THE COPA LIBERTADORES has reached the last four stage and there’s some real continental heavyweights in there: Boca Junior, River Plate, Flamengo and Grêmio. The semi-finals include two domestic clashes which will guarantee an Argentina v Brazil final, the 15thtime the region’s two biggest football nations have met to decide the destination of the trophy.
The all-Brazil semi-final is between Flamengo and 2017 winners Grêmio. Flamengo, the league leaders in Brazil beat fellow Brazilians, Internacional in the quarter-final. They’re in good form at the moment and consolidated their position at the top of Série A with a 3-0 win over Palmeiras on September 1.
Flamengo and Palmeiras are two of the richest and culturally important clubs in Série A, with considerable financial clout on the domestic front. Flamengo are said to have more fans worldwide than any other Brazilian club with an estimated global audience of 35 million. In 2018, their revenues totalled R$ 542 million, which equates to around US$ 130 million and is the second highest total after Palmeiras. Flamengo received more TV money than any other Brazilian club.
Compared to the giants of European football, this is relatively small beer and underlines the gap between football markets either side of the Atlantic. The average annual wage of a top level Brazilian footballer is US$ 670,000 which explains why young Brazilian players are leaving for Europe or China at an even earlier stage of their career than they did in the past.
Despite this, Brazilian football is now starting to attract stars from Europe, albeit some players that are at the vintage stage of their careers. Flamengo have been adept at taking players to Brazil this past year and recently made an audacious bid to take the mercurial Mario Balotelli to Rio de Janeiro.
Flamengo had a transfer budget of R$ 100 million (US$ 25 million) and made a number of expensive and high profile signings. They’ve currently got Inter Milan’s 22 year-old striker Gabriel Barbosa, known as Gabigol, who has scored 14 goals in the league this season, including two in the recent win against Palmeiras. Barbosa has regained his confidence during this loan spell but looks certain to Italy at some point.
Gabigol’s wages are a point of discussion in Brazilian football circles – Flamengo are paying R$ 15 million. Even more money has been spent on Cruzeiro’s Uruguayan midfielder Arrascaesa, who cost R$ 64 million and has an annual wage of R$ 18 million. This is the most expensive transfer ever between Brazilian football clubs, but the quality of his passing means that few are complaining. Another big fee (€ 11.8 million) was paid to Roma for 22 year-old central midfielder Gerson. Two experienced players from Europe, 34 year-old Rafinha from Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid’s Filipe Luis were both picked-up on free transfers. In addition, Flamengo also bought central defender Rodrigo Caio from Sao Paulo and midfielder Bruno Henrique from Santos.
Flamengo also lured former Benfica and Sporting Lisbon manager Jorge Jesus to Brazil to replace Abel Braga, who resigned in May. Jesus needed little persuasion to take up the challenge: “What convinced me was the greatness of Flamengo. I’ve always been told that Real Madrid, Boca Junior, Barcelona and Flamengo are the biggest clubs in the world. These are my references. If it was for financial reasons, I would not go to Brazil, I’m going to win titles.” Jesus apparently turned down the chance of managing in England with Chelsea and Newcastle and was also being courted by AC Milan.
2019 has been a mixed year for Flamengo, however, one that has been tinged with tragedy. In February, there was a fire at the club’s training ground and sadly, 10 young players were killed. The club has a tradition of youth development, one of its most famous players, Zico, came through Flamengo’s system. Then motto of its academy is, “we make our star players at home”.
Flamengo’s expensively assembled team went into the 2019 season as one of the favourites for the title. They have a 100% record at home in the league and have recently beaten their Libertadores semi-final opponents Grêmio 3-1. Flamengo are the best supported team in the Brazil with an average gate of 53,000 this season.
The fans, among the most passionate in the world, crave success and when things go wrong, they are not slow to vent their frustration. When Flamengo were knocked out of the Copa do Brasil away at Athletico Paranaense, they were met at Rio airport by fans hurling abuse at them.
On the road they have been less convincing, winning only twice in eight games. It is a similar story in the Copa Libertadores, where they have won just once in five ties.
But there is high expectation in Rio that Flamengo can not only be champions of Brazil but also win the Libertadores. Jesus, with his emphasis on all-out attack and flexible formations, wants to win prizes and the club is also keen to have a stab at winning the FIFA Club World Cup this year, but of course, they have to qualify first.
Flamengo made heavy weather of their Libertadores group, which included Ecuador’s LDU Quito, Peñarol of Uruguay and Bolivian side San José. They scraped through on penalties against another Ecuadorian team, Emelec in the round of 16 before winning 3-1 on aggregate against fellow Brazilians Internacional in the quarters.
Surprisingly, Flamengo have won the Libertadores just once, in 1981, with a team that included Júnior, Zico and Leandro. They went on to beat Liverpool 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo.
A similar success in 2019 – some Flamengo fans see Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League triumph as an omen – would help to broaden the franchise of the Rio club. Brazilian football has to become more global in order to compete with Europe and Flamengo, the most popular club on social media in Brazil, with only Corinthians remotely close to their 22 million-plus followers, could just be the club to lead the way.