This is the third part of a serialisation recounting the tale of three black pioneers who challenged perceptions about race in Italian football over fifty years ago.
In the aftermath of the 1962 World Cup, struck by the vivacious attacking style of the Brazilian national team, Napoli president Achille Lauro had the idea of importing a piece of this South American flair to the south of Italy. He commissioned a football agent to draw up a shortlist of affordable talent that would be capable of delivering excitement to the Neapolitan public.
In the absence of highlight reels or detailed scouting reports, and without consulting his coaching staff, legend has it that the President chose Jarbas Canè Faustinho from a photo line-up compiled by the agent. It is said that he identified his man on the basis that he was “very black and very ugly” and would therefore be capable of intimidating his opponents.
The sum of $30,000 was paid to bring Canè to Europe from Olaria Atletico Clube, one of Rio’s smaller teams. The winger was undoubtedly the least established of the three black Brazilian players to arrive in Serie A that summer, with just two seasons of football under his belt in the Carioca Championship. Contrary to the rags-to-riches stereotype, Canè himself originating from an affluent family in Rio, deferring his legal studies to move to Europe.
Initially, at least, this exotic signing delivered the excitement and anticipation that President Lauro had intended. However, Canè made a slow start to life in Italy as he acclimatised to the physicality of Italian football. He struggled to secure a starting berth, and when he did so, it was in an unfamiliar central attacking role. In that debut season, he failed to score in seven appearances as Napoli were relegated on the final day.
At that time, Napoli were one of the better supported teams in Italy and the tifosi were understandably disgruntled by the team’s decline. Canè became something of a scapegoat for their frustration; they saw the signing of an unknown and underperforming foreigner as symbolic of the club’s mismanagement. “Canè nun si manc nu can! Si na pecora”; comparing him not to a dog (a wordplay on the Brazilian’s nickname), but to a sheep.
However, relegation represented a sliding doors moment in Canè’s Napoli career. Had they survived it is probable that Canè would have returned to Brazil. Although less than ideal, demotion to Serie B gave Canè an opportunity to find his feet in Italian football. He became a regular in the second tier and in the 1964/65 season his Napoli career really began to take off.
Returning coach Bruno Pesaola had the insight to move Canè out to a wide right position, where his natural attributes came to the fore. A strong player with elegant movement and quick feet, he was able to cut inside and deploy his powerful shot to devastating effect. “Tira la bomba!” (drop the bomb!) was the call from the curva. Canè finished the season as Napoli’s top scorer, including two goals on the final day of the season that sealed Napoli’s return to Serie A.
New Napoli president Roberto Fiore invested heavily in the summer of 1965 as they sought to challenge the dominance of the large northern clubs in Serie A. They brought in Omar Sivori and Jose Altafini, with whom Canè formed a formidable attacking trident. Canè was imperious; a virtual ever-present, scoring 13 goals as he led Napoli to a miraculous 3rd place finish.
In the following seasons, Napoli embarked upon the most consistent period in the club’s history to that point; finishing 4th (66/67), 2nd (67/68) and 7th (68/69), though falling short of their ultimate goal of securing a maiden scudetto. La Perla Nera (the black pearl) was an attacking fulcrum in that side. He had laid down roots in Naples too, marrying a local girl and becoming a father for the first time.
It was therefore to his great personal disappointment that he learned he had been sold to Serie A newcomers Bari ahead of the 1969/70 season. Incoming club president Corrado Ferlaino had taken the view that, at 30 years old, Canè’s best years were behind him and took the opportunity to bank a 71 million lire transfer fee. Ousted against his will and with his young family in tow, Canè felt a strong sense of betrayal, but was ultimately powerless to prevent his Puglian exile.
Canè suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie A with Bari and his career appeared to be winding down when, in 1972, he engineered the opportunity for redemption. In an unusual move, he bought himself out of his Bari contract and offered his services to Napoli on a pay-as-you-play basis. As Canè embarked upon this unexpected second spell in Naples, his omission from the 1972/73 Panini sticker album served as a bell-weather of public expectation for the veteran.
With a point to prove, Canè surpassed even his own expectations, featuring in around half of Napoli’s games that season. However, it was the following year where Canè had his Indian summer and, arguably, his finest season ever in a Napoli shirt. He missed just two matches in 1973/74 – a remarkable feat for a 34 year-old wide player – as he propelled Napoli to another 3th place finish and European football.
After retiring the following season, Canè began a coaching career within Napoli’s youth ranks, going on to take senior positions with numerous clubs across Campania. He spent most of the next two decades moving between jobs in Serie C and the Interregionale, so it was with some surprise that he took a call from Napoli president Ellenio Gallo in 1994.
Veteran tactician Vujadin Boskov had been lined up to take the reigns at Napoli. However, new regulations meant that his lack of coaching badges would prevent him from being formally named as “coach”. A farcical situation given Boskov’s decorated managerial CV. Nevertheless, Napoli needed a stooge to work alongside Boskov the “technical director”. They needed someone who was trusted, someone who knew the club and crucially someone who held the coaching licence. Cue Canè’s appointment.
On paper, Canè made history in becaming the first ever black coach within Serie A. However, the somewhat contrived circumstances of his appointment undoubtedly detracted from what could have been a momentous step forward for racial equality in Italian football. Canè departed Napoli for the final time at the end of that season, having guided them (with Boskov) to a highly creditable seventh place finish.
Across two spells as a player, Canè spent over a decade at Napoli, accumulating 240 games and 64 goals across Serie A, Serie B and in European competition. On the pitch, his grace was only surpassed by his resilience and determination to succeed in Naples. Not only did he go down in history as the first black coach in Serie A, but he remained the only black coach for a further two decades, until Fabio Liverani’s appointment at Genoa in 2013/14. Canè is an authentic adopted son of Naples. His son, Ivan, went on to become a primavera coach at the club and today, Cane sees out his retirement in the Vomero district of the city.
Also in the Black Pioneers series:
Part 1 – Black Pioneers: Breaking Boundaries in Italian Football
Part 2 – Jair da Costa (Inter Milan)
Part 4 – Jose Germano de Sales (Milan)