Announcement of Palestra Itália’s foundation on Fanfulla, Italian newspaper of São Paulo (1914).
Announcement of Palestra Itália’s foundation on Fanfulla, Italian newspaper of São Paulo (1914).

Palmeiras or Palestra Itália?

Popular Brazilian team and its origin among Italian immigrants

Enrico Cavalieri
Enrico Cavalieri Istituto Comprensivo Porretta Terme. FMH contributor

In August 1914 a Brazilian football club was founded in São Paulo, its name was Palestra Itália. It will become one of the most popular clubs in Brazil and in the world, although with another name. Nowadays, we all know it as S.E. Palmeiras.

An industrial city full of immigrants

São Paulo at the beginning of the 20th century got a deep Italian character, because of hundreds-thousands of immigrants which had left the young European kingdom to look for land and a better future in what they called the New World. The Brazilian Government favored immigration from Europe in order to replace slave labor (definitely abolished in 1888), especially in the coffee plantations of the state of São Paulo. Government even started to pay tickets for immigrants in the late 19th century. 1.5 million Italians, the largest part poor peasants who would never have had the possibility of owning their land in the mother country, left for Brazil from 1875 to 1920.

But if Italy had become a unified state since 1861, Italian people were still divided in many local territories, each one with a different dialect and diversified standards of living. The division between the various regions of Italy was so strong that it reflected in the Brazilian city, where Bexiga was the neighborhood of the people from Calabria, Bom Retiro of the Venetians, Brás of the Neapolitans, and so on. Each one of these bairros had one or more football teams, also representing different regions or cities of Italy.

That’s when Palestra Itália had its paper: we can easily understand by this name that the founders wanted to unify and collect fans from all Italian migrants, without any regards from the region of origin. That’s probably why even the Italian Consulate supported this club in front of the other Italian teams of São Paulo, each of them with a strong regional connotation.

A tour of Pro Vercelli and Torino in Paulistan land

In the summer of 1914 two Italian big teams (pioneer Torino and  five times champion Pro Vercelli) made a tour in Brazil, playing against local teams. The difficulties of the trip doubled when in those very days the Great War broke out in Europe, but Italy remained neutral until May 1915. Torino and Pro Vercelli’s trip lit the fire of the immigrants, and some officials of Francesco Matarazzo, big local entrepreneur with Italian origin, decided to create a team representative of all the Italian community of the Brazilian city, a team that could be able to face the Paulistan football big shots. That’s how Palestra Itália took life and Its colors were obviously the ones of the Italian flag.

A winning team

During the decades of 20s and 30s Palestra Itália became one of the best teams of Brazil, winning the Paulista Championship 8 times. Between 1932 and 1934 it also won all the Basketball State Championships, generating the chore: “Com o pé, com a mão, o Palestra é campeão” (with the foot, with the hand, Palestra is champion). 

In 1933 it won the first edition of the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo tournament, where the best teams of the two states faced each other. But at the end of the decade, with a new world war breaking up, something was about to happen.

Italians become war enemies

When World War II started, Brazil was ruled by Getúlio Vargas for a decade. The Brazilian leader had created a regime called Estado novo (New state), that winked to Italian fascism and had exactly the same name of Oliveira Salazar’s catholic dictatorship in Portugal. Nonetheless, geography and international relationships made Brazil agree with the US and British Atlantic Charter, and put it on the Allies’ side. 

In 1942 Vargas decreed the prohibition of any Italy, Germany or Japan related name to whatever entity which was resident in the country. Palestra Itália started to be depicted by its opponents as a sort of “war enemy”, and after a soft try with “Palestra de São Paulo”, on 20th September 1942 the choice of the name finally turned on Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras, and the team had to rebrand and change official colors as well. The red disappeared and the current white and green remained.

Thinking points

Palmeiras is now one of the most victorious teams of Brazil and South America, and probably very few people remember its “immigrant” name. Do you think it is fair to change the name of a club because of political reasons or it should be better to preserve it, as a historical value? And what about the power of football in creating identity, if a State Consulate arrived to give financial help for the creation of a team?

Find out more

The Museum of Italian Emigration of Genoa has an article in English and a timeline about the story of Palmeiras. The official site of the team has a very deepened historical section, for Portuguese readers. You can find an interesting article on the issue also on the Italian review Contrasti.

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Announcement of Palestra Itália’s foundation on Fanfulla, Italian newspaper of São Paulo (1914).
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