Before Neymar, Joel Camargo was the French PSG futebol team’s first Brazilian; a good player, but after speaking out on racism, he died poor, sick and forgotten



Note from BW of Brazil: Let me start this article off by stating that I am not a big sports enthusiast. This is not to say that I don’t like sport itself, I am simply not a fan of professional sports nowadays. This wasn’t always the case. When I was a shorty and even a teenager, I was basically a walking sports encyclopedia. I also participated in quite a few sporting activities, both in the streets and in organized sports. And like many kids and teens, I also had my sports heroes. But all of this was in what I what call my “age of innocence.” A time when I looked at sports and other areas of life with stars in my eyes with thoughts of perhaps becoming an adored, globally-recognized world-champion athlete that would someday be some other kid’s idol. 

In later years, I would begin to look behind the scenes of lights, cameras, fame, fortune, mansions and fancy cars that were part of the lives of top athletes, singers, actors, etc. and discover some of the truth that comes along with the fantasies. The truth that says, if you wanna be a star, you gotta play the game, both on the field, the court and the stage as well as when the game clock reads 0:00. Today’s story is another of those “whatever happened to…?” tales of the rise and fall of an athlete who once upon a time had it all, or almost had it all and the subsequent fall from grace. 

The name of one of futebol’s top players in the world, Neymar, has appeared on this blog’s pages numerous times, analyzing his multi-million dollar endorsement deals, his avoidance of a black identity and even his head-turning hairstyles. Today’s story hints at the reality of being a top-level black athlete with the world at your fingertips and what is necessary to stay at the top when you get there. By now, everyone who follows the world of futebol surely knows that Neymar recently became “the most expensive player in soccer history” in a deal that would bring the Barcelona star to France’s Paris Saint-Germain team.

Neymar is touted as one of the three best players in the world and while no one questions his abilities on the futebol field, many who look at him as more than a soccer star are quite disappointed in the young man’s behavior in terms of the race question. After all, he is the most famous Brazilian in the world and, even if he doesn’t see himself as such, millions of his fans see him as a black man. Being in such a powerful position, many feel that Neymar could be highly influential in the social realm if he were to address topics such as racism and the murder of tens of thousands of young men in Brazil, many of whom no doubt look a bit like him. But up to this point, the former blond one has remained silent on what can be deemed a controversial topic.

As such, besides starting out on the same Santos home team, his silence on such issues is something else he has in common with “The King” of futebol, Pelé. But as I have argued in a previous post, Neymar would most certainly not have been able to reach the heights that he has had he developed a reputation as a militant. And the same applies to any black athlete who has reached the top of his or her craft and becomes a media sensation. The article below, while not proving this beyond a shadow of a doubt, hints at the idea that the black athlete can’t just be good and black to succeed but rather a “good black”. 

Joel Camargo, the disappointments of the first Brazilian to play for PSG

Like Neymar, he was black, was good with the ball well and shined in Santos. But after raising a flag against racism, he died poor, sick and forgotten

Joel Camargo, weeks before his death in 2014. (Photo: ALEXANDRE BATTIBUGLI)

By Breiller Pires

Because of his elegance when running with wide strides, practically floating on the grass, and when going up with his arms wide open to cabecear (attempt a header), Joel Camargo earned the nickname of Açucareiro (sugar cup). He was a zagueiro (defender) of privileged technique, perhaps the most skillful of his generation. Though relentless in disarming the attackers, he had sweetness in his feet. For almost ten years he was part of the famous Santos team of Pelé, he was world champion with the Brazilian team in 1970 and, long before Neymar became the center of the most expensive transfer of all time, he became the first Brazilian to wear the shirt of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). However, the arrival in the city lights had no pomp, as did his entire career as a player.

Fate was never generous with Joel’s overflowing talent, especially in the 1970s, which marked both the greatest glory of his career and the beginning of his downfall. He started the season on a high. He was the trusted man of coach João Saldanha and starting zagueiro (defender) of the seleção (Brazilian national team). But, due to interference from the military dictatorship, Saldanha fell on the eve of the World Cup and gave way to Zagallo, who barred the defender. Brazil was crowned three time champion in Mexico. Joel didn’t even get on the field. He watched the entire World Cup on the bench. Despite the euphoria for the title, he regarded the loss of prestige as a humiliation.


When he returned home in Santos, the zagueiro spent the prize money for the three-time championship victory on the purchase on a sleek, red Chevrolet Opala. At dawn on November 22, five months after the World Cup, Joel crashed the car into a pole. Two women who accompanied him died in the accident. He broke his nose, his clavicle, and his right leg. He spent almost a whole semester in bed for recovery. Sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for manslaughter, he served time in prison, but his contract with Santos was rescinded. At the time, several people and leaders of other clubs hinted that he had been driving drunk. Joel always denied that he had drunk that night.

