‘Agi’ started our road to Brazil

As we get ready for the World Cup draw, and as thousands of Australians start to plan the trip of a lifetime to Rio, there’s one man who understands our connection with Brazil better than most.

As we get ready for the World Cup draw, and as thousands of Australians start to plan the trip of a lifetime to Rio, there’s one man who understands our connection with Brazil better than most.

Agenor Muniz is living history, although he won’t like me saying that. To date, ‘Agi’ remains the only Brazilian to become a Socceroo, a pioneer in every sense and a man who shares his heart, and his soul, with the two countries, and the two cultures, which have shaped his eventful life.

These days Muniz is living back in Brazil, in the town of Alem Paraiba, about 300km outside Rio de Janeiro, but he returns to Sydney on a regular basis to see his kids, and his friends, of which there are many.

Despite his long absences, Muniz remains the patriach of ‘pelada’, the weekly football game at Centennial Park which serves as the meeting point for Sydney’s Brazilian community. The scratch game started in the late 1970s, when Muniz was at his peak as a player, and has become such a tradition that field no.4 appears in maps as the ‘Brazilian Field’. It is here, every Sunday morning, that the outsider gets to understand how ingrained football is in the Brazilian way of life, and how football in Australia has failed to grasp the opportunity to learn from the greatest football nation on earth. As we know, this frustrated Johnny Warren, a regular visitor to ‘pelada’ in the early days, more than most.

With the Brazilian World Cup just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to ponder how we can, and should, do much better at building a bridge to Brazil. And given it was Muniz who put down the first girders, his own story is the perfect starting point. If nothing else, it underlines how much time we have wasted already.

Muniz spent the first five years of his career as a youth team prospect at Vasco da Gama, edging close to a first team breakthrough without ever quite making the breakthrough.

How close? He was there, as a stand-by player, in the Vasco team bus as it pushed its way through the crowds to get to the Maracana for what remains a seminal moment in football history. November 19, 1969, was the day the world hoped to witness Pele scoring his 1,000th goal for Santos. Vasco goalkeeper Edgardo Andrade had told Muniz on the bus there was ‘no way’ he was going to let Pele score, but score he did, from the penalty spot. Muniz was there, with the other stand-by players in row 4 behind the dugout, as 165,000 fans heaved in admiration and play was held up for 20 minutes as the greatest player of all time celebrated one of his greatest achievements.

Yet much as he felt his time would come, and with the Vasco coaches telling him to be patient, Muniz was getting restless. Something had to give. It did, although not in the way he might have anticipated. Towards the end of the 1970 season, Muniz and another Vasco youth team regular, Hilton Silva, were summoned to the club office to be told they had the chance to go to Australia. Sydney Hakoah, with a brains trust of Frank Lowy and Andrew Lederer, had decided to recruit five Brazilian players for the 1971 season to see if they could make a difference. Talk about being years ahead of their time.

“I can’t remember who came to meet us from Hakoah, but it didn’t take much to convince me to go,” says Muniz. “I only knew Hilton, but we went to the airport and there were three other boys there (Cardozo, Lopez and Raineli). We got on the plane and we were all very excited to be going to Australia.”

The deals were for four years, with the expectation they would return to Brazil as ready-made players. By the end of their first game against Canterbury at Arlington Oval, they could have been forgiven for wondering what they had got themselves into.

Muniz and Silva made their debuts, while Cardozo, Lopez and Raineli had to settle for being spectators behind the goal. Somehow Lopez got into an altercation with Canterbury goalkeeper Angelo Dimopoulos, and all hell broke loose. Hundreds of fans poured onto the field, the Hakoah players rushed for the sanctuary of the dressing room, and eventually the match was abandoned as the fire brigade was called to disperse the crowd with high-pressure hoses.

Yet from that inauspicious beginning, Muniz and Silva would go on to become Hakoah favourites, while Cardozo, Lopez and Raineli would return to Brazil prematurely. Muniz, of course, went one better – making his debut for his adopted country in 1975 – going on to win 20 caps for the Socceroos. There were spells with Adelaide City, a brief stint with Greek giants Panathinaikos (“I got out of there when there was an earth tremor”) and an aborted move to Sydney Olympic, but Sydney City (Hakoah) is the club which remains closest to his heart.

The arrival of Muniz, and Silva, could – and should – have been the start of something profound for football here, particularly as they were followed by the likes of Luis de Melo, Mozer and Nelio Borges. But for whatever reason, the chance to foster closer ties with Brazil has been squandered. Perhaps it was suspicion, perhaps it was ignorance, perhaps it was laziness. Either way, to this day, these pioneers have been under-utilised, and through them a priceless opportunity has been ignored.

Muniz, de Melo and Borges are still there occasionally at ‘pelada’, enjoying the churrasco and the cerveza, infusing the younger generations of Brazilian visitors – many of them students – with a love, and a respect, for Australia.

For Muniz, Socceroos cap no.242 remains his prized possession, while his eyes mist when he recalls the day he got his Australian citizenship at North Bondi RSL. And yet more than 40 years after he arrived, he remains in the shadows of our game. Hopefully the World Cup will bring ‘Agi’, and all that he stands for, into the light.