ROBERTO BATATA: The legend of the number ‘7’
«The feeling we all have at the club is the same: we have never been so strong.
It is not a question of pride or exaggerated self-esteem.
It is the field that tells us.
A few months ago, in December last year, we reached the final of the Brasileirao.
For the second year in a row.
The year before we lost to Vasco da Gama.
We were sure to make up for it.
Even though we were up against one of the strongest teams not only in Brazil, but in all of South America: Internacional de Porto Alegre.
Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani, Paulo Roberto Falcao, Valdomiro, Elias Figueroa, Manga …
We played on equal terms throughout the match and there could have been several goals in that game.
Instead there was only one, scored by that great player that is Chilean Figueroa.
The ‘illuminated goal’ they called it.
Yes, because at the moment when the Internacional free kick hit the ball he, and only he, was suddenly illuminated by a ray of sunshine.
We tried everything to get the game back on track.
There was nothing we could do.
But Internacional Porto Alegre is one of the strongest teams in South America and having played on a par with them gave us a lot, but a lot of confidence.
We qualified for the Copa Libertadores.
It is the most prestigious tournament in all of South America.
The year before we reached the semi-finals, played in two groups of three teams each.
We gave everyone a hard time, including Independiente, who went on to win the tournament.
But this year we have something more.
First of all, we have the experience necessary to face such matches.
And then in an already strong team this year came Jairzinho, who is not only a glory here in Brazil, but still a fantastic player who always gives his best in important matches.
Our roster so far has been impressive.
In the qualifying round we were up against Internacional. We beat them both times just as we beat Sportivo Luqueño and Club Olimpia.
And now, in the semifinal round of three we have won our first two games, the last one just last night, in Peru against Alianza Lima.
We are one step away.
One step away from the Copa Libertadores final, something that for us ‘Raposa’ has never happened before.
Last night I scored the first goal. We were already halfway through the second half and with each passing minute our opponents were gaining more and more courage.
Once we took the lead we relaxed and played football that is not easy to see anywhere else.
Joáozinho immediately scored two more and our leader Jairzinho closed the game with the fourth goal.
Back on the plane I was talking to my friend Joáozinho.
What a phenomenon guys! He just turned 22 and has already made his debut for the national team.
“But who has a team like ours in the whole of South America?” he told me all excited during the journey.
“You, Palhinha and Jairzinho scoring avalanche goals. An experienced one like Piazza pulling the strings in midfield. A strong and reliable goalkeeper like Raul and then we have Nelinho … where do you find another full-back like that ? Believe me Roberto, this year the Copa Libertadores ends up in the trophy cabinet of our Mineiráo!”
So come on. We only need one win in the next two home games and it will be final.
Whether it’s Fillol and Luque’s River Plate or Bochini and Bertoni’s Independiente matters little.
This is our year.
And here at Cruzeiro Esporte Clube we are all convinced of it».
When Cruzeiro coach Alfredo ‘Zezé’ Moreira informs the team that he will give them two days off before resuming training, Roberto Batata makes the decision to return to his Tres Coraçóes, where his wife Denize and 11-month-old son Leonardo are waiting for him.
It is about 300 kilometres from Belo Horizonte to the city in the southern state of Minas Geiras.
He takes his Chevrolet Chevette, says goodbye to his teammates and makes an appointment to resume training. There is the Campeonato Mineiro title to be preserved and, above all, there is the return match against Alianza in Lima that could allow the ‘Celeste’ to snatch the ticket to the final.
Roberto Batata will not see his teammates again.
A probable stroke of sleep caused by the tiredness of the match and the plane journey will be fatal for him.
His car first crashed into a truck in front of him and then skidded into the other lane, colliding with another lorry.
The news arrived in Belo Horizonte. No one wants to believe it. Roberto Batata is only 26 years old and although the team is full of stars, he is the most loved player by the ‘Torcida’ of the ‘Raposa’, the fox, as the team is nicknamed. Not only because of his style of play, his speed, his dribbling and his ability to find the goal from any angle. Roberto Batata is as simple as he is helpful and in his six years at the club he has made everyone love him.
It is vice-president Carmine Furletti who informs many of his teammates.
One of them is Eduardo Amorim, probably Batata’s best friend within the team.
Amorim does not want to believe it.
He starts crying in despair and runs to the garage to get his car.
“I want to go to the scene of the accident. I don’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes.”
It will take strong-arm tactics on the part of Furletti and a few teammates to dissuade Amorim, clearly unable to drive at such a moment.
Before long, the Cruzeiro headquarters is filled with thousands of fans in disbelief at the news.
Certificates arrive from all over the football world.
The ‘Mineiro’ league will stop for a fortnight. Two weeks of mourning for the death of one of its most representative players.
When the team returns to training, the atmosphere is unreal.
Goalkeeper Raul Plassman recalls that ‘we had the most important trophy of all to win, but in those moments you realise how unimportant these things are in front of the death of a friend and teammate. We could have won 100 Libertadores that pain would never have been compensated for’.
A week after Batata’s death, Cruzeiro must play the return match against Alianza Lima.
There is not a single ‘Raposa’ fan who does not remember that day and that unreal atmosphere.
When the Military Band plays the first notes of the ‘Toque do Silêncio’, there is not a single one of the more than 50 thousand present who does not have tears in his eyes.
On the Mineiráo lawn is a blue jersey, the one with the number 7, that of Roberto Batata.
