after him. It was just after midday but the winter had arrived with a vengeance. The frozen breath that came from the woods embraced you both and at that moment you pictured your father in Guadalajara, a young man over thirty with Félix’s sideburns, Rivelino’s bushy moustache, drinking beer and eating guacamole, while down here the world as the five-year-old you knew it was coming to an end. It was as if the whole of existence hinged on that summer in Mexico, winter in Brazil, when your father refused to touch the ball, Pelé’s feint against Mazurkiewicz broke the spine of destiny and the world fell apart. There are those moments in life when everything seems to happen at the same time, past and future flattened into the present, as if nothing ever happened before or will ever happen again, everything is continuously happening without the action ever being completed. On the Sunday when Murilo Junior, in his house in Rocio, showed you the goal that Pelé did not score, you realised for the first time in your life that it was the same day – 17 June 1970 – that Elvira had feinted the lax safety precautions on the half-built Joá flyover, hurling herself onto the sea-lashed rocks below. With sudden realisation, as if a butcher’s shop light had been switched on inside your head, you found yourself forever imprisoned in that day, play, pause, rewind, play. As long as Pelé did not score that goal you would be imprisoned in that day, only dreaming that life had gone on. At that moment you looked at your father and re-lived for the last time, with breathtaking intensity, the old dream of killing him.
“This was because Peralvo never played in the World Cup,” Murilo said, seemingly immune to the waves of death that were emanating from his son, his gaze fixed on the lead-green ridge of the hillsides silhouetted against the grey sky. “Peralvo was all set to be even greater than Pelé, Neto. Life’s a bitch.”
IF YOU HAD A FRIEND LIKE BEN
At the beginning, when nothing made sense, what most struck Neto was his immediate sense of commitment. He never woke up early, addicted as he was to the lack of discipline of twenty years working from home as a proof-reader without having to respect office hours, but he never missed a single Sunday. Just before midday he would stop at the Pavelka shop to buy the ten meat croquettes that would stave off his hunger until, as night fell, it was time to roast on the small concrete barbecue the wolf fish that they had caught in the reservoir and eat them with vegetables from the garden. They would chew the food in the dim light of the veranda at the back of the house, his father talking non-stop. Then Neto would get into his Maverick 1977 and travel the under one hundred kilometres to Rio in time to make a call to the pre-paid mobile phone of whichever salesgirl at the chemist’s or waitress at the café he happened to have lined up at the time. He would then attempt by any means possible, but always unsuccessfully, to lose within the woman in question the sadness that never failed to accompany him as he came down from the mountains.
As with so many rituals, this one was partly invented by accident. Neto was unable to explain why on his first visit to Rocio, at the start of the autumn, having stopped off at the Pavelka shop so as not to arrive empty-handed, he decided to buy croquettes. Since Murilo had moved to the mountains, ten years earlier, contact between them had been limited to two phone calls: his father calling at Christmas 2004, drunk, to sing Jingle bells – the cheeky Brazilian version – and another occasion two days after his son’s birthday, wishing him many happy returns as if he had got the right day. Tense, awkward phone calls, but none of them as surprising as the one of the previous week – the third in a decade. “I am waiting for you, Tiziu. I’m dying.” The melodramatic tone did not suit Murilo, and it was the first time in twenty-six years that his father had called him by the nickname that he had made up for him during his childhood and that no one else used. He replied that he couldn’t promise anything but he noted down the address.
He never woke up early, addicted as he was to the lack of discipline of twenty years working from home as a proof-reader without having to respect office hours, but he never missed a single Sunday.
Whilst he negotiated the tricky narrow road that connects the BR-040 highway to the Cindacta, the airspace control centre, Neto tried to determine what exactly remained from that long history of hatred. Whether what remained was more than just the sulking of a child. In the deep recesses of his thoughts, where words remain out of focus, perhaps he was deliberating whether their own fiasco as father and son could be the cue for some kind of final agreement, an honest pact – even if a pathetic one, there was no escaping that – before they died. He remembered the drawl of Nelson Rodrigues, in the press box at the Maracanã stadium, saying to a little boy who, in some incomprehensible way, was him: “Grow old!” He was forty-seven years old. Increasingly often he shuddered at the spectre of his fiftieth birthday – how absurd – now just a thousand days away. Before they died - that phrase echoed in his head when he stopped at the rustic roadside shop to ask directions to the Recanto dos Curiós.
