There can be few experiences more painful for football supporters than watching their club scale impossible heights, sparking great expectations, before plummeting to earth with a bang. Yet Brazilian outfit Sport Club do Recife have made alternating success with failure their stock in trade, much to the chagrin of their fiercely passionate fans.
And it is this unpredictability, allied to the fervour of the fans packing their Ilha do Retiro stadium, that has made trips to take on o Leão da Ilha (the Lion from the island) synonymous with a difficult away day, even for Brazilian football’s biggest sides. FIFA.com takes a closer look at why Sport deserve a place in the site’s pantheon of Classic Clubs.
Birth of an institution
On his return to Recife after a period studying abroad, Guilherme de Aquino Fonseca set about founding a club dedicated to a sport he had discovered on his travels to England: football. Thus, in 1905 Sport Club do Recife were founded, though they would not take part in their first Pernambucano state championship until ten years later.
On the back of clinching consecutive state titles in 1916 and 1917, in 1919 the club were invited to Belem in Para state for a series of five friendly matches. Up against a Remo-Paysandu select side in one of these encounters, the locals put a trophy called o Leão de Bronze (the Bronze Lion) at stake, only for Sport to shock their hosts with a 2-1 win.
On their journey back to Recife with their prize, however, an angry Paraense supporter snapped the tail off the bronze lion. This incident caused such outrage in the Rubro-negro camp that they decided to use the lion as the basis of a new club crest, symbolising their triumph against adversity and fighting spirit. Finally, when Sport unveiled their Ilha do Retiro stadium in 1937, that cemented the nickname the club has held ever since: o Leão da Ilha.
Making of a legend
In order to underline Sport’s contribution to the rich tapestry that is the history of Brazilian football, it should be noted that two leading Brazil strikers began their careers at the club. First of these was Ademir de Menezes, who top-scored with nine goals at the ill-fated 1950 FIFA World Cup™ on home soil, while Vava led the line for the Seleção side crowned world champions in 1958 and 1962.
The 1960s, however, were the starting point for the rollercoaster ride that was being a supporter of Os Rubro-negros. After winning the state title in 1961 and 1962, Sport’s fans would not lift another Pernambucano crown until the 1975 success inspired by the goalscoring feats of Dada Maravilha. In the meantime, followers of o Leão da Ilha had to endure local rivals Nautico and Santa Cruz racking up runs of six and five consecutive state championships respectively.
Similarly, the 80s started in fine style, with three successive state titles between 1980 and 1982, followed by impressive campaigns in the national championship. This culminated in the club’s first Brazilian crown in 1987 and making their Copa Libertadores bow the following year. In 1988 Sport also reached the final of the Copa do Brasil and seemed set to cement their status among the country’s big boys, only to plummet into Brazilian football’s second tier in 1989.
Having swiftly bounced back into the top flight after winning the 1990 Serie B title, by 1994 Sport looked to be on the rise again after victory in the regional Copa Nordeste with a fine crop of young players including future Lyon and Brazil set-piece genius Juninho Pernambucano. This triumph laid the foundations for a run of five consecutive state championship wins between 1996 and 2000, with the club once again clinching the Copa Nordeste in the latter year. Yet as had so often been the case, despair followed glory as in 2001 Sport were relegated from Brazil’s top tier.
Upon their return to Brazil’s Serie A, thanks to their third-place finish in 2006’s Serie B campaign, Sport looked to be back on the right track. The Ilha do Retiro had once again become a feared destination for away teams, with Sport’s victorious bid for the 2008 Copa do Brasil a perfect example. On their way to lifting the trophy for the first time, o Leão da Ilha sank national giants Internacional de Porto Alegre, Palmeiras and Vasco da Gama on home soil, before overturning a 3-1 first-leg deficit by downing Corinthians 2-0 in the second leg of the final.
That success secured a return to continental action in the 2009 Libertadores, where the Recife outfit rose impressively to the challenge. Having topped their first-stage group ahead of Palmeiras, Sport ended up face-to-face with O Verdão once more in the Round of 16. Beaten 1-0 away in the first leg, Sport were leading 1-0 in the return and came agonisingly close to progressing when Ciro’s shot clipped the post in the third minute of injury time. With the two sides unable to score again in extra time, a phenomenal performance by Palmeiras’ 2002 FIFA World Cup-winning custodian Marcos helped his team through 3-1 in the shootout.
That Libertadores exit triggered another downward spiral and the club ended 2009 by suffering relegation back to Serie B. Nevertheless, despite their disappointment at the drop, everyone at Sport has swiftly united in a collective effort to help the club bounce back. Could this latest section of the Sport rollercoaster ride end with o Leão da Ilha in Serie A again come 2011?
The Estadio Adelmar da Costa Carvalho, better known as the Ilha do Retiro, could barely have begun life in finer fashion – Sport unveiling their stadium on 4 July 1937 with a 6-5 win over rivals Santa Cruz thanks to Haroldo Praca’s clinching goal. The arena also hosted a match at the 1950 FIFA World Cup, a game in which Chile beat the United States 5-2. Boasting a capacity of 35,000, when full there are few stadiums in Brazilian football that can match its intense and cauldron-like atmosphere.