‘We were all crying, even us in the team,’ recalls captain Piazza, world champion in the great Mexican Brazil six years earlier. “We were achieving all our goals and Roberto was no longer with us to share them.”
Cruzeiro’s performance that day is perfect to remember Roberto Batata in the best possible way. It will be a triumphant 7-1 win against the hapless Alianza Lima.
Jairzinho scored four goals and Palhinha the other three.
Roberto Batata’s two team-mates.
Seven goals in all. Like his shirt number.
There is no one among the Cruzeiro fans who thinks this is coincidental.
Cruzeiro will win that Copa Libertadores.
It will win it by beating the mighty River Plate in the final at the end of three exciting and spectacular challenges.
It will be a great triumph … made even greater by the fact that they won it without their best player to whom the whole club will dedicate the victory.
ANECDOTES AND CURIOSITIES
There is a legend born around the victory against Alianza in the first match played by Cruzeiro without Roberto Batata.
When after an hour of play Jairzinho scores the fourth goal of the match while the players are embracing each other jubilantly, a voice echoes ‘we will score seven’.
Seven, the perfect number of goals to honour Batata.
The point is that none of the Cruzeiro players say they said that phrase …
There is also the memory of Nelinho, the great Brazilian full-back (the one who scored for Zoff in Argentina two years later).
“I don’t know who said that phrase and I honestly cannot explain what happened.
I only know that in the last minute of the game, when we were already 7-1 up, I took the ball from the right, jumped over an opponent, asked Jairzinho for a triangle and found myself alone in front of the goalkeeper. I kicked with all my strength. I knew the ball would go in. Instead the ball hit the crossbar and went back in, a few centimetres before the white goal line. It was FATE that we should score seven that night, not one more and not one less’.
Roberto Batata’s real name is Roberto Monteiro. The nickname ‘Batata’, meaning ‘potato’, was given to him by a Cruzeiro youth coach, Joáo Crispim, and stemmed from Roberto’s inordinate passion for chips!
Roberto Batata, at 26, was in the midst of his psycho-physical maturation. He had made his debut the year before with the Brazilian national team in the Copa America held in the summer of 1975 in Brazil. Batata, with 3 goals in 6 games, was one of the revelations of the Brazilian national team, which was changing its skin by inserting new forces after the disappointment of the World Cup in Germany.
The other happy note of that tournament was Flamengo’s young midfielder Geraldo Cleovas, known as ‘Assoviador’.
Even for him, as you will read in this text, fate was not at all magnanimous.
There are many fortuitous circumstances on the day of the accident that cost the young striker his life.
The Cruzeiro group had embarked in Lima around midnight, immediately after the end of the match. The plane landed in Rio de Janeiro at around 6am and the players and staff had to wait another six hours at the airport before boarding for Belo Horizonte.
“When we landed in Belo Horizonte we were all devastated. Roberto had not told us of his intention to leave immediately for Tres Coraçóes,’ recalls his teammate Palhinha.
There should have been two other people in the car with Roberto Batata.
His 14-year-old niece Kate Cristina (who had a class that day, however) and his team-mate Dirceu Lopes, who, however, had gone to a physiotherapy session.
“When I came back from school my cousins were in the house. They told me that Uncle Bebeto (as Roberto was called in the family) had had an accident. I had travelled that road with him dozens of times. I was now his travelling companion when we came home,’ recalls Kate Cristina, who now lives in the United States.
Another one who should have been in that car was teammate Dirceu Lopes.
“We lived in the same building and when I got home the concierge boy told me that Roberto had been looking for me and that he was leaving to go home to his family. I am also from Tres Coraçóes and we had made that trip together countless times’.
Dirceu Lopes himself recounts that ‘I got angry when I heard that Roberto had already left for Tres Coraçóes. After all, it was a matter of waiting for me for an hour at most. Who knows what would have happened if someone else had been with him in the car. Maybe he wouldn’t have fallen asleep or maybe I wouldn’t even be here to talk about it’.
Another peculiar coincidence of the accident was that the owner of the trucking company of the truck that collided with Roberto Batata’s car was not only a big Cruzeiro fan but also knew several of the team’s players personally, including Batata himself.
“When I heard the news on the radio I didn’t know that it was one of my trucks that was involved in the accident. I knew that one of mine had had an accident shortly before but I couldn’t connect it. I got a call a few hours later from my own driver telling me that Roberto Batata had died in the accident.”
In addition to the statistics that tell us of a striker capable of scoring 110 goals in 271 games, Roberto Batata’s story is inextricably linked to Cruzeiro, the team to which he arrived at the tender age of 20 from America Futebol Clube, also of Belo Horizonte, and in Cruzeiro he would probably play for the rest of his career.
For a couple of years already, the ‘big boys’ of Rio and São Paulo had been interested in his card.
‘Don’t even start a negotiation Presidente,’ Roberto used to tell the historian Felicio Brandi, who held the position of president of the club for more than twenty years.
Today, Cruzeiro plays in the lower division of the Brazilian Championship. It was relegated for the first time in its history in December 2019.
As the great Tostáo, who played practically his entire career in Cruzeiro, recalls, ‘it is in these difficult moments that the memory goes back to happier times. And Roberto Batata will always be in the memory of anyone who loved Cruzeiro’.
The one about Roberto Batata is one of 43 biographies of South American footballers told in https://www.urbone.eu/products/matti-miti-e-meteore-del-futbol-sudamericano