Flamengo: champions of … well, just about everything

. Nov 25, 2019
Flamengo Christ the redeemer Christ the Redeemer with a Flamengo jersey prior to the Libertadores final. Photo: Adidas Brasil

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter! After a historic weekend of football, we look back at the unbelievable Flamengo Copa Libertadores victory. Then, on a somber note, we retell the story of the Chapecoense air disaster, which took place three years ago this week. Plus, all the rest from Brazilian sport. Happy reading! 

Flamengo: champions of… well, just about everything

Champions of South America on Saturday, champions of Brazil on Sunday. It’s hard to imagine a better 48-hour period in the history of Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Argentinian side River Plate in the Copa Libertadores final, before seeing their rivals slip up in the league, mathematically confirming them as champions of Brazil.

Why it matters. It is hard to properly quantify the size and importance of Flamengo around Brazil. As a result of the popularity of radio and successful nationalist propaganda in the 1940s, Flamengo transcended Rio de Janeiro and became the biggest club in the country, counting their fanbase in the tens of millions.

37 years of hurt. While Flamengo fans had already been waiting ten years without a national championship, the dry spell in the Copa Libertadores was even longer, with their last triumph coming in 1981, when national team legends Zico and Junior were still playing for the club.

flamengo libertadores champions
Photo: Alexandre Vidal/Flamengo

The match. The outcome to Saturday’s final was near impenetrable to tactical explanation. In the first half, Flamengo were unrecognizable, playing sloppy, losing their shape, and looking overawed by the occasion. River exploited their hesitancy and took the lead through Santos Borré. The second half was much of the same: Flamengo struggled to access the zip and guile that saw them steamroller all opposition in Brazil this year and instead they looked defeated, out of ideas. 

As the clock marched on, however, River Plate’s defense began to stretch, though no-one could have predicted what was about to happen. Two very late goals from Gabriel Barbosa—who, I think, has now definitively earned his nickname “Gabigol”—and just like that, Flamengo were champions. The game had echoes of the 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, but it’s important to remember just how much of a lost cause Flamengo seemed before the equalizing goal. A truly stunning comeback to a truly stunning finale.

A title a day… Then, on Sunday, as the team paraded around Rio de Janeiro, hailed by throngs of red-and-black Flamengo fans, they were given the news that they had officially become Brazilian champions as well. Thirteen points clear with five games to play, Flamengo only needed second-placed Palmeiras to slip up at home to Grêmio in order to finally celebrate their league title. As if doing a favor to their rivals, Palmeiras fell to a disappointing home defeat and Flamengo extended their title party even further.

Trivia. With Saturday’s win, Flamengo’s Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus becomes only the second European manager to win the Copa Libertadores, after Mirko Jozic, from Croatia, won the cup with Chilean side Colo Colo in 1991. Meanwhile, Flamengo right-back Rafinha became one of only seven Brazilian footballers to win the Copa Libertadores and Champions League. The last player to do so was Real Madrid’s full-back Danilo, who lifted the European cup in 2015, adding to his Libertadores win with Santos in 2011. Can you name the other five? Tweet us @BrazilianReport with your answers.

Chapecoense air disaster: 3 years on

Rescue teams at the scene of the plane crash in Colombia. Photo: Antioquia police/EPA

On November 28, 2016, a LaMia charter flight crashed into a mountain near Medellín, Colombia, killing 71 of the 77 people on board—including the vast majority of the squad and coaching staff of Brazilian football club Chapecoense. Three years on, we look back at that tragic day and what has become of Chape today.

Heroes from Chapecó. On the night of the deadly plane crash, Chapecoense were traveling to Medellín to take on Atlético Nacional in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the second-most prestigious continental club tournament in South America. The story of Chapecoense’s rise was something almost mythical: a tiny club from the town of Chapecó do Sul in the south of Brazil, they managed to climb the Brazilian league structure all the way from the fourth division and qualify for the continental tournament.

Their run to the final was equally heroic. In the last 16, they defeated Argentinian giants Independiente on penalties; in the quarters, they came back from 1-0 down to beat Colombian side Junior Barranquilla in a memorable 3-0 home win in an apocalyptic rainstorm. In the semi-final, they saw off another gigantic Argentinian side in San Lorenzo, holding on to an away goals win thanks to a miracle last-minute save from goalkeeper Danilo who, just weeks later, would die from his injuries in the fateful crash.

The tragedy. On their way to the first leg of the final in Colombia, Chapecoense chartered a flight with Bolivian company LaMia, who were in financial meltdown at the time yet kept their head above water thanks to charter contracts for football clubs brokered through the South American football confederation, Conmebol. The original plan was to fly directly from São Paulo to Medellin, which is illegal, as charter airlines in South America are not allowed to carry out journeys that do not involve a departure or arrival in the company’s country of origin. At the last minute, a stop in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was scheduled.

