Flamengo Dreaming of Beating Liverpool and Becoming a Global Superpower

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IDecember 16, 2019

LIMA, PERU - NOVEMBER 23: Rodinei of Flamengo lifts the trophy after winning after winning the final match of Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores 2019 between Flamengo and River Plate at Estadio Monumental on November 23, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by Daniel Apuy/Getty Images)
Daniel Apuy/Getty Images

Gini Wijnaldum could not have been happier in the Anfield mixed zone after sealing Liverpool's 5-2 victory in the Merseyside derby against Everton earlier this month. 

However, the Dutch international was soon left stumped when a group of Brazilian reporters approached him to ask if he knew much about Flamengo, the Reds' potential opponents in the FIFA Club World Cup final this week in Doha, Qatar.

"No, not really. We've been on their training ground in 2014 with the national team. I know that Ronaldinho played there..." he tried to answer, moistening his lip with his tongue as he failed to name a single player from the Rio de Janeiro giants.

"But that will change in a week," he promised with a wide grin.

Joao Castelo-Branco @j_castelobranco

Aqui a entrevista com o simpático @GWijnaldum ontem após o jogo, espero que as pessoas assistam (ou leiam) as declarações até o fim antes de criticar ou dizer que é arrogante. E que os meios de comunicação (incluindo @ESPNagora ) não apelem para manchetes tendenciosas. (segue...) https://t.co/nn02RfNRpt

It clearly wasn't a comfortable conversation, but Wijnaldum was polite as ever, offering an apologetic tone while admitting that he doesn't follow much football in his spare time.

The 29-year-old never could have imagined that his comments would cause great outrage in Brazil, with Flamengo fans accusing him of being arrogant and lashing out at him on social media.

In Brazil, anything to do with Flamengo instantly becomes a big deal. 

The ethos of the Flamengo side that will travel to Qatar was essentially conceived just as Liverpool lifted their sixth UEFA Champions League trophy in Madrid at the start of June.

In a nearby hotel a few hours before the kick-off at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Flamengo president Rodolfo Landim shook hands and unveiled the man who has taken Brazil by storm: Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus. 

Later that same day, Jesus found himself on the pitch at Atletico Madrid's stadium making a bold prediction in his first exclusive to Brazilian sports channel Esporte Interativo: He expected to meet Liverpool in the FIFA Club World Cup final.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 01: Jorge Jesus, headcoach of Flamengo gestures during the match against Palmeiras for the Brasileirao Series A 2019 at Allianz Parque on December 01, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

As the cameras went off and he climbed the stairs to watch the game from a box, no one was taking him seriously. 

With Flamengo struggling to produce consistent form at the time, even beating Ecuadorian rivals Emelec in the Copa Libertadores round of 16 seemed like a tough proposition. And there were serious questions about whether Jesus was the right choice to get the results that would appease the fans of Brazil's most popular club.

His arrival led to harsh criticism from some media members. Marco de Vargas, a Fox Sports commentator, went viral after questioning the 65-year-old's credentials.

"Three titles in the crap Portuguese league?" he attacked.

Jesus, a respected tactician with a sharp tongue and little time for niceties, opted not to strike back right away.

Fast-forward five months, and the former Benfica and Sporting boss has had the final say. He managed to achieve something that only Pele's Santos team had done in the '60s: winning the Brasileirao and Libertadores double in the same season.

For once in his life, Jesus let football do the talking—and he did so in an astonishing manner.

When Jesus took up his position in July, Flamengo were eight points behind leaders Palmeiras. However, they soon went on a record 24-match unbeaten run which helped them clinch the league with four rounds to spare before finishing the campaign with a ridiculous 16-point advantage at the top.

Among others, Vargas had to apologise to Jesus.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, the Brazilian powerhouse also went on to win the Copa Libertadores in thrilling fashion, 38 years after their only other triumph in South America's premier club competition. 

In the final, they pulled off an incredible last-gasp comeback against Argentine side River Plate. Flamengo were 1-0 down going into the last minute before two goals from Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa flipped it into a 2-1 victory.  

"[Compared to] the last Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham, this one had more technical, tactical content, and a much more beautiful colour than the final in Madrid, where I saw it live," Jesus said.

LIMA, PERU - NOVEMBER 23: Willian Arao #5, Rene #6, Gabriel Barbosa #9 of Flamengo celebrates with the CONMEBOL trophy after winning the final match of Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores 2019 between Flamengo and River Plate at Estadio Monumental on November 23,
Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Playing an attacking game, Flamengo have sought to impose themselves on every opponent they've faced. As a result, they have caught the imagination of a country that has been reluctant to embrace the idea of importing foreign coaches.

The core of the team is formed by players with European experiencesome successful, like keeper Diego Alves and full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis, and others who couldn't establish themselves overseas, such as centre midfielder Gerson and forwards Bruno Henrique and Gabigol (who is currently on loan from Inter Milan).

