This is the second of a two-part series on the relegation of southern Brazilian club Internacional. Part one can be read here and details the club’s failings on the pitch. Part two, however, delves deeper.
When your team is facing relegation, you expect the club to do whatever it can to avoid the drop. But where do you draw the line? Sacking the coach? Dropping key players? Throwing money irresponsibly at new signings? Most would agree these practices are par for the course, especially in Brazil.
But how would you feel if your club went a step further? What if your club took a relegation rival to court for a superfluous infraction and tried to have them docked points? What if your club attempted to invalidate the entire league season by postponing its final round? What if your club took advantage of a national tragedy to try and remain in the first division?
Welcome to the murky, underhanded side of Internacional’s relegation. A story even uglier than the team’s performances on the pitch – and that’s saying something.
THE BIG CARPET
With a couple of months left to play in this year’s Brazilian season, Internacional were forced to face up to reality. Their form was poor and showed no signs of improvement. Coaches came and coaches went, players were dropped, systems changed, yet the team could not drag themselves out of the lower reaches of the league table.
Referring to the fact that Internacional were one of a select group of Brazilian sides who had never been relegated to the second division (alongside Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Santos and São Paulo), club president Vitório Piffero guaranteed that the previously unthinkable would not come to pass. “We’ve never gone down and we’re going to keep it that way”, he boasted. How could he be so sure?
The answer did not lie on the pitch, the training ground or in the dressing room, Piffero’s certainty came from Internacional’s legal department, and the so-called Victor Ramos Case.
Victor Ramos (pictured below) is a middling 27-year-old centre-back who plays for Vitória, a club from the north-eastern state of Bahia. He joined Vitória on loan at the beginning of the year, having previously been loaned to Palmeiras in 2015. Instead of returning to his parent club, Mexican side Monterrey, Ramos moved directly from Palmeiras to Vitória. At the time, the switch was incorrectly registered as a domestic transfer instead of an international transfer, which caused a legal dispute during the state championships in March.
Vitória were not punished for this perceived “error”, as the head of the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) records department, Reynaldo Buzzoni, affirmed that Monterrey did not request the player’s return to Mexico and authorised his transfer from Palmeiras to Vitória. The consensus was that although the proper procedures were not followed, Vitória had not acted in bad faith. The case was shelved and Victor Ramos was free to play the national championship for Vitória.
However, with the spectre of relegation haunting the halls of the Beira-Rio, Internacional’s legal department decided to take a look at the Victor Ramos Case. As the process was never formally judged, Inter could force it to be reopened providing they presented new evidence attesting to Vitória’s culpability. Were they found guilty, the club could stand to lose three points for every match Victor Ramos played this season, relegating them and (conveniently) saving Internacional.
There is a name in Brazil for this kind of legal manoeuvre on behalf of football clubs. It’s called the tapetão, or “big carpet”, the origins of which come from an early example of such judicial table-turns, the Rio de Janeiro state championship of 1969.
In the final stage of that tournament, Fluminense (today regarded as connoisseurs of the tapetão) drew a derby match with Vasco da Gama, in which they had their top goalscorer Flávio sent off in controversial circumstances. Fluminense refused to appeal Flávio’s suspension, but on the day of their next match, away to América, the club handed the referee an injunction that claimed Flávio’s punishment was “unconstitutional”.
Flávio played and scored twice as Fluminense won 2-1. They would later go on to win the championship. Newspapers quipped that Fluminense had won on “the carpets of the court, that which they had lost on the turf of the pitch”, and thus the tapetão entered into Brazilian football parlance.
Returning to the 21st century, Brazil’s sports court (STJD) dismissed Internacional’s 42-page request to reopen the Victor Ramos Case and shelved it once more. Inter, however, are preparing an appeal.
The already convoluted story took another twist when the CBF claimed Internacional had used forged documents in their request to the STJD. The allegedly false documents consist of an email exchange between Vitória and the aforementioned Reynaldo Buzzoni, in which the head of records demands the north-eastern club follow the proper procedures for international transfers.
While the claims of forgery sound far-fetched, it only serves to guarantee that this legal clusterfuck will run on and on throughout the off-season.