On the second leg of the trip, records show that LaMia flight 2933 left Bolivia with an insufficient amount of fuel. Flights are required by law to take off with enough fuel to reach their destination, with a surplus that would be enough to divert the plane to another nearby airport if necessary. As a cost-saving measure, LaMia flight 2933 carried only enough fuel to arrive in Medellín, without any reserves for delays or diversions. 

Upon approach to Medellín, LaMia flight 2933 was instructed to enter a holding pattern, as another aircraft had requested to jump the queue for an emergency landing. Instead of declaring its own mayday emergency, the pilot (a joint owner of LaMia) said nothing, and began flying in a circle, adding another 100 kilometers to its flight path. When the fuel situation was desperate, it was too late. The engines had failed, the aircraft’s transponder was no longer functioning, and in the pitch black of night, the pilots were unable to negotiate a safe landing and crashed into the side of a mountain.

Casualties. 71 people died, including goalkeeper Danilo who survived the impact but soon succumbed to his injuries. Almost all the players, coaches, executives, journalists and flight staff on board were killed. The only survivors were one member of the crew, and three Chapecoense players: Alan Ruschel, Neto, and Jakson Follmann, who lost one of his legs. The inquiry into the crash showed that the passengers were not warned to brace for an emergency landing or impact, which would have vastly increased their chances of survival. In fact, the majority of the passengers were asleep at the time of the crash.

From the ashes. The outpouring of grief and solidarity for Chapecoense was staggering, with football clubs all around the world getting involved in charity events to help rebuild the heroic club. In Brazil, they were offered a three-year immunity from relegation, to allow them to restructure without fear of dropping out of the first division—the club refused. Amazingly, Chapecoense finished 8th in the Brazilian league in 2017, gaining them a spot in the Copa Libertadores qualification stage, despite having to build a brand-new squad from scratch in a matter of months.

However, three years on, Chapecoense will require another miracle if they are to avoid relegation to the second division next year. With four matches left in the season, they sit second from bottom and are eight points away from safety.

Goal of the Week

Hardly the most beautiful goal of the last seven days, but certainly the most important. As Flamengo fans were in ecstasy after scoring a late equalizer against River Plate in the Copa Libertadores final on Saturday, and preparing themselves for a nervy penalty shootout, a long pass from midfield was launched in the direction of Gabriel Barbosa, marked by two River Plate center-backs. Captain Javier Pinola misjudged the flight of the ball and struggled to clear his lines, allowing it to fall kindly for Gabriel, who smashed it past the goalkeeper and into the net. Cue a seismic event in Rio de Janeiro.

What else you should know

Surfing tragedy. Two-time Brazilian surfing champion Léo Neves died on Sunday afternoon during a competition in Rio de Janeiro. Reports say the 40-year-old fell ill during his heat and drowned after falling into the water. Neves was held in extremely high regard by his peers, being one of the most respected veterans on the Brazilian surfing circuit. He leaves behind his wife and two children.

Série A. In a week heavily overshadowed by Flamengo’s heroics in the Copa Libertadores, the Brazilian national championship labored through another matchday with few big stories, but plenty of goals. The pick of the action was found at the Serra Dourada stadium in Goiânia, as Goiás edged Bahia 4-3.

Racism. As Brazil celebrated Black Consciousness Day on Wednesday, one of the country’s expats, Shakhtar Donetsk’s forward Taison, was punished for receiving racist abuse in a Ukrainian league match. Playing against rivals Dynamo Kiev, Taison and his Brazilian team-mate Dentinho were subjected to a chorus of monkey chants from the opposition support. Incensed, Taison kicked the ball toward the Dynamo fans and showed his middle finger in protest. The Ukrainian football association issued a UAH 500,000 fine (around USD 20,000) to Dynamo, but gave Taison a one-match suspension.

Neymar to Flamengo? After a weekend which must have seemed like a dream for Flamengo fans, a transfer rumor shared by a respected Brazilian football journalist has served to further the delirium of the Flamengo faithful. Juca Kfouri wrote on his UOL blog that after speaking to members of the club’s executive board, he can reveal the club is negotiating the sale of young talent Reinier to Paris Saint-Germain for EUR 60 million, which would include a one-year loan of Neymar to the Brazilian club. This wouldn’t be the first time the club’s board members have managed to get a far-fetched transfer rumor in the news, but that a journalist as respected as Kfouri would even acknowledge the story may indicate some truth.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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