One of the most successful clubs in Brazil, Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras have won eight league titles, as well as two Copa do Brasil trophies.
The champions of South America in 1999, having beaten Colombian side Deportivo Cali to claim the Copa Libertadores, with their success culminating in the awarding of “Best Team of the 20th Century of Brazil” by the Sao Paulo State Football Federation, they are a club of immense power and wealth.
Palmeiras’ team is predominantly Brazilian, with ex Bayern Munich and Inter Milan defender Lúcio among their ranks. Apart from a smattering of Chilean, Argentinian and Uruguayan players, their squad is entirely made up of footballers from the “Futebol Nation”.
Given that Palmeiras are situated in Brazil, the land of ‘futebol’, one would not feel obliged to be surprised in any way. However, delving deep into the rich history of a club deemed to be one of the most influential in the nation, will shock you somewhat: Palmeiras was originally an Italian club.
The idea of Palestra Italia came in the early 20th century, from Luigi Cervo, Vicenzo Ragognetti, Luigi Emanuele Marzo and Ezequiel Simone, four men from the Italian community within Sao Paulo. The team was to be created as a representative side for the community, and would face the biggest sides within Sao Paulo’s footballing scene.
The men contacted a number of local newspapers, including the ‘Fanfulla’ a publication largely dedicated to Italian-Brazilians, with their idea. It was met with much enthusiasm.
Fanfulla even wrote ‘In Sao Paulo we have… the football club of the Germans, of the English, of the Portuguese, of the Catholics and Protestants, but a club that might be composed exclusively of Italian sportsmen, and our colony (is) the largest in the state, (yet) still nothing has been tried!’ After several meetings, a total of almost 50 people formed Palestra Italia, a sports club for Italian-Brazilians.
Palestra Italia played its inaugural match in Votorantim, a town in Sao Paulo state. They won 2-0, with Bianco and Algretti on the score-sheet as they defeated Savoia, winning the Savoy Cup.
In 1916, Palestra Italia joined the Sao Paulo State Championship, and played its first official match. Just a year later, Palestra Italia finished second in the league, beating rivals and fellow Sao Paulo club Corinthians on two occasions. In just two years, the club that Luigi Cervo and Co had strived to create was blossoming; it was the pride of the Italian community.
Palestra Italia continued to grow, and by early 1934, had amassed six Sao Paulo State Championship trophies. Although there were other clubs representing different nations, for example CR Vasco de Gama, founded by the Portuguese community within the city of Rio de Janeiro, Palmeiras were an incredible side, and were capable of beating almost every other team in the Sao Paulo State Championship. Their ability and skill exemplified the quality of Italian-Brazilian footballers.
However, during the Second World War, the Brazilian Government banned organizations from using Axis forces’ names. Due to the fact that Italy, alongside Germany and Japan, were part of the Axis Powers, headed by their fascist leader Benito Mussolini, Palestra Italia were informed that they must change their name. So Palestra Italia became Palestra Sao Paulo.
However, this did not satisfy President Getúlio Vargas and his government, and it was insisted that Palestra Sao Paulo change their name yet again.
Palestra protested against this, claiming that ‘Palestra’ was a Greek word, but Vargas would hear none of it. Facing ejection from the Sao Paulo State Championship, it was inevitable that Palestra Sao Paulo would have to change its name, or lose its right to remain a football club.
The evening prior to the last match of the Sao Paulo State Championship, a club meeting was held. The discussion quickly became heated and, clearly in an attempt to keep what little order there was, Dr Mario Minervino stood up and said; “They (Sao Paulo State) do not want us to be Palestra, so then we shall be Palmeiras, born to be champions!”
Palmeiras, just a day later, lined up against Sao Paulo FC. Palmeiras, founded for the purpose of representing the Italian-Brazilian community of the city, entered the stadium led by Captain Adalberto Mendes, carrying a Brazilian flag. The fabric on which they existed was being undermined by greater powers.
The Brazil flag in evidence represented the fact that Palmeiras were no longer an Italian club, despite their history. Palestra Italia’s side had been crushed and remodelled in the shape of the ‘Futebol Nation’; a perfect political victory for President Vargas.
Palmeiras led the score by 3-1, before a penalty was awarded to them. However, Sao Paulo FC, presumably angered by Palmeiras’ resurfacing, ordered its players to leave the pitch, stating that the once-Italian club should be considered an enemy of Brazil.
At this, Sao Paulo FC’s supporters began jeering wildly, and Palmeiras, despite being remodelled by the Brazil Government as a resolutely Brazilian club, were still considered enemies.
Since becoming a ‘Brazilian’ club, Palmeiras have gone on to become one of the country’s most successful clubs. Having won 22 Sao Paulo State Championship trophies, as well as eight national league titles, Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras have cemented their place in Brazilian football history.
Once supported by the Italian community of Sao Paulo, Palmeiras now boast a wider fan base, with backers from all over the country. The changing of the club’s name signalled the dawn of a new era, one in which Palmeiras would go on to retain their status as one of Brazil’s most prosperous sides.
However, although Palestra Italia is gone, its influence on the club today is still in evidence.
Until 2010, Palmeiras continued to play in the Estadio Palestra Italia, and despite the club’s seemingly ‘Brazilian’ look, there still remains a feeling of appreciation for the Italian-Brazilians who founded Palestra Italia, simply wanting to create a club to provide an opportunity for the Italian people of Sao Paulo.
A new stadium is set to be built for Palmeiras, namely the Arena Palestra Italia. This is the type of appreciation that is in evidence at the club. Despite now being a wholly Brazilian club, Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras cannot, and do not want to, shake away their Italian roots.
The creation of what started as Palestra Italia, but what has now become a team with millions of fans throughout Brazil, was due to the Italian-Brazilians and Palmeiras acknowledge this.
A club rich in its history and culture, Palmeiras, commonly known as the “Alviverde”, dominance has faded somewhat over the last decade. However, it is the club’s future that excites fans today.
With the Arena Palestra Italia in the phase of being built, and a promising side including defensive rock Lucio and creative midfielder Wesley, both of whom have Brazil caps to their name, Palmeiras fans have reason to be optimistic.
Palmeiras are now, thanks to President Vargas and his government, no longer an Italian side. However, inklings of the club’s Italian heritage are still to be seen. For all of Vargas’ meddling, he failed to rip the “Azzuri” culture from a club still proud, 100 years on, of its Italian roots.