It was supposed to be their year.
In early 1994, Formula One driver Ayrton Senna met with the Brazilian men’s soccer team in France just before a friendly match in preparation for the FIFA World Cup. Senna, from Sao Paulo, had just joined the powerhouse Williams team and both F1 driver and football team were searching for the elusive fourth world championship in their respective sports that season.
Brazilian player Leonardo told the China Daily that Senna said, “This is our year.”
It wasn’t meant to be though.
Just two weeks later on May 1, Senna was killed during an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, when he lost control of his car and crashed into a concrete wall early in the race.
The auto racing world lost a legend and the accomplishments speak for themselves.
Senna secured pole position a then-record 65 times, won 41 races and captured the world championship three times (1988, 1990 and ’91). Senna was regarded in his home country as a sporting icon — on par with Pele — and gave the people hope during a difficult period of time in Brazil rife with political unrest and economic decline.
Even early in his career Senna was linked with the football world. National pride took a hit in Brazil on June 21, 1986, when the team fell to France on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Mexico.
The following day, Formula One hosted the U.S. Grand Prix in Detroit with Senna, then a 26-year-old rising star, sitting on pole position. He fell to eighth place at one point in the race due to a deflating tire but surged through the field and cruised to victory, taking home the checkered flag with an astounding 31-second lead. Senna asked a race official if he could borrow a fan’s Brazilian flag and he drove a victory lap around the street track while waving the green and yellow, a tradition he maintained through every victory.
Senna continued to rack up the wins and the world championships, while Brazil’s national team languished in a title drought since its last World Cup win in 1970. “Ole, ole, ole, Senna, Senna,” became his theme song as much as the Brazilian national anthem was when he stood on the podium.
When the news broke of Senna’s death, a football match between Palmeiras and Sao Paulo was interrupted as nearly 60,000 fans roared the familiar, “Ole, ole, ole,” and “Senna, Senna” chants. Three days of mourning followed in Brazil as he received the treatment reserved for royalty.
Brazil’s national team marched onward in June to the World Cup, playing with heavy hearts but also showing the drive and determination that Senna best exemplified on the track and made him one of the fastest and fiercest competitors ever in the sport.
The team defeated Russia and Cameroon with ease during the group stage and settled for a draw against Sweden to advance.
The knockout round saw Brazil stun the host United States on American Independence Day thanks to Bebeto’s goal in the 72nd minute, which was all the offence they needed in the 1-0 victory.
They met the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and grabbed a 2-0 lead before the Dutch squared it at 2-2. Branco fired the game-winner in the 81st minute and Brazil moved on with a 3-2 win, setting up the rematch against Sweden in the semifinals where Romario was the hero scoring the lone goal in the 80th minute to punch Brazil’s ticket to the final.
Over 94,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, Calif., for the final on July 17 between Brazil and Italy. Even the SkyDome in Toronto was jammed with supporters watching the game on the JumboTron.
The match was a scoreless stalemate and needed penalty kicks to determine the world champion, the first time a World Cup final was decided in a shootout. Brazil came out on top 3-2 on penalties — captain Dunga scored the decisive go-ahead goal while Italy’s Roberto Baggio’s final shot soared over the net — and the team captured its record fourth World Cup and ended the 24-year drought.
Through the celebration, the Brazilian team didn’t forget whom they were playing for. The players raised a banner on the field in Senna’s honour and dedicated the World Cup victory to their fallen friend.
Ten years later, members of the team reconvened near the Imola track and participated in a charity football game against an all-star squad of Formula One drivers. Over 10,000 fans watched Leonardo and Dunga take on the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso with proceeds donated to Senna’s charity.
Now on the 20th anniversary of Senna’s passing, fans continue to pay tribute to the legendary driver while Brazil prepares for its greatest task on the pitch: winning the World Cup on home soil. If the team shows the same qualities that made Senna a three-time world champion on the track, it could very well be “their year.”