“Mr. Murilo’s country house?”, “After the red bridge”, “Left”, “Half a kilometre”, he was instructed by three workmen who were drinking cachaça in the cold afternoon air, falling over each other in their eagerness to be the most helpful, as was typical of country people. “Cool”, one of them said as Neto was pulling away. It was a while before he realised that the bloke was referring to the Batmobile, the black Maverick LDO with V8 engine that he did his utmost to keep like new – a talisman from more prosperoustimes, a goal of honour in the inevitable defeat by a barrage of goals in the face of time.
The directions turned out to be accurate. Relieved at realising that he would not need to drive his car along a pot-holed dirt road, Neto soon came across the sign above a wooden gate cut into the hedge on the left. It displayed the name of the place in red, hand-written letters and the emblem of the América football club. Beyond the hedge, on the same side, there was a small clearing with tyre marks on the ground. He parked the car there and jumped out.
He started to feel dizzy and had to lean against the door of the Maverick. Beneath the grey sky, the cold air revealed suspended water particles dancing around like dust. He was Marty McFly jumping out of the DeLorean after journeying twenty-six years back in time to a past that he would end up altering, in a domino effect also changing the future. Or rather he was the scientist Tony Newman, that’s it, hurled down the Time Tunnel in Honolulu to meet up with his father the day before he died in the bombing of Pearl Harbor – knowing, or believing (it made no difference), that the past would forever be unchangeable.
Between the static story of The Time Tunnel and the malleable one of Back to the Future, between the 1960s TV series and the 1980s film franchise, Neto was drawn to the first option. However sad or repulsive it might have been, the past would always be forever irreversible. In other words, he did not know what he was doing there.
Butter appeared out of nowhere. In order to clap his hands to see if anyone was at home he had put the take-away container on the ground and had not seen the dog approaching. The animal was already on the scent of the croquettes when, sensing the danger, Neto bent down to snatch the lunch away from him. The mongrel was startled and predictably recoiled a little, but then he did something quite unexpected: as he was moving away he suddenly lunged forward like a jack-in-the-box andsank his teeth into the container. With his arms outstretched, Neto found himself holding on to the black, growling creature that was hanging on by its teeth to the tasty-smelling package. Luckily it was a small animal, but he didn’t know what to do. He considered shaking the box and throwing the dog as far away as possible. But that would be cruel.
He was saved by tuneful laughter from the other side of the hedge and a woman’s voice that gave the following command: “Leave it, Butter!” Butter let go right away. He lay on the ground with the same agility with which he had taken flight, like a cat, and Neto could swear that he was stifling in his throat the cynical snigger that Mutley gave when he was full of himself,swaggering around, before returning to his hole in the hedge. The wooden gate creaked on its rusty hinges as it opened to first reveal an enormous white smile, and only afterwards, appearing little by little like the Cheshire cat appeared to Alice, its owner: a dark-skinned twenty-something woman, with an indian’s slanted eyes, and long black flowing hair. Her laughter was still hanging in the air, echoing in the harp music of the stream that ran through the garden between rows of hydrangeas in full bloom. She introduced herself as Uiara, the wife of the caretaker, and said thatMr. Murilo was expecting him.
However sad or repulsive it might have been, the past would always be forever irreversible. In other words, he did not know what he was doing there.
Standing on the red-tiled veranda that encircled the simple house of exposed bricks, his father opened his arms with a yellow smile. Neto was shocked by the extent of his decline into old age. The mane of the Lion of the Sports Chronicle was reduced to half a dozen grey hairs combed to the back. His spine had curved, robbing him of at least a hand’s span of his five-feet-eleven-inch frame. If his sums were correct, Murilo must have been nearly eighty years old, but he looked like he was ninety. Maybe even a hundred. When they embraced each other clumsily, Neto felt a scrawny body beneath his hands, andbreathed in themiasma of dry tree fernthat he gave off. Birds were singing somewhere close by.
“Thank you for coming, Tiziu.”
His father held out his long-fingered hands – those fingers that had so many times been imprinted in red on his face as a child – to receive the squashed container that, being made of tin foil and by some stroke of luck, had been unharmed by the dog’s bite. Neto didn’t know what to say. He took advantage of the lingering excitement of having fought over the food with a domestic animal and talked about his encounter with Butter. This was the cue for Murilo to launch into the first of countless stories, as the two of them stood on the veranda.
“Butter”, he said, “was a player that América scouted in 1921 from Mauá, a tiny club made up of sailors that played on the quayside at the port. In theory all footballers were amateurs at the time, but Mauá only had really rough and ready players. I mean, they had loads of them, but in the midst of them all was Butter. Seaman Butter caught the attention of Jaime Barcelos, who was the director of football at América and a compulsive scout, who spent his life trudging round fields looking for new talent. Jaime was enthralled. His nickname was because the ball rolled smoothly around his feet, as if his passes were coated in butter. There was just one problem, Butter was a hulking great mulatto, and there was no disguising it, very different from the virtually white kind that Friedenreich had already begun to render acceptable at the time. Dark-skinned? Not dark-skinned, black! Black? Not black, mulatto! Flat-nosed, thick-lipped. There was no way he could pass at América, which was white and racist like all the elite Rio clubs at that time.”