THE ART OF TIMING
There is no opportune time to enter a legal battle such as this. In Brazil, using the tapetão is rightly frowned upon and can cause catastrophic damage to a club’s image. The aforementioned Fluminense, no stranger to the carpets of the STJD, are these days nicknamed Tapetense by their rivals.
However, Internacional’s board did not seem fussed with keeping up appearances when a historic first relegation was on the line. Director of Football Fernando Carvalho (pictured below) boasted on live television that he had no problem with gaining the reputation of using the tapetão.
Though in this particular case, the timing was important. Firstly, Internacional chose to plead their case right at the end of the league season. As no new evidence had arisen since March, if this was not a brazen manoeuvre to avoid relegation, why did Internacional not take up the matter with the STJD at the start of the national championship?
Internacional’s ploy left an even worse taste after the events of the Chapecoense air disaster in November. As the world of football saw an outpouring of solidarity and condolence in the aftermath of the tragedy, Inter’s board thought it the ideal time to take Vitória to court to try and save their own skin.
To prove that Internacional’s top brass were indifferent to the suffering of their counterparts, the day before lodging their request, Fernando Carvalho channelled the spirit of John Galt by claiming Inter were enduring their “own personal tragedy, avoiding relegation”. He later apologised for his choice of words, giving the baffling excuse that his comments were taken out of context.
“WE COULD BE RELEGATED…”
With the Victor Ramos case shelved, the club’s image in the toilet and the team one game away from the drop, Internacional called a Hail Mary.
In the aftermath of the Chapecoense tragedy, the final round of the league season was postponed by one week and the Brazilian sports press discussed whether Chape’s last match (at home to Atlético Mineiro) should have to go ahead. Pouncing on this sentiment, the entire Internacional squad gave a confusing statement in which they requested the last match-day of the Brazilian championship be cancelled, claiming they were not in any condition to play. Their comments were later supported by club president Vitório Piffero.
On the surface, the statement could be construed as a genuine display of emotion, a decision to abandon their final match out of grief. However, on a closer inspection of its wording, the statement proved itself to be yet another self-preservation manoeuvre.
Allow me to explain. The statement, voiced by club captain Alex, ensured that the players did not want to “spoil” the championship, “but we would like for the final round not to take place, irrespective of the rules”.
“Our feeling is that the final round should not take place, and in that case, we could be relegated.”
“If that were to be the case, we would accept the position we are in [in the league table].”
If this was a sincere statement written by the players to express their grief, it was needlessly vague. If their desire was not to open up legal loopholes and remain in the first division, their statement could have been made as a tweet. “We will not play our final match against Fluminense and as such, we are #relegated.”
The doubt surrounding the earnestness of this declaration was strengthened by President Piffero’s comments later in the day, who said he felt there could “not be any more football in 2016” and that the league would be left “incomplete”. Incomplete, and decided on the carpets, not the pitch.
INTERNACIONAL LIVES ON
Clearly, none of the blame for the diabolical behaviour of club officials has been directed at the Internacional fans or the institution as a whole. Unfortunately, however, as happened with Vasco da Gama under the despotic rule of Eurico Miranda, one of Brazil’s most traditional and best-liked clubs has transformed into one of the most despised thanks to its board of directors.
Internacional’s support unsurprisingly have not condoned the unethical behaviour of the club’s top brass. Days before the relegation, Vitório Piffero’s candidate was crushed in the presidential elections for 2017-2018, receiving a pitiful 5.2% of votes.
The new administration, led by president-elect Marcelo Medeiros, now has a chance to draw a line under all of this unpleasantness. A wise move would be to drop their appeal with the STJD, perhaps even issuing an apology for their predecessors, and focus on winning promotion from the second division.
No-one likes being relegated, but it’s not the end of the world, especially for a club of Internacional’s enviable size. In fact, it is often a chance for clubs to strengthen, to right the wrongs that led them to this situation and return more powerful than ever.
I for one am looking forward to having the real Internacional back. The club that ten years ago defeated Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona to become champions of the world. O Campeão de Tudo. The Glorious Reds, the Pride of Brazil.