Flamengo - the best supported club in the world

Flamengo are the Brazilian club with the most supporters. An estimated 40 million of them in Rio and spread throughout Brazil make the Mengao truly the club of the people. They traditionally draw their support from the lower reaches of Brazilian society while their Rio rivals Fluminense, Vasco de Gama and Botafogo tend to be better supported by the middle classes and the power elites. Flamengo supporters tend to think of their club as the biggest and the best in the world, a claim not really validated since 1981 when they hammered Liverpool 3-0 to win the World Club Cup.

Since these glories days of Zico, Junior and company, with 3 Brazilian championships in 4 years as well as the Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup wins, Flamengo have never again threatened to lead the world elite, and in the mid years of this first decade of the 21st century, gross mismanagement by incompetent directors lead them perilously close to relegation from the Brazilian top division, a disaster which did actually happen to the other Brazilian club of the people, Corinthians of Sao Paulo, in 2007, as well as to all three of their posher Rio rivals.

Even the winning of the Brazilian League Championship in 2009 came out of the blue, with a mediocre Flamengo team being in the bottom half of the league in mid-season, until one of the 1981 team Andrade emerged as the coach to lead them to an unexpected Championship, their first since 1992. The momentum generated by Andrade’s success could not be maintained into the 2010 Copa Libertadores and Flamengo were eliminated in the quarter finals by a Chilean team, despite having put out Ronaldo’s Corinthians in the last 16 round. Andrade was rewarded for his miracle work by being summarily dismissed and then Flamengo reverted to more typical league form finishing 14th in the 2010 Brazilian League won by their deadly rivals Fluminense.

However new Directors took over the club, with a powerful woman President Patricia Amorim, slowly brought a more professional approach and determined to restore Flamengo to their due position as the pre-eminent Brazilian club.

Ronaldinho Now a Flamego player

The corner stone of their approach was to gazump Gremio’s almost sealed deal to bring Ronaldinho back from Europe to Porto Alegre, and persuade him to sign instead for Flamengo. At one level this seemed an inspired move, Ronaldinho having been the best player in the world for the mid years of the first decade, winning World Footballer of the Year awards in 2004 and 2005. When Flamengo signed him in January 2011 he was only 30 years old and should have several years of top class football left in him. However serious question marks existed over his character and discipline, which made the transfer less obviously brilliant than it might otherwise have appeared.

In his last season with Barcelona, Ronaldinho had displayed a lack of dedicated professionalism. He rejected the authority of the coach Frank Rijkaard and led a cabal of players including Deco, Thiago Motta and Messi, astray in a series of drunken night time escapades. It took another of the Barcelona South Americans, Edmilson, to courageously denounce this situation, claiming there were black sheep aloose in the Camp Nou. Old President Juan Laporta and new Manager Guardiola agreed to slaughter all the black sheep, except for Messi, to cure the club of the sickness and indiscipline that had crept in. Removed from Ronaldinho’s malign social influence, Messi stabilised himself and reverted to being the model professional his personality is more suited to, the results of which have been enjoyed by Barcelona fans and football supporters everywhere over the past three years as he has clearly inherited Ronalidinho’s old role as “best player in the world”.

Ronaldinho sad lonely figure on the field at Milan

Ronaldinho spent a largely miserable 30 months in Milan. Or more accurately he spent a brilliant 30months in Milan, partying almost nightly and single-handedly introducing Carnival traditions to Milan night life. He totally confirmed the correctness of Guardiola’s determination to get rid of his unprofessional approach from Barcelona. His first season in Milan was a poor one on the field, where his form and attitude lead him to being heavily criticised as an unprofessional freeloader. Things improved slightly in the second season, 2009-10, as Ronaldinho sought to restore enough form and reputation to book his flight to South Africa with the Brazilian squad. But he would spoil every brief run of sustained form with another nocturnal splurge, sometimes missing training, sometimes turning up smelling of alcohol. He did want to go to South Africa and did enough over the second half of the season to make it into Dunga’s provisional squad of 30. But Dunga, a hard player, a hard manager, a hard man, decided at the end that he would not risk the man’s reek of indiscipline contaminating his tightly controlled squad, and omitted a genuinely devastated Ronaldinho from the final 23 along with his Milan teammate and occasional dancing partner Pato.