Intrigued, and keen to be affable, Neto said:
“It was Vasco that broke with that racist regime, wasn’t it?”
Neto didn’t know what to say. He took advantage of the lingering excitement of having fought over the food with a domestic animal and talked about his encounter with Butter.
“That was afterwards. Back in 1921 the arrival of Butter caused a riot. After requesting to leave the Navy to play for América, as he walked through one door of the club on Campos Sales Street a load of dyed-in-the-wool América supporters walked out another. The likes of Borges and Curtis left the club, everybody pissed off, outraged. But through it all João Santos, the club’s president, who financed the hiring, kept his dignity. And Butter stayed put. As well as being the team’s best player he was the sort who, as they used to say, knew his place. He never set foot in the social area of the clubhouse, where the other players relaxed in wicker chairs after training sessions. He couldn’t get away fast enough. He also didn’t like attending the sophisticated parties at João Santos’s house. When he did go there he stayed outside on the pavement watching through the window the couples twirling around the ballroom. That was how the likes of Borges and Curtis, racists and mediocre players who had lost the first battle, ended up winning the war. Poor Butter never felt at home there. Then one day América went on a tour of Bahia, where the teams were naturally full of black players, otherwise there would not have been enough to go round, and it was a revelation to him. It was a racial paradise! He accepted the first offer that he received from a Bahian team, and didn’t even go back to Rio with the rest of the squad.”
“I get it”, said Neto, “but why has the dog got the same name? A gentle touch does not seem to be his strong point.”
Murilo smiled to himself, nodding his head.
“It isn’t at all. It turned out that he was one of a litter of six and he was the only black one. His brothers and sisters were almost all white, with just one that had a few darker patches, and yet he was coal black. That’s why his name is Butter. Do you like fishing, Tiziu?”
And that is how it started. Croquettes, fishing, the ghosts of generations of great players coming to dance above the reservoir as they were invoked by elaborately woven chatter, full of feints: Zizinho, Welfare, Fausto, Zico, Marinho Chagas, Telê, Ipojucan, Dirceu Lopes, Gradim. This filled the spaces left by the absence of Elvira, Conceição, Ludmila, and everything else that was painful between them. Was it better that way? It was as if a life devoted to writing about football had deprived his father of everything other than delirious memories of the game. Murilo did not need a DeLorean or a Tunnel, Neto realised, in order to defy time. He remembered the spines of the books by Proust in French that took pride of place on the bookshelf at his Guinle Park home and understood that his father, never the epitome of a balanced life, was gaga. The situation was ridiculous, but everything conspired to create a Sunday ritual maintained with discipline. Since it first started it was as if he already knew that this would end up making sense, although for the time being it made no sense at all.
Implemented with a lifetime’s delay,Murilo’s strategy, if indeed it was something as deliberate as that, was the same one that successive generations of Brazilian fathers had used to get closer to their sons. Many things in life drive a wedge between people who face each other over a gulf of twenty or thirty years – music, fashion, politics, customs, technology – but virtually indissoluble are the bonds forged in childhood around the colours of a football shirt, the worship of idols, dead or alive, the agonising frenzy of squeezing between thousands of human beings reduced to primal screams, the little boy of any era feeling in his stomach the fear of being swallowed up by the crowd and finding in the presence of his father the sense of security necessary to lose himself in something bigger than himself, knowing that at the end of the match he will make his way home.
But this had not been the case for the two of them. For a start, Murilo Filho never sat in the stands. The press box at the Maracanã stadium, where there were nearly always spare seats, was his second home. Wearing his beige linen blazer, even on summer afternoons, a haughty figure with blond highlights in the mould of the actorJardel Filho in the film Land in Anguish, the reporter for the Jornal do Brasil newspaper was viewed with open-mouthed admiration by the rookies and could be seen in brief exchanges with his peers, whichever other columnist giants happened to be in the box, such as João Saldanha, Armando Nogueira and Nelson Rodrigues – the latter also a playwright, whom Murilo did not rate as a sports reporter, saying that he always had his back to the pitch, but whom he treated cordially as he was the brother of his mentor, who had died a few years earlier. Although Murilo was on his home turf, he watched the matches on his own, withdrawn in a corner and smoking one Capri after another. He did not speak, nor did he visibly show any emotion at all – not even when his beloved América won, an increasingly rare occurrence. The buzz, the spectacle, the thrills of the battle went directly from his head to the page of the newspaper. They did not register on his face.
