For those of us who love football as a sport, revel in the team spirit, are captivated by the atmosphere of the occasion and let our emotions run wild in its unpredictability, you must’ve heard about a place called Brazil.
With all the talk of England being the birthplace of football, if anyone is ever asked to name the country most synonymous with the sport, then nine times out of ten the answer will be Brazil.
Sure, on these shores we talk about football ‘coming home’, but when the 2014 World Cup – and the others before it – was held in Brazil there was a real sense that football was in its rightful spot. Among those who religiously follow it and dedicate their lives to it.
In Brazil, football is life. It’s an integral part of its culture and day-to-day goings-on; you can’t escape it.
And taking a walk around the streets of Rio de Janeiro, on the beaches, in the bars, at the restaurants or even in the taxis (seriously, a driver I had whipped his phone out while driving to give minute-by-minute commentary of Vasco da Gama’s win over Manchester United while the highlights played). In essence, you can’t go a minute without it making an appearance in some capacity.
As someone fortunate enough to have experienced the city, it’s part of the furniture in that section of the world. You can’t escape it. But, you don’t want to either.
There are four major clubs in the state of Rio: Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama. Now, if you were to suggest that the two most supported clubs boast the grandest rivalry of the city you’d be wrong, as that would entail Flamengo and Vasco da Gama hold the biggest grudges.
Fact is, it’s the former of those and Fluminense who earn this honour, in a derby known by the moniker of Fla-Flu.
Its roots trace back to 1911, when a group of Fluminense players were released from the club and left distinctly unhappy. Their response was to join Flamengo – at the time a rowing club – where a football department thus came into existence.
From its beginnings to now, over a century later, the ebb and flow of this derby has swung in the favour of both clubs, but with each passing year it intensifies even further.
Sharing one of the great cities of the world, the prize of pride over its 11m+ citizens is one never to be missed out on, which is why not a single fixture passes by without a huge amount of hype.
They might have played their first ever game against one another in front of just 800 people, but when these two face off now, they do it in a huge stadiums that they both call home.
But it’s not just a stadium, it’s the flipping Maracanã. One of the great stadia of world football. The place itself demands a spectacle, so when you throw two great rivals into this lion’s den, expect something truly special.
It’s been their respective homes for over 50 years now. 80,000 spectators pouring into such a recognisable ground, bringing with them the festival-like atmopshere the streets had been littered with in the build up.
You can be forgiven for thinking these two play each other every day. A walk through the streets of Laranjeiras, Flu’s main hub, or across the city of Rio, where you will see the most supported side, Flamengo, gives you an impression of everlasting support. People adorn their club shirts each and every day, and not a television around the city isn’t showing football in some manner.
The pair aren’t just two clubs in a main city, though, they’re the two most successful clubs in the history of the Carioca Championship. Both have been awash with Brazilian excellence throughout their existence: Carlos Alberto, Zico, Aldair, Marcelo, Romario, Rivelino, Ronaldinho….just to name a few. And their presence in major competitions has been ongoing throughout their tenures.
This is a fixture to simply enjoy. There are undertones of class disparities in terms of each clubs’ backgrounds, but there is no need to delve into such territory. Yes, Flu are often considered the more ‘middle class’, if you’d like, of the pair. But truth be told, nobody cares anymore.
All they care about is an engrossing football match between two rivals, in one of the globe’s most iconic settings, and backed up by a set of fanbases that know how to party. Know how to set a mood. Know how to show their love and support to their club.
In footballing terms, there is reason to get giddy too. In over 425 clashes between the two, the scores are mightily close in terms of overall victories. Both have enjoyed their ups and downs, but Brazilian flair on a football pitch means any game can flip on its head in an instant, with a level of uncertainty filtering through the air with each passing minute.
There’s also been the farcical, too. Myths of Flu players booting the ball into a nearby lagoon in the 1940s to run the clock down and secure them the draw they needed to win the title are both dispelled as hearsay and lauded as gospel.
Football’s roots can be pinpointed back to all corners of the world. But soak up the atmosphere of Flamengo vs. Fluminense, or even just one of the sides playing someone else in the city, and try to imagine football coming from anywhere else.
Fla-Flu may be the beating heart of Rio de Janeiro, but in reality, its just the beating heart of football as a whole.
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