Jude the Apostle is the patron saint of desparate situations and a club that impassions almost 40 million Brazilians. That club found itself ineludibly submersed in the aforementioned plight in late August.
Flamengo’s Brasileirao title challenge had, indeed, been all but extinguished. They were fresh from a 3-0 loss at newly-promoted Avai, a chorus of humiliatory olés from the home fans compounding what was already another debasing failure.
The Rio de Janeiro giants had suffered three straight defeats. They languished in 14th place, 13 points off the pace. They were arguably devoid of desire; they were apparently devoid of confidence. An assault on the crown seemed inconceivable; a relegation battle was becoming more and more probable.
That was when Saint Jude decided to answer the Flamenguistas’ prayers. He has done so through a handful of disciples: Andrade’s motivational muscle and tactical acumen has been the renaissance’s driving force; goalkeeper Bruno has provided an often-impenetrable barrier; Maldonado has solidified a turbulent midfield; playmaker Petkovic has belied his footballing relic [the Serbian turned 37 in September] to radiate; and striker Adriano, who was a solitary, albeit flickering, bright spark during the first half of O Mengão’s campaign, has attained once more the zenith that most felt he had long outgrown.
The response since that Avai nightmare has been emphatic. Flamengo have, despite an examining sequence of matches, won ten, drawn three and lost just one of their last 14 outings; results that have rocketed them to second in the Brasileirao - just two points behind Sao Paulo with three rounds remaining - and sent their supporters into a state of rhapsody.
“Whoever laughed at us can now see how close we are to success,” declared Bruno. “We never stopped believing. This is the result of the squad's unity.”
This unity was palpable when the final whistle brought their 2-0 win over Nautico in Recife to a close on Sunday, provoking the players to assemble, arms around one another, for nearly one minute. It was at the summoning of the No1. “I said at that moment that Rio de Janeiro was painted red and black, and that the supporters who were there represent a nation that need and deserve this title,” Bruno explained.
Only three rounds remain for Flamengo to outstrip Sao Paulo, who are chasing an unprecedented fourth straight Brasileirao prize, but the omens are caped in red and black as they chase a first gold since 1992. Indeed, two of O Mengão’s remaining fixtures will be played at the Maracana, where they have, imbued by the masses of Flamenguistas that cram the venerated stadium to its rafters and provide a unique, thunderous current of inspiration, won their last six matches, conceding just once in the process. O Tricolor Paulista, for their part, have two away dates to fulfill - six of their seven losses this term have been on their travels.
“I’m very proud of my players,” said Andrade, who was a midfield icon in Flamengo’s all-conquering team of the 1980s. “They’ve done very well to come this far. It’s been a long time since Flamengo were in a position like this, but we’ve got to keep going. The tension rises with every game. Sao Paulo are strong candidates and the title is in there hands, but if we keep our side of the bargain, then who knows?”
Adriano, the competition’s 19-goal leading marksman, attributes Flamemgo’s prosperity to his coach. “We’re in this position because of Andrade,” he said. “Before the game (against Nautico), I joked with him that, if he needed me to, I’d play at left-back [regular No6 Juan was suspended, his deputy Everton Silva injured]. That’s the spirit of this group.
“Our objective is to win the title for our wonderful supporters. We have to concentrate on our own work, not think about our rival. It would be the capstone of my career.”
Quite a statement from a man who pocketed the player of the tournament award and a winners’ medal at the Copa America 2004, seized the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Shoe en route to Brazil’s FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005 triumph, and helped Inter Milan to three Italian Serie A crowns.
However, given how inconceivable Flamengo conquering the Brasileirao sounded three months ago, maybe the completion of mission impossible would be the capstone in the devotion of a majority of Flamenguistas – even those old enough to have revelled in the halcyon days of Zico, Junior et al. It’s over to you, Saint Jude…