It was as if a life devoted to writing about football had deprived his father of everything other than delirious memories of the game.
He had gone to the Maracanã with Murilo three or four times. The first was just after Elvira had died and he had gone back to live with his father at Guinle Park. He must have been five or six years old. The last time was about two years later. On one of those afternoons Nelson Rodrigues shouted from a distance: “Hey, Murilo, your son’s a wren!” Neto felt his face burn up as if he had been insulted, instinctively understanding that the man was alluding to the fact that he was weedy and dark-skinned, different from his father. Another day – perhaps his last ever visit – that strange old bloke that he now feared almost to the point of panic came up to him during half-time, when his father had left him on his own to go and buy beer or cigarettes. He was not sure if it had been a Rio derby match between Flamengo and Fluminense, but it was nearly always the flags of those two teams that came to mind as a backdrop to the image of that man with bags under his eyes and wearing braces, who leaned forward with an ice lolly in his hand. With the whispered voice of a consumptive, he asked: “Do you like Chicabon lollies, son?” More out of a sense of obligation than desire he accepted the ice lolly. Nelson then laughed quietly and, already turning his back, yelled the command that Neto and the world would try to comply with to the letter:
He never felt at ease in the press box at the Maracanã. It’s possible that he stopped asking Murilo to take him there, and his father would definitely not have insisted. That was work, a serious thing, and there was no place for his son there. In that respect the Maracanã was no different from the rest of his life. It was only when Neto went back to live with his father that he came to acknowledge the existence of that tall man with wide shoulders, a hairy chest, brown hair highlighted by the sun, and a thundering voice. Sometimes he let his moustache grow, and left it like that for a few months before shaving it off. His wristwatch was the biggest that the young Neto had ever seen: a square-faced silver-plated Tissot. Murilo could whistle loudly with his two index fingers in his mouth, rolling back his upper lip against his cigarette-stained teeth, and every three months, when he was paying attention to his son, he would take him to lunch at a barbecue restaurant. He never heard the cries of the sickly little boy in the middle of the night – which was understandable, given that he was drained of his vital juices, although at the time Neto wasn’t aware of such things. He must have turned a deaf ear on some early mornings, but most of the time he genuinely slept heavily, his phenomenal snoring creating the perfect soundtrack for the night terrors that his son experienced from the age of five until he was about fifteen years old.
To have inherited from his ex-wife a kid who had barely begun to learn how to read and write – and had arrived without warning like the delivery of a fridge that won’t fit through the front door, a live suckling pig that wanted to make his home on the living-room carpet – this annoying turn of events did not make Murilo alter a single minute of his routine. He would go out in the morning to visit some football club or other. He would have lunch near the offices of the Jornal do Brasil, on Rio Branco Avenue. When the daily edition closed he would nearly always go straight to Antonio’s bar to have a drink, see a show by Simonal, have dinner at the Plataforma nightclub, and in each of these places he would take a leading role in the stories that would later fill the columns written by his colleagues and fellow bons vivants. Arse-lickers, the envious, the malicious, gays, the resentful, the easily impressed, among the Rio press there was never a lack of someone eager to publicise the Casanova-like antics of the Dickens of Campos Sales Street.
In the context of a dictatorial country, in the heady wake of the conquest of the third World Cup title in Mexico, the shadow cast by Murilo Filho was that of a giant. His short books in the Who is… series had six-figure print runs thanks to the backing of General Médici’s Ministry of Education and Culture, and were used in schools all over the country. Ricocheting like a pinball between his newspaper columns, lectures to students, round-table debates on radio and TV, the guy’s charisma did the rest. As early as 1969 the hillbilly from Merequendu, who had arrived in Rio’s bus terminal less than ten years earlier knowing virtually no one – just a spinster aunt that lived in Lins – had bought, with the help of a loan from the Caixa Econômica Federal bank, an apartment the size of the Maracanã in the leafy aristocratic enclave of Laranjeiras, and was circulating around the deepest strata of Rio’s affluent South Zone with the bearing of a beach-bronzed, hunky prince, wearing a shirt that exposed his chest. Nobody familiar with Rio’s gossip columns would be unaware that for about twenty years, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Murilo had been the city’s most prodigious womaniser.
