The Rio de Janeiro football scene is all the poorer and all the sadder for the sudden loss of one of its best known and most popular figures, researcher Alexandre Abreu Gontijo, who died suddenly at the age of 48.
The blow was especially cruel because it happened on the eve of the World Cup final. It is easy to imagine Alexandre pestering Saint Peter for details of the game – and just as easy to imagine him quickly making friends with all the celestial authorities.
Gontijo knew everyone in Rio football (and plenty all over the world), and everyone knew him. He was a spectacular constructor of networks. His own self image – the photo that he used on his social media page – was of a Saint Bernard dog, coming to the rescue of damaged egos of players and coaches from the past. ‘Always win their confidence when they are at a low ebb,’ was his motto. And he would astonish them with microscopic details of obscure moments in their careers.
He knew everything because he read everything. For years he sat next to me in the Maracana stadium press box. He was often on his wanderings, checking if there were any interesting faces in the crowd, new faces to win over or existing members of his network who needed to hear the latest gossip. But when he was not traipsing up and down like some benign elephant, he was sat with a book, which he would dip into during lulls in the play. I well recall his beloved Vasco da Gama missing out on a title when they conceded a last minute goal. He shrugged, looked down and resumed his reading, sighing that “at least my books never let me down.”
Another of his delights was to approach tourists visiting the stadium and engage them in conversation. I once saw him astonish some Irish fans by entering into an in depth debate about their local league and the quality of its stadiums. He had never been there – he made one pilgrimage to London football grounds in 1993 and a few trips to Buenos Aires – but he knew everything about the subject from his voracious reading – and he spent much of his time ensuring that members of his network shared any important knowledge.
Gontijo spent hours sending e-mails to his friends rounding up the daily news. He ran up herculean telephone bills – though he was wise enough never to own a mobile. He knew the limits of his addictions. Instead he would borrow other peoples’ wander off with them and make long distance calls. But you could never hold it against him.
He would phone me 10 times a day. Following his train of thought required intense concentration. He might open with a burst about former national team goalkeeper and coach Emerson Leao. But he would not use the surname, which means ‘lion’ in Portuguese. Instead he would refer to ‘the king of the jungle.’ Then, without warning he would switch to the influence that Brian Eno had exerted on U2 before, just as seamlessly, launching into a diatribe about how Socrates had been over-rated. These streams of consciousness were often bizarre, sometimes brilliant and usually entertaining. All delivered like some raging babbling brook, the words fighting to get out of his mouth, with his mind ticking over far quicker than his tongue. And yes, there were times when, much to the amusement and horror of my family, the only way to get rid of him was to put the phone down and pretend the call had been cut off. But he never took it badly.
Gontijo wrote an occasional blog for Globo Esporte, and participated in occasional podcasts – most notably that for the magazine Piaui during the World Cup. But his brain was often whirring away too fast for focused activity. Somewhat non-plussed by Gontijo on a visit to Rio, my brother once asked me, “what does he actually do?”
I replied that this was to miss the point. Gontijo did not do. He was. His life was a performance, one of gloriously unforced and profoundly sweet souled eccentricity. And it is a performance which will be badly missed by the football community in Rio de Janeiro and all around the world.