Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Flamengo’s Twelfth Man

Reading Time: 4 minutes

What’s more important to a Brazilian than allegations of U.S. spying on their president? Not the stuttering economy, rising inflation, preparations for next year’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics, or even the looming presidential election—all of which factored into recent nationwide demonstrations still reverberating in outbursts of violent protest. 

Futebol. And with it comes one of the most important questions in Brazil, impacting every Brazilian day to day and how they interact with each other and the world. 

Who’s your futebol club? 

As a recent transplant to Rio de Janeiro, I expected deep conversations about democracy and rule of law. More often, I face existential questions about why one is loyal to a losing team, forcing me into a dilemma that Brazilians rarely confront. Most Brazilians are born into fandom, their allegiance to one of the nation’s futebol clubs received at birth from their parents and grandparents and seemingly all the way back to the founders of the Brazilian futebol league in the early 20th century. 

But I would have to choose a club—which, in Brazil, is like choosing a religion itself. It means community, belonging, and—for a newcomer like me—arrival. For a gringo to speak Portuguese is good; to support a Brazilian futebol club is divine.Myriad clubs compete in numerous leagues and levels, but the best are members of the “Clube dos 13” (“Club of the 13”), a body formed in 1987 with 13 original teams and today comprising 20 clubs nationwide. Since I am an aspiring carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro), I homed on Rio’s major clubs: Botafogo, Fluminense, Flamengo, and Vasco da Gama.

It initially seemed cool to support a team named after a 16th-century Portuguese explorer. But my apartment is in the neighborhood of Flamengo, and its eponymous clube is also one of Brazil’s most storied and popular teams. Polls give Flamengo 17 percent support nationwide  and 46 percent support citywide, compared to 33 percent citywide support for all three other clubs combined.

My belonging-ness would be greatest with Flamengo—and I might have guessed as much from all the fans I quickly encountered. Case in point was a young lawyer named Paulo Victor, who I happened to sit beside at the neighborhood’s popular open-air bar, Cafe Lamas. I asked for help with my Portuguese homework—which was, of course an opening for Paulo to ask: “Who’s your futebol club?” He could have cared less about my Portuguese efforts.

Sure, all futebol clubs have their pluses and minuses, and in the end, all point toward the same god of sport. But Paulo expounded the virtues of Flamengo: one of the most-winning clubs with one of the best players in history, Arthur Antunes Coimbra—better known as “Zico,” the “White Pelé.”

“I know Pelé!” I said. “Who did Pelé play for?”

“Santos FC,” Paulo Victor said. “From São Paulo state.”

Santos FC was coincidentally playing Flamengo the following evening, which we quickly made plans to attend.

And so, on September 13, one week after moving to the Cidade Maravilhosa, I attended my first-ever futebol match at the historic Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho—better known as Estádio do Maracanã—which was built in 1950 for the nation’s first-ever World Cup, and will again play host to the 2014 World Cup.

While the stadium’s official capacity is around 70,000, some 200,000 people crammed inside for the 1950 final of Brazil vs. Uruguay, a humiliating loss for the home team that went down in futebol lore as the “Maracanaço”, after the stadium’s neighborhood of Maracanã. Fans committed suicide. Players hung up their cleats. The team retired its white-and-blue uniforms and switched to today’s yellow and green.

Tonight, Flamengo was the underdog aiming to pull a maracanaço on Santos FC. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of attending a pro futebol match between two of Brazil’s greatest teams inside such a historic stadium—the Brazilian equivalent to the Red Sox hosting the Yankees at Fenway Park. Ghosts live in such places. But there’s a limit even here on the amount of public financial support for such venues, and the stadium’s recent half-billion-dollar renovation—a minor line item on Brazil’s $1 trillion bill for hosting 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics —was one of many expenses that irked nationals and fueled this past June’s violent protests.

Lines snaked around the stadium. Paulo and I went to buy tickets, but the vendor would not accept Paulo’s bank card. We hunted for an ATM, but all were closed, so I offered to cover the tickets, which a scalper then offered us for $25 apiece. Paulo sent me through security alone while he held onto my money with the scalpers. It crossed my mind that it was all an elaborate scam, but Paulo, wearing his authentic Flamengo jersey, told such a believable story about being raised the son of a Flamengo fan.

My ticket was good. Paulo paid the scalper and followed. As we passed through security, Flamengo scored its first goal. The crowd went wild. Drums thumped, horns bleated, fans of all ages and sizes began sprinting up the concrete ramps into the stadium. I’ve only seen such excitement over the Super Bowl or World Series. This was a single goal in the first minutes of a regular season match on a Thursday night.

The stadium fell silent when Santos tied the match, but Flamengo took back the lead for good in the second period, launching the fans into a series of cheers and songs, some complete with verses and choruses sung all the way back down the concrete exit ramp, a half-mile to the metro station, and during the entire 45-minute commute back into central Rio. It was a minor maracanaço.

We returned to Cafe Lamas for a celebratory drink. Paulo still owed me $25. He told me to wait at a corner, said he’d grab money from his apartment and be back in a minute. What else could I do but say “tudo bem” and wait? Besides, by now Paulo had become something of an ambassador for Flamengo, with the reputation of his beloved club to uphold.

About 20,000 people had attended the evening’s match, with some 19,000 of us crammed on the side of the home team and 1,000 lonely Santos fans occupying the other corner. We were a sea of red-and-black jerseys and giant flags bearing Zito’s face. Over an entire section of the lower-stands—some 200 prime seats—was draped an enormous t-shirt bearing the number 12. I asked Paulo who number 12 was.

“There are 11 players on the field,” he said. “The number 12 is for the fans, we’re the 12th teammate.”

Flamengo had offered me the number 12. How could I not accept?

You know that Paulo paid me back.

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