By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This week, we begin a series profiling Rio de Janeiro’s four biggest and most famous football (soccer) clubs. With the national league season just two months away, we look at the history, success and greatest players to grace the shirts of Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama. Today, we start with Brazil’s most widely supported club, Flamengo.
It is impossible to give a precise number of followers each club in any given place has, but Brazilian sports daily Lance! estimated a few years back that Flamengo’s total national support stood at a whopping 25.6 million, over eight million more than Sao Paulo’s most well supported club, Corinthians.
Originally a rowing club founded in 1895, Clube de Regatas do Flamengo added football to its roster in 1911 after a group of dissatisfied Fluminense fans broke away after an argument with the board.
Within two decades, the club had established itself as the best supported club in the city. Countless reasons are given for why Flamengo’s popularity grew so quickly, but none of them are conclusive. Some say it was because the club trained on public land during its formative years.
Others point to the titles won in the late 1930s and early 40s, with the most skillful black players of the era – Domingos da Guia, Leonidas and Zizinho, at a time when society still collectively failed to recognize blacks as ‘Brazilians’.
“Flamengo is my team because they are the team of the people – for the crowds,” explained Carla Parra, 29. “Fluminense and Botafogo are for the rich and Vasco are for the Portuguese, but Flamengo have no pretensions.”
Whatever way the rest of Rio regards them, Flamengo fans can delight in the fact that they are the city’s most successful club. They have six national titles to their name, winning three in four years between 1980-83, as well as the memorable 2009 capture, when they were in sixth place with just eight weeks left, before an Adriano inspired resurgence saw them snatch the title from Internacional on the last day of the season.
Without a doubt, the club’s most famous icon is Zico. The legendary playmaker donned the red and black hoops for sixteen years over two spells during the 70s and 80s and was instrumental in the club’s first four national titles, as well as both the Copa Libertadores and World Cup Championship victories in 1981.
He now holds the position of Executive Director of Football at the club, helping to decide on which players to bring in and promoting the Flamengo brand across South America.
Former Brazilian international, and only the second player in history to score 1,000 career goals, Romario also dedicated two years of his career to Flamengo. Although winning no honors of prestige, he was one of the world’s most lethal strikers during the 90s and the ‘Little Master’ carried on his scintillating form with the Rubro Negro.
Now Flamengo have a fresh squad, looked over by experienced heads such as Felipe, Leo Moura, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Thiago Neves. After an uninspiring 2010, the club most steeped in history and passion across Brazil is being catapulted back to the forefront.