And then there is Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari, who signed with Manchester City in 2016 but never featured for them. Following successive loan spells, Flamengo identified him at Deportivo de La Coruna and brought him to Brazil. He has proved to be a crucial cog in the wheel for Jesus' side.

Mari and eight of his teammates ended up making it on the Brasileirao's team of the season.

They scored 86 goals during their league campaign; the next highest was Gremio with 64.

"Flamengo are the new, striking factor, the cry of despair that can revive Brazilian football," 1970 World Cup winner Tostao wrote in a recent Folha de S. Paulo column.

The excitement has inevitably taken over the crowd, too.

Before departing to Qatar, they sang in the Maracana stands, "Liverpool, you can wait, your time will come."

This is a moment a whole generation of supporters has been waiting for since 1981. 

Many of them were too young or not even born when Zico and his team-mates impressed the world with their skills and thrashed the legendary Liverpool side of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Co. 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup final that year.

Among the supporters loving this new team is Zico himself. He has been following their progress from Japan, where he works as a technical director with the Kashima Antlers. 

"This generation has already made history with the Libertadores and Brasileirao titles, but they can do even more [now in Qatar]," Zico said. "Flamengo would finish this year with a flourish, having won pretty much everythingfrom the Rio de Janeiro State Championship to the Club World Cup. We are really looking forward to that.

"It's been a pleasure to watch this Flamengo side. A while back, I would never wake up at dawn to watch a game. But this team has made me do it."

For South American teams, outplaying European big guns has always been the climax of the season—even if it has not always been taken as seriously by the Europeans.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 27: Young fans of Flamengo with their faces painted as Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henrique before the match against Ceará for the Brasileirao Series A 2019 at Maracana Stadium on November 27, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Wagner Meier/Getty Images

The victory over Liverpool in 1981 remains Flamengo's greatest achievement, and their enormous fanbase has never forgotten it. According to a poll conducted by Datafolha institute in August, one out of every five Brazilians is a Flamengo supporter. It means they have an estimated fanbase of over 40 million within the country.

Outside Brazil, it may still be difficult to have a proper sense of how huge Flamengo are, as Wijnaldum highlighted. But those numbers give a clue about their sizeand why they could be on their way to becoming a global superclub.

"People in England don't have this perception" Fred Caldeira, Esporte Interativo correspondent, said. "Meeting someone who knows the club is already a difficult job; running into somebody who is aware of their size is even more difficult."

Over the past months, Caldeira witnessed the mini-revolution that occurred at Flamengo after Jesus' arrival.

He was in Madrid covering the last Champions League final when the Portuguese's reign started, being the first reporter to interview Jesus after he got the job. A lot has changed since then, with the hype reaching a magnitude that nobody could have anticipated.

At some point this season, the discussion dominating Brazil was whether Flamengo would be able to fight for a spot in the Premier League's top six.

"I think that is a very fair point when raised by fans," Caldeira argued. "This is a Flamengo side that has earned the right to dream about such a comparison. But we don't have the metrics to come to a conclusion about it, and if we had them, they probably wouldn't be on their side."

It has been crystal clear for a while that on the day Flamengo got their finances right, a new era could begin in South American football.

And that day seems to have arrived.

Following years of poor administration, Flamengo are finally reaping the fruits of their hard work behind the scenes. In a decade, they've gone from a club with an annual revenue of just R$150 million ($37 million) to one that might become the first South American side to break the R$1 billion barrier ($245 million) next year.

Brazil's Flamengo team celebrate with the Brasileirao trophy at Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro on November 27, 2019. - This season Flamengo have claimed both the Brasileiro league trophy and the Libertadores championship trophy. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA
CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images

They feel like the strongest Libertadores winner to make it to the Club World Cup in a long time.

"Flamengo are very far from being an elephant on a tree," Cahe Mota, a Globo Esporte reporter who covers the Rio de Janeiro club, explained. "They have prepared for this. Perhaps not imagining such impact right away, but with a dominating cycle always on their sight. I find it very unlikely that they will stop here, because the gap between them and the others right now is very big, financially speaking, but also in terms of structure, squad, revenue potential."

"They were just missing this extra ingredient that Jorge Jesus brought with him. Flamengo are now a side who plays with European discipline and intensity in a South American, Brazilian scenario. That has made the difference.

"This is a team who have upended many paradigms in Brazil.

"For a long time, we've watched sides who score a goal and then play in a reactive way, relying on counter-attacks, even though they're technically superior. This Flamengo team, on the other hand, is always chasing the goal. It's no wonder they beat two teams 6-1 in the past few months."

Unsurprisingly, many back home expect them to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool in the long-awaited clash, fighting for a chance to immortalise themselves, just like Zico, Nunes, Leandro and Co. did in 1981.

If something like this happens, millions will surely take the streets in Brazil.