As strange as it may seem, Rio de Janeiro, one of the most passionate footballing cities on the planet, had never before hosted a Copa Libertadores final. And no matter whether you were rooting for Fluminense or LDU, it turned out to be a truly unforgettable evening.
The spectacle began long before kick-off as the Flu faithful staged one of the most stunning displays of devotion ever seen at the Maracana. The excitement continued when the two sides marched out, serving up a thrilling duel that ended with the disbelieving home fans expressing their grief as one. It was an outcome that prompted inevitable comparisons with Brazil's fateful FIFA World Cup™ defeat by Uruguay at the famous old stadium in 1950, a defeat that stunned a nation and spawned the word Maracanazo.
This latest shock at the Maracana was made all the more frustrating for Fluminense fans by the fact that their idols chalked up a seventh win in seven home games in the Libertadores this season. The hosts' storming comeback, spearheaded by hat-trick hero Thiago Neves, was all in vain, though, as LDU dashed their dreams in a penalty shootout and turned the Tricolor Carioca title party into a wake.
"What can I say?" said an understandably subdued Fluminense coach Renato Gaucho at the post-match press conference. "The fact is I don't know what to say. . I didn't even try speaking to the players because they're in no condition right now. I'll leave that for Friday. I only came to the press conference because I'm a man and I don't want people saying I hid myself away after we lost."
Excitement in the stands
Even though the Tricolor Carioca needed to win by three clear goals to make the trophy theirs, their supporters were abuzz with a mix of confidence and excitement as the match approached. For a whole five hours, the Maracana shook to the sound of the club anthem, sung with passion by the 80,000 followers, a reminder that this was no ordinary occasion.
After that it was time for the pyrotechnics to begin. For five minutes the entire ground was bathed in colour as flares were lit in the stands, an amazing spectacle that had even the Ecuadorians in the crowd nodding in appreciation. "The Brazilians deserve to win for that alone," joked an LDU supporter who had made the long trip from Quito.
But little did the Fluzão faithful know that the visitors would rain on their parade. When Thiago Neves scored his third of the evening to level the tie with a little over 30 minutes remaining, that same sense of excitement and anticipation rippled around the terraces once more.
But the longer LDU held on and the longer the decisive fourth goal failed to materialise, the greater the anxiety that gripped the capacity crowd. By the time the referee blew for the end of extra time, the air of resignation in the stands had become palpable. Flu had thrown everything at the Ecuadorians and still it had not been enough, and when Jose Francisco Cevallos denied Washington to complete a hat-trick of penalty saves, a solemn silence took hold of the stadium.
Heads bowed, the Fluminense diehards slowly made their way towards the exits. Even two hours after the game, many of them were still shuffling around outside, lost in a dream that had ended in the cruellest of fashions.