Most Brazilian football supporters were appalled and accused Dunga of betraying the traditions of the beautiful game, in favour of dull conformity. There was much talk that Garrincha, who helped win Brazil two World Cups, was not exactly a model of sober disciplined behaviour even during tournaments. In the event, a rather flat Brazilian team exited the World Cup without distinction even though they had been well-seeded to meet Spain in the Final. They lost in the Quarter Finals to a more spirited Dutch team but it was a game Dunga’s team might well have won and a game where even a couple of minutes of Ronaldinho magic might have proved crucial.

Ronaldinho enjoying the Milan night life too much

The disappointment of missing out on the World Cup did not prompt a disappointed Ronaldinho into a major rethink and season 2010-11 saw him reverting to the worst patterns of his initial season. AC Milan finally decided that he was a liability to them and with Ibrahimovic and Robinho now available to them up front along with a more professional Pato, Ronaldinho drifted out of the first team picture and started partying even more. Allegri the clever and talented new manager made it clear he could do without Ronaldinho and the decision was made to cut their losses and let him leave in the Winter Transfer Window without expecting an enormous fee. They replaced him in their squad with another “bad boy” Antonio Cassano whose indiscipline was of a less nocturnal nature to Ronaldinho’s. With this change settled, AC Milan romped home in the Italian League finishing 6 points ahead of neighbours Inter.

The word was clearly out in European football circles that he was finished as a top class player and even previous suitors Manchester City didn’t want to waste money subsiding the thriving Manchester night life scene.

Several Brazilian clubs, most notably his original club Gremio and fading Palmeiras decided they would like to take a gamble that his charisma and talent could kick-start them into better days again, but in the end it was the new Board at Flamengo who made the most offer, helped no doubt by the fact that Ronaldinho like most poor Brazilian boys had grown up worshipping the Red and Blacks.

While Ronaldinho was naturally the signing that got all the attention, more quietly the Directors engaged in several other repatriations that added much needed depth of quality to the side.  The most talented of this group was Thiago Neves, well known to regular readers of Letters From South America as the player who almost died of a broken heart after scoring 4 goals in a Copa Libertadores Final and still finishing on the losing side, to the worst team ever to win the Copa, LDU Quito. He sought relief from the pain with exile in Europes but his shattered heart prevented him showing his true potential. Eventually he sought a different kind of solace by campaigning for Arab petro dollars and seemingly turning his back on serious football. When Fluminense, his old team, won the 2010 Brazilian Championship they determined to bring their old idol back to lead them into a further attempt on Copa Libertadores glory. For a while it looked as if they had succeeded, but to general surprise he turned up one day to be announced as a new Flamengo signing. Maybe the fact that Flamengo were not playing in the Copa Libertadores tipped the balance for this still haunted man. Also brought back from self-imposed petro dollar semi-retirement was an old Flamengo favourite midfielder Renato Abreu. He had always been a top quality player without ever getting proper international recognition and when he went East aged 30 it seemed his chances of ever playing for Brazil had gone West. They brought experienced forward Deivid back from Turkey to be their main striker. They signed ex-Corinthians goalie Felipe from Braga where he never really settled and to the delight of their younger fans brought back young defensive midfielder Airton on loan from Benfica, who had snapped him up after his starring role in the 2010 Brazilian Title victory but never managed to harnass his tigerish ability. The final addition was not a direct repatriation but class centre back Alex Silva although signed from Sao Paulo actually belonged to Hamburg. Already in the squad were experienced internationalists like Leoardo Moura and Chilean Claudio Maldonado and seasoned professionals like Junior Cesar and Ronaldo Angelim, plus a host of promising youngsters like Welinton, Willian, Diego Mauricio and Negueba.

Vanderlei Luxemburgo the best Brazilian Manager of the past 20 years takes on restoring Flamengo to the top rank

To manage this promising mix of world class superstars, solid internationalists, good professionals and upcoming young players, the Directors turned to the most successful Brazilian manager of the past 20 years, Vanderlei Luxembourg already familiar to regular LSA readers as a great manager and a flawed man. His record over the past 20 years includes 5 Brazilian Championships, 12 State Leagues, and 1 Copa Brazil, as well as a Copa America with the national team. Al;.though he failed to shine in his one year with Real Madrid

True to his record he did not take long to weld all that talent into an effective and attractive, but not reckless, team. He gave Ronaldinho a free role up front behind sole striker Deivid and pushed Thiago Neves and Renato Abreu as wide supports with the centre policed by Airton and Willian standing in brilliantly for the seriously injured Maldonado. Flamengo swept aside all local opposition in the 2011 Rio State League winning both legs of the competition to obviate the need for a grand Final. Ronaldinho played superbly in the final of the second stage competition assisting as Thiago Neves scored both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Botafogo, and the team as a whole looked very good.

