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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 09:23 GMT
Tragedy strikes Brazilian game
By Tim Vickery

São Caetano defender Serginho
Is football solely to blame for Serginho's death?
Sudden death syndrome struck Brazilian football on Wednesday night.

Serginho, a defender with São Caetano, collapsed and died during the second half of his side's match against São Paulo.

The awful scenes have been repeated almost non-stop on Brazilian TV and the tragedy has been the main talking point in the media and on the streets.

So far the debate has generated more heat than light.

It has been confirmed, though, that tests were carried out on the São Caetano players early this year and it was discovered that Serginho had a heart problem.

It is not clear, however, whether the extent of the problem had been misdiagnosed, or whether the club and player were fully aware of the risks of playing on.

How could a 30-year-old athlete die in this way? Was football to blame?

Roberto Assaf, one of Brazil's leading pundits, tried to explain and wrote: "Whether they want to or not, footballers are forced to administer a daily dose of demands and obligations which are different from those of the ordinary worker.

"Supporters, directors and the media demand results; the frequent physical effort requires all sorts of measures to take care of the organism and the body; there is an excessive amount of travelling and there is the need to sustain families, which can be numerous and problematic."

Athletes from Brazil come from humble backgrounds and need to sustain 12 or 14 people in their family
Fernando Cruz



This last factor - the only one not directly associated with the game - may be especially significant.

Cardiologist Fernando Cruz has recently written a book with a title that translates as Sudden Death in the New Millennium.

Following the death of Serginho, Cruz commented that "athletes from Brazil and Africa frequently face the same problem - they come from humble backgrounds, with little structure behind them, and they need to sustain 12 or 14 people in their family".

To a greater or lesser extent, the pressure for results has always existed in football.

So too has the travelling and the need to keep fit but what is comparatively new is the amount of money that can be made out of the game.

Salaries have increased massively - deservedly so since it is the players who provide the spectacle.

But, especially for players from the Third World, where poverty is rife and prospects are bleak, this brings an extra stress factor.

A few decades ago there is no way that someone like Serginho would have been expected to take care of an extended family as his earnings from football would not have made this possible.

Serginho's weekly wage was reported to be in the region of £2,000 - peanuts by European standards but a goldmine to all but a tiny minority of his compatriots.

Half of Brazil's workforce earn £15 or less a week and this is the kind of Brazil in which Serginho grew up.

One of 10 brothers and sisters, he was described as 'under-nourished' by his first coach.

In a world economy brutally divided into winners and losers Serginho was born on the wrong side of the line.

By virtue of his own talent and dedication he managed to cross over to the other side. But for how long?

If he stopped playing his chances of maintaining his lifestyle were minimal.

Perhaps he would slide back towards poverty - such a bitter journey after a few years in the spotlight.

And what of his son, and the rest of his family?

It would hardly be surprising if Serginho was aware of the risks but chose to play on anyway.

I suspect that what killed him was not football - it was the lack of alternatives for the poor of the Third World.



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