Since then, hurt, he started to avoid the press. He only raised his voice to speak on an issue that was beating him down. He was the first soccer player to speak out against racism in Brazil. “Prejudice exists, and I’ve always said that. At the time of the accident, I was crucified because of my color. I was the only one who spoke of prejudice at that time. My teammates called me radical, masked, they asked me to leave those things to the side. I went to give an interview once and they wanted me to say that there was no prejudice in Brazil. Fuck, eu so preto (I’m black)! I know how things work,” said Joel Camargo in one of his rare interviews, in 2014, to the magazine Placar. A script planned before even debuting for Santos, when a palm reader warned that futebol would bring “joys and dislikes” and would be the means to “fight for your color.”

Upon recovering from the accident, he was unemployed, out of Santos and mistreated by most of the major Brazilian clubs. He resolved, at the end of 1971, to accept a proposal from the newly founded Paris Saint-Germain. Far from being the well-to-do club into which it was transformed, PSG had just ascended to the first division of the French Championship and eked out the last positions on the chart. In the cast, there was a mix of amateur and professional athletes. The technical level was poor. And Joel, despite being a zagueiro, arrived with world champion status and superstar for a seven-month contract. His first match against Bordeaux was a reality check.

Joel (standing, third from left) with the Santos club featuring Pelé (bottom row, second from right)

He played alongside an amateur midfielder, who scored an own goal in the 15th minute of the second half. The Brazilian realized that he would have to go it alone. He picked up the ball on defense, dribbled midfielder and served as a tray for center-forward Prost, who wasted the chance with a shot to the top. Joel lost his temper. He started yelling at his teammates, promptly rebuked by the coach. That kind of behavior, common among the Santos players, was not tolerated in France. As he left the pitch, the defender, choked with a 2-0 defeat, said: “Defensive players treat the ball as if it were trash, and attackers give it a nip and run after it.”

Joel Camargo defended PSG in just one more match. The harsh sincerity of an athlete accustomed to playing with Pelé and who was suddenly surrounded by rough players caused him to feel dejected during his short stint with the club, which dismissed him after three months in Paris. “I went to France with my mistress and my young daughter. We didn’t understand their language. They thought that I would be a Pelé, the savior of the country, being that I hadn’t even fully recovered from the accident,” he said. Upon returning to Brazil, he played for small clubs, but quickly became disenchanted with the game. At age 29, he stopped playing and plunged into drinking. He tore through all his futebol savings until he realized that at 35, he didn’t have pennies left. And then came a radical decision: he sold all the medals he kept at home, including that of world champion.

joel 5
Because of his elegance and his habit of opening his arms, Joel was nicknamed the Açucareiro.

The money from the sharing of his achievements lasted little. Bankrupt and with a daughter to raise, he found himself obliged to find another job. He found an exit as a dock worker in the Port of Santos. The two brothers who worked on the dock got a spot for him toiling among the ships. He carried bales of cotton, coffee, and sugar. In his spare time, he participated in port pick up games. His cap buried in his forehead and his beard uncovered, but the unfailing elegance of his movements soon sharpened the curiosity of some of his colleagues. “Hey, aren’t you Joel Camargo who played for Santos?” Stunned, he would soon bow his head and fumble: “Joel? You are crazy? I’m his look-alike.” He didn’t admit that they interpreted as weakness the new activity of the former player who overcame his pride to seek sustenance in manual work.

It was more than two decades of stowage until he retired at age 55. He lived a quiet routine in Santos, fighting against alcoholism and diabetes. Because of the disease, he had a toe amputated. At that time, he had not been to Vila Belmiro for a long time. Widowed, he received support from his daughter and rarely had contact with his former teammates. “The only friend I ever made in football was Edu [ex-left-wing]. I only watch Santos games on television and look there. If you don’t come to talk to me, I won’t go looking for anyone,” he told Placar, in what would be his last interview.

Joel, again with Pelé, on Brazil’s national team

He died of kidney failure at age 69, on May 23, 2014. Poor, sick and forgotten by the clubs that once surrendered to the class of the Açucareiro. On the wall of Joel Camargo’s room, there remained the only memory he had kept from playing: a picture of the 70’s Cup mascot, a gift from a fan who saw the sweetness behind the man who would spend the rest of his life in the shadows of bitterness.

SourceEL PAÍS Brasil

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. Sad story. This just goes to show you how Black athletes are really treated when they speak against racism and embrace their Blackness. Joel Camargo’s story is eerily similar to Colin Kaepernick’s and shows you how expendable Black athletes really are under a system of White Supremacy.

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