2007 will go down as a year in which Brazilians united in ecstasy at the decision to grant them the right to host the FIFA World Cup™ in 2014. It will also be remembered as a year in which the country's vastest set of supporters pooled together to inspire a revolution.
Second-bottom at the halfway stage and seemingly destined for another fight against relegation, many clubs would have been content to preserve their Serie A status. Not Flamengo, for whom ambition comes as second nature. O Rubro Negro roared up the standings to finish third, which was their highest placing since competition's reversion to a straight league format and, decisively, qualified them for the Copa Libertadores 2008.
And while coach Joel Santana, goalkeeper Bruno, defender Fabio Luciano, wingbacks Leonardo Moura and Juan, midfielder Ibson and skilful link-man Renato Augusto all made significant contributions, their ascent was most indebted to the club's 12th man: its supporters.
Clad in the club's scarlet-and-black hoops, the Flamenguistas turned out in their droves for their last five games at the Maracana. A crowd of almost 74,000 took in the derby against Fluminense, and not even a 2-0 loss could dissuade the Mengao faithful. The stadium's attendance for Flamengo's victories over Gremio and Corinthians exceeded 70,000, before close to 88,000 watched them beat Santos and Atletico-PR in their last two home matches.
"The support we've had this season has been phenomenal. Without doubt it drove us there [into the Libertadores]," enthused Joel Santana. "The fans knew what we needed and they gave us that lift. ."
Just look at how many supporters we had
at the Maracana, everybody in the Flamengo colours. It's a
dream to see this
"We're like a family and when the supporters unite and get behind us like they did, the team responds. All the way through they have been an inspiration and thanks to them, we've managed to achieve something which seemed impossible."
Joel's gratitude towards the fans was reciprocated. When the 57-year-old, who masterminded an unbeaten run of six victories and three draws to save the club from relegation into Serie B in 2005, assumed the Gavea reins once again at the end of July, he faced one of his biggest challenges to date. It was an examination he passed with flying colours, refining the side's tactics and drawing the best from an underperforming cast.
After staving off the threat of demotion, Joel steered his charges' focus towards a place among South America's elite. Aided by a first run of five straight league victories for the first time since the heyday of Leandro, Junior, Zico and Co in 1982, it was a goal Flamengo realised with one matchday to spare. Naturally, the coach's name could be heard reverberating around the Maracana during the penultimate round reverse of Atletico-PR.
The sheer volume of the Flamengo devotees was deafening throughout their charge to the Libertadores, and their influence attracted praise from within the Gavea gates and beyond. "I'm in my 70s and have been involved with Flamengo for over 30 years, but I've never seen anything like this," said President Marcio Braga. "The Flamengo support is incomparable."
I sincerely didn't expect this," added Renato Augusto, 19. "I knew that the Flamengo fans would come and support, but this went beyond. The atmosphere at the Maracana was something else."
Zico, Flamengo's greatest all-time player and the current coach of Turkish heavyweights Fenerbahce, also praised his adoring public. "Yet again, the supporters have shown that Flamengo is one of the biggest club's in the world. They really deserved this success," he said.
The iconic No10 played the leading role in the most profitable year in the Rio de Janeiro giants' history, propelling them to continental and world titles. Having climbed mountains to claim a place in next season's Copa Libertadores, the mass of Flamenguistas cannot help but dream of a repeat of 1981.