There were tears in Vagner Love’s eyes when he gave his first interview after being presented to the Flamengo fans back in January. It was, after all, the fulfilment of a childhood dream for the dreadlocked striker, the chance for him finally to pull on the jersey of his beloved Fla. Since then the relationship has gone from strength to strength, so much so that the 25-year-old is rarely seen these days without a broad grin on his face.
Vagner Love's signing for the Brasileirao 2009 champions generated a sense of expectation that bordered on euphoria, with Flamengo fans naturally excited at the prospect of their flamboyant new signing teaming up with Brazil international Adriano in attack.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the reception I got,” explained the man himself. “It was amazing and everyone, including the media, the fans, the directors and the squad, gave me a very warm welcome.”
Playing on his strike partner’s nickname of O Imperador and his own adopted surname, the new arrival told reporters that together they would create an 'Empire of Love' at the Estadio da Gavea. Yet, not even the most optimistic of Rubro-Negro supporters could have imagined that the tandem would click into gear so quickly.
Although only 18 games into his Flamengo career, Love has flourished alongside the rampaging Adriano, striking 16 goals to become his team’s leading scorer. Partners on only one occasion before this season, in Brazil’s 4-1 defeat of Costa Rica at the Copa America 2004, the pair’s instant rapport has been truly remarkable.
Proof of that is the fact that Adriano has notched 12 goals in 11 outings since Love’s acquisition, with the pair scoring an impressive 56 per cent of their side’s goals so far this year. Not surprisingly, their partnership has posed plenty of problems for opposing defenders, with the former Palmeiras and CSKA man revelling in the space created by his illustrious sidekick.
“I always adapt quickly to situations and I don’t have a problem going after the ball,” he said. “Adriano is stronger than me and it makes sense that he plays down the middle and I play a more mobile role. Neither of us are selfish players, though, and whoever’s in the best position always ends up getting the ball.”
That does not mean to say that Love needs the Emperor by his side or that he cannot play the lone striker’s role. Half of his goals for the Rio team have come with Adriano on the sidelines. “Everyone in the squad has a job to do,” he said.
“Mine’s up front and I try to give it my very best. When Adriano is up there alongside me we share the workload. And even when he’s not around my aim is to keep on helping out.”
Flamengo’s recent run of big games has coincided with Adriano’s omission from the side due to back pains. Love has risen to the challenge, however, scoring twice in last Sunday’s clássico against Vasco da Gama to take Flamengo into the final of the Taca Rio, the second phase of the Campeonato Carioca, where they will take on Botafogo. Love also hit a brace in a vital Copa Libertadores win away to Caracas, though their chances of reaching the last 16 of the competition now depend on beating the Venezuelans at home in their final group game.
Flamengo’s hopes of state success are also in the balance. They need to beat Botafogo next Sunday to prevent their opponents from claiming the overall Carioca crown and set up a winner-takes-all title decider between the two sides. “I always dreamed of playing in a final for Flamengo and that moment has finally come,” said an excited Love. “It’s all come down to one game and it’s all or nothing now.”
Despite the pressure of playing for Flamengo and having to meet the expectations of one of the biggest supports in the world, Love is smiling through it all. The 25-year-old is accustomed to rising to the occasion. Having earned adulation at Palmeiras for his part in their return to the Brazilian elite in 2003, he then moved to CSKA Moscow, where he won the small matter of one UEFA Cup, two Russian championships, four Russian Cups and three Super Cups.
Having swapped chilly Moscow for the warmth of his home town, Love is aiming is to add yet more achievements to that impressive career record. “It’s good to get recognition from people and I hope to pay that back,” concludes the grateful goalgetter. “And as long as I’m doing my bit to help Flamengo win and pick up trophies, then I’ll be happy.”