More than 60,000 turned up for a party at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium on Wednesday night.
They were there to welcome home returning heroes Flamengo after Saturday’s dramatic Copa Libertadores triumph and to celebrate the winning of the Brazilian league title. They were also there to watch a game, in which Flamengo once more turned on the style in the closing stages to beat Ceara 4-1 — a game which sheds considerable light on the remarkable success that Flamengo have achieved over the past few months.
Ceara are deep in relegation danger. They took the lead just over halfway through the first half, and went to the interval 1-0 ahead — at which point coach Adilson Batista made a barely credible decision. He took off his centre-forward, who had scored the goal, and brought on a third centre-back, leaving his team without attacking pace and presence. The consequences were clear, and the match turned into a duel between attack and defence.
Spotting that his opponent was incapable of offering a threat, Flamengo coach Jorge Jesus brought on an extra striker — a logical move, since the entire game was taking place in the final 30 metres of the field. In the end, pressure told. Flamengo put in a barrage of crosses, and Bruno Henrique, every bit as good as star striker Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa over the course of the campaign — helped himself to a hat trick in 20 minutes.
It was as if Ceara and their coach had not bothered to watch the Libertadores final. River Plate of Argentina came agonizingly close to lifting the trophy with a game plan based on stopping the Flamengo attacks at the source, denying them rhythm. True, they were tiring by the end, but without a horrific 89th-minute blunder from substitute striker Lucas Pratto, they would probably have got over the line. They had managed to nullify Flamengo and probe the Brazilians where it hurt.
Ceara tried to do exactly the opposite. The decision to drop so deep is even more inexplicable given the fact that they were surely the fresher of the two teams. Flamengo rested some of their first-choice XI, as the entire squad had gone up to Lima for the Libertadores, and were entitled to a celebration after clinching two titles at the weekend.
All of this points to an obvious conclusion. Since the appointment of Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus in the middle of the year, Flamengo’s bold play, often throwing eight men forward, has been a delight. Indeed, many who usually cheer against the Rio giants have been carried away by the style and swagger of the current team. But it seems clear that the real advantage has come against the tactical caution that has become so prevalent in domestic Brazilian football. Last year, despite a considerable financial advantage over their continental rivals, no Brazilian team made the final — the country had produced just one finalist in the previous five years. Brazilian team after Brazilian team crashed out following the same line as Ceara on Wednesday night — dropping deep, covering up and hoping to resolve matters in isolated counter-attacks.
The foreign teams they played — Emelec of Ecuador in the second round of the Libertadores, and River Plate in the final — were not rolled over so easily. Indeed, had River Plate managed to hang on, the current Flamengo side could be branded as a domestic phenomenon.
Instead of which, they now have next month’s FIFA Club World Cup to stake a wider claim. There is a semifinal against either Esperance of Tunisia or Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, followed, they trust, by a dream final against Liverpool.
Thirty-eight years ago, Flamengo beat Liverpool 3-0 in Japan to win the old Intercontinental trophy. It is their greatest moment, and they have never stopped singing about it. On Wednesday night the fans were already singing in anticipation of a rematch. It would be fascinating — carrying the hope of providing the best game in the tournament since the current format was introduced in 2005. One thing, though, is for sure. Even on an off day, Liverpool would look to take the game to the Brazilians. It would present a very different challenge from rolling over Ceara.