Botafogo find themselves in the strange position of being better off now that former manager Ricardo Gomes has been poached by a bigger and richer club. Excluding the cup thrashing dished out by Cruzeiro last Friday night, they’ve been on a fine run of form, now having won four out of their past five games and climbing up the table from relegation trouble to possible mid-table safety. Botafogo now sit closer to the Copa Libertadores spots than they are to the drop – a fine achievement in their first season back in the top flight.
Botafogo have been rolling back the years, all the way back to the great teams of the 60’s. Their caretaker manager Jair Ventura is the son of one of Botafogo’s and Brazil’s greatest products, Jairzinho, and so it’s no surprise that he’s so influenced by one of their most successful eras.
They won the State Championship in both 1961 and 1962, leading to a second-placed finish at the Copa Libertadores in 1963. As a club, they formed the back bone of Brazil’s 1962 World Cup-winning squad, contributing five players – including the inventor of the wing-back position, Nilton Santos; Didi, who was voted the 1958 tournament’s best player; and the only person to win a World Cup as a player and manager, Mario Zagallo.
Garrincha, though, was probably their greatest player. Born with two bowed legs, he always looked like he was shimmying a defender even if he was running straight at them. A true showman, he was known for not just beating a defender, but absolutely crushing them. In one fabled game, Garrincha carried on dribbling off the pitch while the defender followed, yet the referee refused to blow his whistle for a throw-in, knowing full well that he and the crowd wanted to watch the spectacle.
In Neilton, Botafogo have found the perfect player to wear club and national legend Garrincha’s famous no.7 jersey. Capable of close ball control and little flicks, he’s a real entertainer. Unlike Garrincha, though, he does know when enough is enough and uses his skills more sparingly. Playing a little further up the pitch than under Ricardo Gomes, he’s able to use his skills to their full potential, in a much freer role with chances to get in to the box.
Sassa is looking strangely reminiscent of the great Pele. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll almost certainly not reach the levels of the legend; after all, who would? But he has the same physique, the same little busy runs, strong in the air (even though he isn’t a large six-footer), a bag of tricks, and an almost hypnotic control over the football. Just like Pele, Sassa gets singled out for some rough treatment, but just like the great man, his temperament means he just gets up, brushes himself down and carries on.
He’s been a sensation, with five goals in six games and seven of his season total ten in the last two months alone. He’s pushed himself up to the top of the goal-scoring charts alongside great names such as Gabriel Jesus – who just recently signed for Manchester City for £29million – and ex-Real Madrid star Robinho. Sassa is carving himself out a reputation as a fast yet physical striker with a real eye for goal.
Jair Ventura doesn’t just replicate the football from the past. He’s taken some of its best bits, in the showmanship and entertainment of the game, and added modern edges. Football hipsters would call it the Gegenpress, but to the rest of us it’s simply closing down; either way, Botafogo are fantastic at it. In their recent match against Gremio, they harried and harassed their opposition, never giving them a chance to look up, never granting them the time to pick out the best pass, and never really allowing them to keep hold of the ball.
With Jair Ventura in charge, channelling some of the spirit of the 60’s and his father Jairzinho, we’ll be in for a spectacle. Neither Sassa nor Neilton will reach anything like the levels of Pele and Garrincha, but we’ll enjoy watching them try. Fingers crossed Jair Ventura gets the job permanently – he deserves it.