Brazil's D-Day: Drama in the Maracana
Ten minutes to five on a hot Rio de Janeiro Sunday afternoon. Flamengo have the chance to win their sixth Brazilian championship after a long and frustrating 17-year drought. They have a two-point lead over three other teams (Internacional de Porto Alegre, São Paulo and Palmeiras) and are to play an apparently easy home match against Gremio.
However, despite their two-point advantage, the home side need the victory to guarantee the championship. If, as expected, Internacional beat the already relegated Santo André in Porto Alegre, a draw would not be enough for Flamengo. Both teams would finish even on points, but Internacional, or os colorados, have the edge on the tie-breaker: the number of wins during the championship. "I haven't been able to sleep at all this week", an obviously anxious Flamengo die-hard supporter named Luiz says while he waits for the match to start. "We can't blow this one - it would be a second Maracanaço," he says, referencing Brazil's famous defeat against Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup decider.
Well, today, it really seems like they can't waste this chance. Besides their two-point advantage, their rivals, Gremio, have shown no interest whatsoever in winning this match. The side from Porto Alegre are playing for nothing at this point - they sit in seventh position in the standings, without any chance of qualifying for the Libertadores - but, more importantly, they don't want to help their neighbours and arch-rivals Internacional to win the championship.
Gremio's talented playmaker Souza makes the situation clear: "No Gremio player wants to be remembered by our supporters for helping Internacional to win a title. I'm only going to make an effort to win if our president asks me to." Even though Souza is immediately suspended from the team, Gremio's week has hardly represented the ideal preparation: on Wednesday, they had a somewhat premature end-of-season party with plenty of churrasco (the Brazilian way of preparing red meat) and a band playing pagode (a popular variation of samba music).
Flamengo were far from the leading pack for most of the season but, in the last 15 matches, they put together an impressive string of results (13 wins) to claim the top spot. The keys to that streak: a coach who knows the team very well (the iconic Andrade, who played in the star-studded Flamengo team of the late 80s with Zico and Júnior), a group of young players who have matured in the last year (Willians, goalie Bruno, Toró) and the return of two gifted players (Adriano and Petkovic) who, for different reasons, appeared to have finished their careers at the end of last season.
After almost one full year, we can safely say that Adriano's return to Brazil has been beneficial for him, for Flamengo and for the national team. Even though he is still not as sharp as he once was, he has rediscovered his desire to play, scoring 19 goals. The 37-year-old Petkovic, a living legend for Flamengo, was initially rejected by Flamengo's former coach, Cuca, but took advantage of new boss Andrade to earn his starting spot, running Flamengo's offensive game in the second half of the season and even scoring two amazing goals direct from a corner.
But it's time for the match to start. The stadium was already half full two hours before kick-off time. Over 76,000 Flamengo fans are now packing Maracanã, making an overexcited Luiz claim that "this is bigger than New Year's Eve, bigger than Carnival. You'll never see a better party... if we win".
Just as Adriano, Petkovic and the rest of the Flamengo starters walk out onto the pitch, thousands of black and red balloons are thrown from the stands to greet the team. At the same time, 20 huge flags - still allowed in Brazil - showing drawings of Adriano and several other Flamengo legends are waved energetically in the stands. The sun and the humid carioca heat put the icing on the cake: the atmosphere becomes almost inebriating and everything is in place for an unforgettable football evening.
The fantastic reception from their fans has a surprising effect on the Flamengo players. They start off slow, a mixture of nerves and responsibility blocking their initiative on the pitch. After ten minutes, it is evident that their biggest stars, Adriano and Petkovic, are not having their best day.
Gremio play cautiously, content to let the match go without much tension. The home fans increase the volume to get behind their team, singing "Mengão do meu coração" (Flamengo from my heart) but, in the middle of the chant, Gremio's Douglas Costa takes a corner kick. His team-mate Roberson deflects the cross with his left foot and beats goalkeeper Bruno. Gremio have scored first at the Maracanã.
I have heard the expression "deafening silence" before, but only at this point do I understand it in full. All 76,000 supporters stop singing at the same time, in sheer disbelief, leaving a vacuum in everyone's ears. Flamengo fans and players look frozen, watching the visiting team celebrate like they'd just won the World Cup.
The shock gets worse three minutes later: two huge screens on both sides of Maracanã show that Internacional have scored in Porto Alegre. At this point, therefore, they lead the competition.
When the situation reaches desperation levels for Flamengo, help comes from the most unlikely of sources. In the 29th minute and after a messy corner kick, centre back David scores with a quick shot, drawing the match level.
David's goal gets the home supporters back into the match, but their team continue to show a great deal of impatience during the rest of the first half. Half-time comes, and Adriano states his concern: "We need to contain our anxiety if we want to win this match." Internacional have already scored their second, so the pressure on Flamengo is huge.
Before the start of the second half, all Flamengo players get together near the middle of the pitch. They are clearly getting their motivation up for the most important 45 minutes the club has faced in almost 20 years. "Now or never," says a livid Luiz, shaking in his seat.
His team come back energised, and create three clear chances to take the lead, but imperatore Adriano is far from his usual self today. Gremio's second-choice keeper, a youngster by the name of Marcelo Grohe, makes two fantastic saves that spread frustration across supporters in the stadium. After the second save, Petkovic takes a corner kick and centre-back Ronaldo Angelim appears unmarked in the area to head the ball home. It's 2-1 and the Maracanã explodes.
What follows for the next 20 minutes in the stands can only be described as utter madness. Hugging, kissing, chanting, crying, jumping, screaming…not even Gremio's Adilson wasting a glorious chance ten minutes from time can stop the home fans' celebrations. Eventually, the referee blows the final whistle. The long wait is over. The rubronegros are Brazilian champions again.
The players run their lap of honour around Maracanã while the whole stadium, still full, sings non-stop. Now it is the noise that becomes deafening. After a good half an hour, the fans start to leave gradually to get together with friends and family and continue their commemoration.
"What are you going to do?" I ask Luiz. "Leblon (a high end neighbourhood by the beach) is a good option, but you'll see parties all around the city. And there are also some samba school rehearsals tonight." An extremely entertaining Brasileirão season is over. Now, please welcome Mr Carnival!