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04 Jun 2004 00:00
The ancient Grecians (as Exeter are known) were figures of legend: the first professional team to play in Brazil and first opponents for the national team. Their successors, who took on a team of veteran internationals last Sunday, are rather less well known.
Careca, who played in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, admitted beforehand that the first time he had ever heard of Exeter City was ‘just over a week ago”.
It was a surreal spectacle, watching these legends of world football kicking a ball about in the Devon sunshine. St James Park is a long way from the Maracana or even Wembley, but Careca said he was proud to have taken part in such an ‘historic event”.
The occasion was — as the Tannoy proudly announced — the second time that Exeter City had played Brazil.
‘They are five-times World Cup holders and we were the first team to ever play them,” said Ian Huxham, Exeter’s managing director. ‘I’m not saying that we can claim credit for what happened since then, but I am delighted that the dominant force in world football is not afraid to remember its roots.”
About 6 000 fans — including hundreds of Brazilians clad in yellow and beating drums — were here to see the team of veterans beat Exeter 1-0. This was the culmination of the centenary celebrations at a club who have not had much to cheer about lately.
Well-matched in 1914, when Brazil won 2-0, the teams have had wildly diverging destinies.
Brazil went on to become the most successful side in the world. Exeter have always wallowed in the lower divisions but last year were relegated to the Conference.
Barry Hutchings, a fan who first saw them in 1958, was lost for words.
‘Twelve months ago we thought we were going to have to close down. Then we play Brazil. They may lack pace but they showed enthusiasm. It was very different from the football you normally get here.”
Exeter City had sailed to South America in 1914 on a trip to make money and ease their overdraft, and this rematch had the same purpose in mind. The club managed to avoid administration last year by entering into a Corporate Voluntary Agreement, but their future is still threatened by debts.
In February a delegation of club officials went to Dublin, where Brazil were playing Ireland, to meet Marco Antonio Teixeira, general secretary of the Brazilian Football Confederation. They stressed the historic link and asked if a re-run of the 1914 game could be arranged to help raise funds.
Teixeira offered them the Brazil Masters, a team coached by Branco who are fast becoming a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters. They charge between £4 000 and £6 000 per person per game — an amount easily afforded by Exeter, who charged up to £30 for tickets.
Sunday’s build-up had all the pomp of an international, with the crowd standing up for the national athems. The visitors then displayed their dominance on the pitch, having almost all of the possession in the first half. And shortly before the interval Silas earned them a penalty after a run up the left and Careca calmly converted it.
Exeter improved in the second half and some of the Brazilians — many twice the age of the Exeter players — were wheezing as they ran for passes. Despite two good chances for either side, however, the game lost momentum but both teams seemed happy at the end.
‘They really gave us the run-around,” said Exeter’s captain Glenn Cronin. ‘Dunga strolled through the whole game but they showed us how to play football. They may not be the fittest in the world but you can’t get a touch of the ball.”
Sean Devine, one of Exeter’s strikers, added: ‘It was a dream, really. Some of us won’t get an opportunity like this again.”
The Brazilians took the event seriously and spoke without irony of Exeter’s importance in their history. Wagner, the goalkeeper, said: ‘It was a well-fought game. Even though we are Masters and they are young, it makes us happy going home with a victory. We were able to show that we can still play football.”
For Dunga, the captain in 1994 and again on Sunday, it was an emotional exercise.
‘When you put your shirt on you forget your age,” he said.
Exeter are used to media extravaganzas; two years ago they made headlines when Uri Geller, then a director, invited his friend Michael Jackson to the club.
‘When I asked him what does he know about football he said, ‘absolutely nothing but I love Exeter City,’” Geller reported.
Huxham said that Sunday was a much prouder moment because it was all about football. He added that the Grecians have been invited to Rio in July for the 90th anniversary celebrations — and are still looking for sponsors to pay for the flights.
On the terraces Brazilians like Fabricio Cini, who works in London, livened up the event with dancing and flag-waving.
‘I never saw any of these players before and it makes me proud to be able to see them here.”
Exeter’s vice-chairperson Julian Tegg said it all still had to sink in: ‘I’m still pinching myself. The last time famous players came here was almost 40 years ago when we faced Manchester United in the FA Cup.”
In the stands others were happy to soak up the atmosphere.
Stephen Fisher Crouch, there with his children, said: ‘Today is completely surreal. It’s like a bit of Brazil has been transplanted to Exeter. And everyone is smiling. You don’t always get that here.” —
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