Flamengo's Bruno Henrique, center, scores his side's opening goal against Sao Paulo during the ... [+] Brazilian championship final soccer match at the Morumbi stadium, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)ASSOCIATED PRESS
For the briefest of moments Flamengo travelled back in time: it was 2009 again and on the penultimate day of the Brazilian championship the club took the lead in the table. On the last day of the season, Flamengo defeated Gremio at a packed Maracana. In a 4-4-2 formation with stars Dejan Petkovic and Adriano, the game of the Rio club was blue collar, but it was enough to win thanks to a goal from Ronaldo Angelim and triumph in the Brazilian league.
Last Thursday, on the penultimate day of the current campaign, Flamengo topped the table for the first time in the 2020 season following a win in a crunch tie against Internacional, but that’s where the similarities with 2009 end. Back then, Flamengo never expected to win the league; in 2020 Brazil’s biggest club was the sky-high favorite to defend its title.
Results and performance didn’t go Flamengo’s way. Perhaps, this season was one of strange resilience from the club: Flamengo overcame a lack of match fitness, the shadow of a quintuple, an identity crisis, Covid-19 outbreaks and injuries to remain in the race for the domestic crown. The Rio club set out to consolidate its hegemony of Brazilian and South American soccer, so firmly established under Jorge Jesus that the Maracana danced with delight and chanted ‘Mister, Misteeeeer', but the campaign didn’t quite pan out the way Flamengo had envisaged it with a litany of obstacles, in and out of the club’s hands.
Of course, trying to rival Jesus was always going to be difficult, if not nigh impossible. Even so, as a minimum, Flamengo fans demanded the club win the Brazilian title. The season and championship, nicknamed Covidão-20 in some quarters, was a war of attrition. Stamina and persistence were required to overcome adversity and exhaustion, even more so for Flamengo, whose journey seemed so torturous. Pep Guardiola’s former No2 Domenec Torrent succeeded Jesus. In Torrent, the Rio club wanted a successor with the same profile as Jesus; a coach with a modern and progressive idea of how to play soccer, but, in truth, he never truly settled in his new environment, the hectic schedule and the shadow of Jesus’ success in part explaining Dom’s predicament.
Every win was still considered a part of his predecessor’s legacy whereas Torrent was singularly held responsible for defeats. Jesus’ twelve month long victory parade that battered and upended the dogmas of Brazilian soccer and delivered high drama of an extraordinary chromatic intensity had become an unmatchable paradigm. The fans, with a pathological obsession for winning, and the media demand wins.
Under Torrent, Flamengo never seemed to find the right balance and soon enough the club’s hierarchy did what all their Brazilian counterparts do under pressure from fans: dismiss the coach and promise a new dawn. Rogerio Ceni, a coach with a nomadic existence, was tasked with reinstating Flamengo at the top of the Brazilian game. The former goalkeeper with a remarkable goalscoring record at times got lauded for his coaching qualities, but often failed to deliver results on the pitch in the top flight.
Towards the end of the season, there were signs that Flamengo was adhering to Ceni’s style. Willian Arão played in a more defensive role and veteran Diego enjoyed the space he was given in midfield. On Thursday, they dominated Sao Paulo from start to finish in the first half, at least in terms of possession, but conceded on the brink of half-time when Luciano exploited the space the Flamengo wall gave him from a free kick. This was not a night for the faint-hearted. Even so, as things stood, Flamengo was still the champion, with Internacional drawing against Corinthians.
After the restart, Bruno Henrique, largely absent in the first 45 minutes, equalized with a header from close range. What followed was an equally nervy and neurotic second half of mediocre quality in which Sao Paulo once again took the lead through Pablo Teixeira and Flamengo lost its composure. Without energy, direction and vision, Flamengo didn’t deserve the title. The same applied to Inernacional, who, at home to Corinthians, was lackluster.
Perhaps, it shouldn't have been any other way. This title didn’t match the lustre and glamour of Flamengo’s 2019 title. Suspense remained throughout the seven minutes of injury time, but not even the final whistle was liberating. Internacional scored in Porte Alegre before the VAR ruled out the goal.
For the first time since the hey days of Zico in 1982 and 1983, Flamengo won back-to-back titles. Even so doubts remain whether Ceni can lead Flamengo forward. At least, the league title will prevent the Flamengo board from firing him.
The club and Brazilian soccer at large need more patience and sustainability. The club’s debts grew to at least 700 million reais during the pandemic. That’s not shocking in Brazilian soccer: indebted clubs are a part of the modus vivendi and operandi. For now, Flamengo will revel in victory. They know that in the long run they have everything at their disposal - a fine squad, the experience and the know how - to win and keep win, and cement their dominance of the Brazilian game.