By Leo Linden
Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras - better known simply as Palmeiras - has more than a century of rich history in Brazilian football and a claim to being the most successful club the country has ever produced. But Palmeiras has shown in the past two decades that history alone can’t keep a team relevant, and a roller-coaster ride of trials has ensued. Still, their prowess and fan base have allowed the club to surge once more in the past three years, and after a low point, this year presents another chance for Palmeiras to return to their perch as champions of Brazil.
The Sao Paulo-based club was founded in 1914 by four Italian men as Palestra Italia and quickly became a hub for Italians living in Brazil. With Brazil not having a unified league at the time, the club began competing in the Campeonato Paulista - a competition that still runs today - for superiority in the state of Sao Paulo.
In 1920, the championships began flowing as Palestra Italia picked up steam, capturing a total of eight Campeonato Paulista trophies in two decades. It was a successful era, one that laid the foundations for the club’s continued success. But, despite being thousands of miles away from the action, the side suffered major turbulence thanks to World War II.
With the Brazilian government aligned with the Allies, all references to the Axis powers were to be erased. In 1942, the club decided to drop the ‘Italia’ part of its name and be known solely as Palestra (which is Greek), but that didn’t help much, and the club remained under immense political pressure. To make matters worse, if the club didn’t come up with an alternate plan and fast, they would be forced to forfeit their history\ and be expelled from the season, which they were leading at the time.
From that arose the name Palmeiras, and the club took the field in the season’s final game against Sao Paulo, a huge local rival. It was a tense game and ultimately a disgraceful one as the Sao Paulo players fled the pitch in the second half after Palmeiras were awarded a penalty that could have put them up 4-1. Despite Sao Paulo’s own fans’ anger, the club refused to play on and the celebration began immediately for Palmeiras, who were crowned champions.
Success under the new name was just getting started, as after three more titles in the Campeonato
Ten more Campeonato Paulista titles have followed since for a total of 24, but when the first national tournament was formed in 1959, the Taca Brazil, the focus shifted. The Alviverde (the Green and White) captured two of the first 10 Taca Brazil titles and the first Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa, a competition which only crowned four winners from 1967-1970 but laid the foundation for a fully national league. Meanwhile, Palmeiras were getting desperately close to winning the Copa Libertadores, finishing runners up in 1961 and 1968, but they couldn’t quite get the job done.
When the Serie A came about in 1971, just like always, Palmeiras wasted no time ascending to the top, winning the second and third iterations of the league, in 1972 and 1973. The tournament, however, took a much different form than today, with a multi-grouped system over multiple stages determining the winner between sometimes more than 40 teams.
It was a very hard competition to win, and while Palmeiras finished in the top four five years straight between 1975 and 1979, the ‘80s were not kind to the Alviverde, who were relegated for the first time in 1981 after finishing 31st. They bounced out of the Serie B in one year, and in 1983 finished ninth out of 44, but throughout the entire decade, they could never mount a title chase that ended closer than fifth place.
The ‘90s, however, were a resurgent decade for the club, who returned to the winner's circle in back-to-back seasons in 1993 and 1994. No more Serie A trophies followed in the decade (though there were second-place finishes in 1997 and 1998), but after winning the their first Copa do Brasil and the inaugural Copa Mercosur (a precursor to South America’s second-biggest club competition, the Copa Sudamericana) in 1998, the stage was set for a deep run in the 1999 Copa Libertadores, and legendary coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had his eyes set on the ultimate prize.
After finishing second in a group topped by Corinthians, Palmeiras blasted Bolivian outfit Jorge Williamson in the round of 16, setting up a rematch with Corinthians. The two fixtures were split with each side winning 2-0, but Palmeiras were able to best their countrymen on penalties. Things didn’t get any easier when they dropped the first semifinal leg to River Plate 1-0, but the Alviverde came roaring
The following year, lightning almost struck again, but after winning two penalty shootouts (in the round of 16 and the semifinals), Palmeiras was finally the victim of spot kicks, losing the final to Boca Juniors after the two legs ended 2-2.
But while those accomplishments had Palmeiras riding high as the best Brazilian side ever, since the turn of the century, they have not finished better than fourth place in the Serie A, which now consists of fewer sides. That has allowed Santos to tie them in the all-time record books (the combination of the Taca Brazil, the Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa and the Serie A) with eight titles.
Worse, it was all unravelling in 2012 in one of the strangest seasons in club history. After finishing in 11th the previous season, Palmeiras went into freefall, finished in 18th, and were relegated for the second time. However, while they couldn’t muster up quality football in the Serie A, Palmeiras maneuvered all the way to a second Copa do Brasil, beating Coritiba 3-1 in the final.
The relegation hit hard, but just as before, Palmeiras responded well, winning the Serie B and returning to the top flight with massive changes on the horizon. Those happened in 2015 when the club purchased 25 players and pulled many more from their youth ranks in hope of quickly ascending up the table. It sounded crazy, but the strategy worked, as after a 16th place finish in 2014, they rose to ninth in 2015.
Maybe more importantly, the club defeated Santos in the 2015 Copa do Brasil final, giving them a combined
Now, the dividends are really paying off as Palmeiras are leading this year's Serie A table with the halfway mark approaching. Their top goalscorer is rising star Gabriel Jesus, who could find himself in the ranks of a prominent European side sooner rather than later. Jesus has tallied 10 goals this year in just 15 games, seven more than any other squad member, and his four assists are good enough for third as well.
In just a few short years, the Alviverde are on the verge of turning mayhem into triumph in what could be one of the fastest turnarounds seen without the aid of a massive financial investment. It is still too early to tell how things are going to play out in the long run, but as of now, the future is more than bright for Palmeiras.