It would not be true to say that Ronaldinho completely gave up partying on his return to Flamengo but somehow he settled on a balance that was tolerated by his employers and allowed him to perform professionally on the field.

LSA predicted at the start of the Brazilian Championship that Flamengo were the only team that looked likely to challenge Corinthians for the national title and about 40 million Brazilians were scandalised at the LSA lack of faith in what they saw as a certainty, the title coming “Back Home”

Flamengo went the first 17 games without defeat but too many silly draws prevented them from converting that run without defeat into a commanding lead. The highlight of this opening run was the away game against new Copa Libertadores holders Santos who for once put out their strongest team. Santos went 3-0 up with goals from Borges(2)and new world superstar Neymar. But Flamengo showed the depth of their character and fought back to 3-3 with goals from Ronaldinho, Deivid and Thiago Neves. This heroic effort seemed in vain when Neymar put Santos back in the lead but Ronaldinho added 2 more to make his hat-trick and give Flamengo an unforgettable victory.

LSA would urge all its readers to google “Santos 4 Flamengo 5″ and watch all the goals on You Tube. All 9 goals are stunning, with one from Neymar demonstrating exactly why he is so highly rated. One of Ronaldinho’s goals is a classic freekick beneath a jumping wall and the winner is a gem of individual skill. LSA often bemoans the general low standard of Brazilian football but games like that demonstrate that at its best it can still match the quality of the top European Leagues

Ronaldinho restored to the Brazil team, that famous smile restored for football reasons

To great popular rejoicing across all of Brazil the Ronaldinho in this form was shortly thereafter restored to the Brazilian International Squad by Mano Menezes and starred in several games. More surprising, but definitely deserved, was a first international call up for 33 year Renato Abreu. A tale that offers hope to talented players ever, “Never give up, if you have the talent miracles can happen even at a late age”. Renato Abreu went on to make his debut for Brazil against Argentina and played with style and distinction.

Buoyed by their success against Santos Flamengo rattled off a run of four consecutive victories. However from the start of September they slumped disastrously losing 4 consecutive games, two at home to poor teams they should have beaten easily. One of the away defeats was to Corinthians who were delighted to find themselves facing Flamengo in a slump. Even so it took a last minute Leidson goal to deliver Corinthians the win they needed. Luxemburgo worked hard to stop the slump, bringing in several younger fresher players and the next 8 games saw 4 wins and 4 draws, including an away win over Sao Paulo and a home win over Fluminense that both delighted their supporters. This run saw Flamengo back as serious contenders in the title race, the most likely danger to favourites Corinthians.

However the last three weeks have seem them stumble badly approaching the finishing line with 2 defeats and 2 draws in 5 games. Their last two games, tame 0-0 draws, have even seen them slip out of the Copa Libertadores slots that guarantee the top 4 clubs places in next season’s tournament. To fail to qualify would indeed be a disaster, given all the emotional and financial investment. On Sunday Flamengo are at home to direct rivals for a Libertadores place, Inter PA and really must win. They will also, unusually, be praying for a Fluminense victory that same day, since a defeat of Vasco da Gama would effectively give Corinthians the title and leave Vasco to face the last day game against Flamengo with nothing crucial to play for, except of course the joy of humiliating their rival Rio enemy.

Hopefully the Flamengo of Ronaldinho, Thiago Neves, Renato Abreu and all will gather their strength for the one final push that will see them qualified for next year’s Libertadores. That is one outcome that can be guaranteed to bring the right kind of smile back to Ronaldinho’s face. He has worked hard enough and behaved professionally enough to deserve it. He has just been confirmed in a recent Brazilian opinion poll as by far the most popular player in the country, and there will not be many football supporters anywhere in the world who would deny him the happiness that a return to top class international competition would bring him.

Tomorrow LSA will report on the finish to the Brazilian Championship and how Corinthians look clear favourites to triumph.