Belo Horizonte a hotbed of Brazilian soccer

Marcelo celebrates Brazil's win over Chile at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte. (Frank Augstein/AP)

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – The unpretentious, unassuming city of Belo Horizonte has become the focal point for Brazilian football in recent times.

Atletico Mineiro (AKA Galo, The Rooster) lifted their first continental title in over a century of existence just a year ago. Goaded into life by Atletico Mineiro’s Copa Libertadores success, bitter rivals Cruzeiro (AKA Raposa, The Fox) took the national title a few short months later for the first time in 10 years. The decade between the two Brasileirao titles for Cruzeiro saw them lose the Libertadores final against Estudiantes of Argentina in 2009 and avoid relegation to Serie B in 2011 on the final day of the season, beating Atletico Mineiro 6-1—a “chocolate” victory, smooth and so very sweet.

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Atletico Mineiro finished two points above their rivals that season, with both clubs ending the championship just above the relegation zone. The Etadio Mineirao closed for World Cup refurbishment at the end of 2009, meaning that both teams had to play their home games in the neighbouring town of Sete Lagoas. As attendances plummeted, both Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro struggled dreadfully on the pitch. It was only when the clubs could move back to Belo Horizonte— Cruzeiro to the Mineirao and Atletico to the Estadio Independencia, originally constructed for the 1950 edition of FIFA’s flagship international tournament—that both returned to winning ways. Atletico Mineiro’s move to the cramped confines of the Independencia, in particular, proved to be a catalyst for success.

With the traditional clubs of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro largely struggling for consistency at national and continental level, the two Mineiro teams seized their opportunity. 2013 saw the capital of the vast state of Minas Gerais hold both Brasileirao and Libertadores titles simultaneously for the very first time. Atletico Mineiro’s Libertadores success came a year after Corinthians of Sao Paulo had ground their way to the same title under manager Tite—as well as the Club World Cup, beating Chelsea in the final—and two seasons after a fresh-faced teenager named Neymar dragged an average Santos team to continental glory. At the other end of the spectrum, Carioca teams Fluminense and Vasco de Gama, as well as Paulista powerhouses Palmeiras were all relegated to the second tier, the latter under the guidance of Luis Felipe Scolari.

Belo Horizonte's success was merely a blip—nothing more than an anomaly—according to those who follow teams from Brazil’s two most populous and prestigious cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The status quo would soon be resumed, and the recent success for the city of Belo Horizonte would rapidly be forgotten as soon as Brazil’s great clubs got their own affairs in order. This may prove to be the case, but Belo Horizonte’s footballing heritage goes beyond the present-day.

Pele was born in Tres Coracoes, Ronaldo made his name playing for Cruzeiro, and World Cup winner Tostao, one of Brazil’s greatest ever players, was born in the city. Current Selecao players Fred and Bernard were born in the state of Minas Gerais— the latter in the city of Belo Horizonte itself. The goalkeeper Victor—named Sao Victor of Horto for his heroics in the Libertadores quarterfinal against Mexico’s Club Tijuana—and former Manchester City and Everton striker Jo still play their football in the city with Atletico Mineiro. Whether recent successes are maintained or not, Belo Horizonte’s footballing traditions will remain.

Brazil won against Chile in the Round of 16 on penalties in Belo Horizonte but the city hasn’t been lucky exclusively for local teams. All three of the nations based in the city progressed to the knockout stages of the World Cup—Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay. On top of that, six of the eight teams that played at the beautiful Mineirao also progressed from the group stage of the competition.

The city of Belo Horizonte will prove once again to be of strategic importance in the narrative of this World Cup, with the semifinal in Brazil’s half of the draw set to be played at the Mineirao on July 8. Should the home nation get past Colombia in the quarterfinal on Friday, they will be hoping for a bit more luck in the capital of Minas Gerais. If so, it would further cement Belo Horizonte’s status as one of Brazil’s greatest footballing cities.

Paul Sarahs is an English-based journalist who is covering the World Cup for Sportsnet in Brazil. Follow Paul on Twitter.