Flamengo: a sleeping giant awakens
Barely 12 months ago, Brazilian giants Flamengo were forced to turn to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, in a bid to stave off what would have been a calamitous descent into the country's second division.
One year on, the country's most popular club again find themselves in the headlines, but this time it is not because of a religious pilgrimage, a financial crisis or the departure of yet another coach. By dint of sheer hard work, and some good football, the Mengão claimed this year's Copa do Brasil with an emphatic victory over city rivals Vasco Da Gama. In the process, Flamengo also secured their place in the 2007 Copa Libertadores de America.
Last week's victory was major news across Brazil, with the club's reported 35 million fans celebrating their first title since 1992. Even though the Rio de Janeiro side no longer have stars of the calibre of Zico, Junior or Romario in their ranks, no-one can stop them dreaming of reclaiming the continental crown they last won in 1981.
A title with a difference
The history of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, to give it its official name, has witnessed both the best and worst of times. From humble origins, Flamengo came into being in 1895 and quickly established a huge and loyal working-class following.
The club's golden era was in the late 70s and early 80s, culminating in their Intercontinental Cup triumph over Liverpool in 1981. Gerson, Mario Zagallo, Bebeto and Renato Gaúcho are just a few of the legendary Brazilians to have worn the famous red-and-black jersey over the years.
However, like a great many South American sides, Flamengo were badly affected by the economic crises that shook the continent in the 1990s. Shorn of many of their big-name stars and forced to rely on products of their youth academy, they came perilously close to relegation on several occasions.
A turbulent 2004 and 2005 then saw them try out seven different coaches in a 15-month period, before finally settling on Ney Franco. Continuing the work started by his predecessor Waldemar Lemos, Franco forged a side of promising youngsters and experienced veterans that would end years of suffering for fans of the Rio de Janeiro club.
The road to glory
As fate would have it, the second leg of the final last Wednesday took place at the mythical Maracana stadium, the scene of many of Flamengo's greatest triumphs down the years.
There, a solitary strike from Juan sealed the Mengão a 3-0 aggregate victory over old rivals Vasco Da Gama. It was the first time in the short history of the Copa do Brasil, a nation-wide competition open to teams from various categories, that two teams from the same state had met in the deciding game.
On the way to the title, Ney Franco's men posted an impressive eight wins (including triumphs over ASA, ABC, Guaraní, Atlético Mineiro, Ipatinga and Vasco Da Gama), three draws and just one defeat, a 1-0 reverse at the hands of Gurananí on 19 April.
In doing so, they found the net 24 times, conceding just seven, with Renato the team's top scorer on five strikes.
Champions sound a warning
Having secured the country's second most important competition, the club's new idols were happy to share their joy with the local media.
Ney Franco, who turned 40 between the first and second legs, paid tribute to the team's work ethic: "It was a real group effort and one that required a lot of patience. Fortunately, the fans understood this and stood by us at the most difficult times to help us achieve our objective."
Luizao, scorer of the goal that secured Brazil's place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ in Korea/Japan and his country's all-time leading scorer in the Copa Libertadores, has now scored 16 times in 10 starts for the club, including one in the first leg of the final against Vasco.
"There is nothing to compare with winning a title with the team closest to one's heart," he said afterwards. "I hope the memories stay with me forever and that I can finish my career here."
Also jubilant was team captain Jonatas, who insisted that victory had been down to "the character of the entire squad". "The team has found the winning formula again, and now we're going for the Copa Libertadores," he added after the final.
Now this footballing giant has awoken from its slumber, it clearly intends to make up for lost time. South America, you have been warned.