From the end of his childhood until the peak of his adolescence, half proud half horrified, Neto learned from the press how to spell the names of the roll-call of his father’s lovers: libertine European princesses, druggy American starlets, socialites with the long necks of Modigliani’s paintings, underage daddy’s girls – daughters of general or brigadiers - who had lost their way and were given to throwing up at six in the morning under the table at the Hippopotamus nightclub, female writers high on the writings of Anaïs Nin and Shere Hite, actresses from Zé Celso’s theatre group unfamiliar with the discomfort of hair removal, actresses from soft-porn films or Chekov productions, cover-girls for the porn magazines Ele Ela and Status, would-be cover-girls for the magazines Ele Ela and Status, Reichian psychoanalysts, and bisexual singers. Even if half of them were pure myth, it was obvious that Murilo Filho, the bastard, had never lacked the attentions of an impressive cast of horny women in that pre-Aids world. It was almost forgivable that he didn’t have time to be a father.
He never felt at ease in the press box at the Maracanã. It’s possible that he stopped asking Murilo to take him there, and his father would definitely not have insisted.
He made one attempt to turn Neto into an América supporter, just the one, and it was short-lived. For Christmas in 1970 he gave his son a red shirt with number 10 on the back, which was soon too small for him and which was never replaced. The club’s decline helped to make his mission even more difficult. The underdog role that América would adopt with increasing conviction, despite having managed to form a good team in the mid-1970s, would have demanded a concerted effort from Murilo if he wanted to keep his son faithful to the red flag. This, however, was beyond his temperament or talents. The predictable result was for Neto to become a lukewarm América supporter who was just waiting for a source of heat to get close enough to him to melt his allegiance completely. This occurred a few years later in the form of a volcano called Zico. Neto then became a Flamengo supporter, but, perhaps as a consequence of the vicissitudes of his upbringing, of recognising the arbitrariness of things, he became first and foremost a member of that oppressed minority, but less of a rare species than people think: a Brazilian who is dispassionate about football.
There was a further football moment in their shared history, although in this case Neto had doubts about his father’s intentions. A short time before shifting his football allegiance, when he was ten years old, Murilo took him to train with América’s youth team. It was right in the middle of the 70s, the point at which the calendar folds in two, and he was more interested in music than football. He had become a fan of a boy called Michael Jackson, who had an afro hairstyle, bell-bottom trousers, the voice of an angel, and could be heard on the radio, alongside his big brothers, singing one beautiful ballad after another: Ben, Music and me, One day in your life. The so-called Devil’s Club had already begun its descent into the basement in terms of its achievements in the world of sporting glory, but the decline was still in its early stages. Its kids team were proof that these things take time. In the midst of those strong, skilful, determined boys, Neto cut a ridiculous figure hacking at shins and falling over in the slightest tussle. As was always the case in such situations, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he ended up as a left wing-back. The left wing-back position was the place for crap players.
Having watched just five minutes of training anyone would have realised that playing football at that level was not within his reach. Only Murilo seemed not to grasp that. As advisor at the club he insisted that his son should be there, and the coach, a weak man, went along with this. Neto and the team suffered as a result of his father’s stubbornness for six months, during which time he did not let his son miss a single training session, personally taking him to Tijuca in his big red Opel car – now the companion that he had never been nor ever would be again. They were six excruciating months in which, even striving to the best of his ability, Neto was humiliated during the pre-match training sessions, was insulted by the other members of the reserve team, and had to endure the members of the first-team laughing in his face. The atmosphere in the changing room was one of open hostility. During the games, of course, he remained on the bench. He only set foot on the pitch once, in the fortieth minute of the second half of a match against São Cristóvão that América’s youth team was winning five nil. It wasn’t as bad as he feared: nervous, he touched the ball once or twice, but he had the sense to do the bare minimum and the score remained the same. He came away with his dignity intact. The team captain, Vinição, came over to speak to him, patting him on the back. “Congratulations for not fucking up”, he said, and walked away laughing.
When they got inside the Opel his father hugged him: “A good start, Tiziu, a promising debut”, his eyes welling up. And that was it: that infinitesimal success, that non-event, was enough to intoxicate Neto, who in his eagerness to make his father proud of him began to believe that he could really play football. The possibility had still not occurred to him, and only would do some years later, that there was more than stubbornness and blindness behind Murilo’s insistence on seeing him don football boots and thick socks to flesh out his spindly shins, and be swallowed up by the sacred red shirt. It would take the hormones of adolescence to make him realise that his father’s obstinacy had nothing to do with pride, you idiot. It was pure sadism.
Even so, more powerful than the hurt he felt towards Murilo, and the bitterness towards the team mates that had looked down on him, what Neto held on to from that episode was the shame of having been a boy who not only acquiesced in the humiliation of pretending to be something he was not, muffling his tears into his pillow every night, but who in the end wanted even more. You can do it, Neto! Dig deep and you can do it!