Brazil’s enormous borders encircle over 190 million people and almost 800 professional football clubs. Staggeringly, over 25 per cent of those inhabitants, whose genetics seemingly subscribe them to a life in the sport’s addiction clinic, are devotees of just two teams: Flamengo and Vasco da Gama. And while their rivalry was, albeit intense, long subordinate to the one the former shared with Fluminense, O Clássico dos Milhões (The Derby of the Millions) has since cemented itself as Rio de Janeiro’s nonpareil fixture.
Fan volume is not exclusively responsible for the popularity explosion the engagement has ridden since the early-1970s. Flamengo and Vasco contested just two title-deciders prior to this period, but have fought out 16 thereafter; the showdowns between Zico and Roberto Dinamite, the two clubs’ respective all-time greatest players who shared era and allure, became legendary, nation-transfixing affairs; the derby began to seduce gargantuan crowds of up to 175,000; page-oners such as Tita, Bebeto, Romario and Edmundo controversially wore both the rubro-negra and cruzmaltina jerseys; and, over the last 40 years, the sides have been two of Brazil’s most dominant.
Flamengo and Vasco had competed in rowing long before they met on grass, but the latter’s promotion to the Campeonato Carioca in 1922 incited their first on-pitch duel. That encounter took place the following April, with two goals from Cecy helping O Gigante da Colina (The Giant of the Hill) to a 3-1 success en route to ruling Rio in their first year in the state’s top flight.
The rivalry intensified in the 1930s. Flamengo’s animosity towards the men from the Sao Januario heightened courtesy of two particularly sickening defeats - a Russinho-inspired 7-0 thumping in 1931, which remains the biggest defeat in the history of O Clássico dos Milhões, and a 2-0 upset seven years later in the inception of their Estadio Gavea - while Vasco became embittered by their neighbours’ contracting of a crop of their former idols, including Leonidas da Silva and Domingos da Guia. A pool of detestation was brewing; it would boil in decades to come.
Facts and figuresWhile contrasting accounts of the teams’ head-to-head record exist, one consensus is that Flamengo have a marginal edge over their arch-rivals in terms of victories in the derby. Vasco, however, hold the records for the longest unbeaten streak and most successive wins: 23 matches between 1945 and 1951 and ten from 1947 and 1949 respectively.
Tales of derbies pastFlamengo may have gone into the Campeonato Carioca 1944’s deciding match chasing a third straight title, but they were nevertheless significant underdogs. The Sao Januario outfit were cultivating the irresistible team that would soon become the inaugural South American champions, while luminaries Domingos da Guia, Leonidas da Silva and Peracio had recently exited the Gávea gates. Moreover, Fla had injury problems to such an extent that coach Flavio Costa persuaded a reluctant Agustin Valido to come out of retirement. With 86 minutes on the clock and zero goals on the scoreboard, the Argentinian belied his age, and defied the scorching 39-degree heat, to head home the winner in what was, this time permanently, his career swan-song.
When Flamengo took a 2-0 lead in the penalty shoot-out that concluded the Taca Guanabara 1976 final, Vasco required a minor-miracle to deny their now illustrious enemies the trophy. That still appeared the case when Zico, who had been described by his coach Carlos Froner as “the king of penalties” – though he later became renowned for an ultimately costly miss against France in a 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ quarter-final, O Galinho had near-inerrable record from 12 yards – had the chance to seal the deal. However, Mazzaropi flung himself to his right and blocked the No10’s effort. Roberto Dinamite duly made it 4-4 and, after Geraldo fluffed Flamengo’s second penalty in succession, Luis Carlos ensured Vasco a crown which contributed to their becoming known as O Time da Virada (The Comeback Team).
If watching the Vascaínos commemorate consecutive 1-0 victories in the Carioca deciders of 1987 and ’88 was not harsh enough in itself, then the Flamenguistas had to suffer the indigestible feeling of watching one of their former players emerge as their punisher. In the foremost of those, Tita, a Mengão stand-out during their halcyon days of the early 1980s, rocketed home the only goal, while the following year Vasco substitute Cocada, who had previously been dumped by Flamengo, settled the showdown with a rare and wonderful goal in the game’s dying embers. The right-back’s amped-up celebration provoked a riotous melee, for which he, Romario, Alcindo and Renato Gaucho were sent off.
Arguably Vasco’s most memorable derby day was in the Campeonato Brasileiro 1997, when an exceptional, three-goal performance from Edmundo inspired them to a 4-1 triumph and a place in the competition’s final, which they duly won, while the Flamenguistas will eternally savour a 2001 Clássico dos Milhões. They had beaten Vasco in the previous two Campeonato Carioca finals, but needed to win the second leg of this decider by two goals to become tricampeões. They took a 2-1 lead on 53 minutes, when Edilson completed his brace, but were indebted to the instant reflexes of Julio Cesar for keeping the scoreline that way until, with two minutes remaining they were awarded a free-kick. Up stepped Dejan Petkovic, and the Serbian’s exquisite curler found the top corner of Helton’s net to spark unshackled celebrations among the Flamengo players are rare emotion from coach Mario Zagallo.
The rivalry todayFlamengo have got the better of Vasco in recent years, winning six and losing just one of their last ten meetings. Moreover, O Mengão have won their last five finals against O Vascão, including the Copa do Brasil 2006 decider, which booked them Copa Libertadores qualification.