Are Botafogo’s fans upset despite leading Brazil’s league?

When John Textor bought Botafogo in 2021, it was a moment of euphoria for the fans of one of Brazil’s most historic clubs. However, the relationship between the majority shareholder — in effect the owner — and the supporters has not been an easy one.

Two months ago Textor de-activated his social media account, citing excess negativity. True, by no means all of this was from Botafogo. Textor’s Eagle Holdings also has a large stake in Premier League side Crystal Palace, Ligue 1 club Lyon, and Molenbeek in Belgium. But Botafogo was surely the place where the excitement surrounding his arrival was greatest, and therefore where the comedown was always likely to be strongest. But without being entirely cured, any rift between Textor and the fans can surely be eased by a glance at the Brazilian league table.

After three rounds, only one club has a 100% record — Botafogo, the surprise early leaders. The fans might say that this merely restores them to their rightful place. After all, from Garrincha, Nilton Santos, Zagallo and Didi to Amarildo and Jairzinho, the club supplied many of the key players to that 1958-70 golden era of the Brazil national team. But the distance between the glory of the past and the more recent reality has been a painful one.

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Despite an impassioned band of supporters, Botafogo have essentially been Rio de Janeiro’s fourth force (behind Flamengo, Fluminense, and Vasco da Gama) in the last few decades. On the field they have made frequent visits to the second division. Off it they had accumulated debts large enough to threaten the club’s survival.

The arrival of Textor was seen as a way solve all of this in a single stroke. In truth, it was always going to be much tougher than that. The early expectations of the fans were not realistic.

The Textor era is something of a test case for Brazilian football. Traditionally the clubs have always been social associations, not organised along business lines. That changed in 2021 when a new law allowed for private investors, both foreign and domestic, to buy Brazilian clubs.

But Textor has expressed frustration over the law’s implementation and how a club negotiates with creditors. Faced with that uncertainty, has Textor been losing interest in his investment, and looking at other priorities? This is especially pertinent given the multi-club nature of Textor’s investment. Where do Botafogo fit in the hierarchy?

A low point in the fan-owner relationship was reached when winger Jeffinho, a huge success story of last year, was moved on to Lyon. Were Botafogo nothing more than a feeder club for the European outfits in Textor’s group?

In one way, Textor almost certainly made things more difficult for himself than they should have been. He appears to have fallen in love with football as a consequence of watching the game played at the elite level, and this is the standard that he set for his new club.

One of his first moves was to sack coach Enderson Moreira in Febuary 2022, who had just taken the club to the second division title, because Textor could not see evidence of what he termed “the Botafogo way.” The new owner raved about the calm possession of Bernardo Silva, and allowed the more euphoric fans to dream of some version of Manchester City.

But reality — in the short term at least — was never going to be so idyllic. The club’s only genuine aim in 2022 was to assemble a team in a hurry that was good enough to hold its own in the first division.

And by using contacts and looking at players in places other clubs were not, Portuguese coach Luis Castro was able to do it. Some of the supporters were satisfied. Many were not. They had been sold a project that was more glorious than mere pragmatism. The grumbles got louder in the early part of this year when Botafogo managed to finish outside the first four in the local Rio de Janeiro state championship.

When the far more competitive national league kicked off in April, few had faith — and yet here we are, with Botafogo on their own at the top of the table. In truth, they could have lost all three of their games. In the opener, at home to Sao Paulo, they took something of a battering only to win with a goal in stoppage time. The 2-1 victory away to Bahia was also achieved on the back foot. And then, last Sunday, came an epic 3-2 triumph over giant local rivals Flamengo, a match where Botafogo needed all their resilience to hold a talented opponent at bay.

The manner of the wins reflects the way the team has been constructed. There is pace on the flanks, meaning that Botafogo can launch attacks without over-committing. There is aerial power in both penalty areas, and plenty of good, old-fashioned grit as well — combative centre-back Adryelson and experienced centre forward Tiquinho Soares have been two of the best signings the club has made. There is a group of solid players with the nous to play within their limitations. And in Lucas Perri, there is an exceptional goalkeeper. This is not a blend that will always be good enough.

But it is helping buy time for the club to put together a long-term strategy — and for an institution whose very existence was in jeopardy until Textor arrived, that is surely progress. Will it be enough for the passionate band of brothers and sisters who follow the club from the stands? Amid a general climate of pessimism and protests about ticket prices, just over 10,000 turned up to that opening game of the season against Sao Paulo.

The crowd this Sunday at home to Atletico Mineiro should be much bigger. A new chapter is opening up in this fascinating relationship between the North American club owner and the South American fan.