Fluminense evoke the spirit of '84

Last weekend Fluminense wrapped up their first title for over 25 years. This time last year, they'd barely escaped relegation. Jack Lang has the story.

A mere twelve months ago, the suggestion that Fluminense would be crowned champions of Brazil in 2010 would have prompted a cruel chuckle among the nation’s football fans. Despite a run to the final of the Copa Sul-americana, the Tricolor endured a woeful 2009 in domestic competition; gaining the fewest points of the ‘big four’ in the Campeonato Carioca (the Rio de Janeiro state championship) and only avoiding relegation from the Brasileirão on the final day. With a revolving-door managerial policy, and a squad largely bereft of star quality, the outlook was far from rosy for the Laranjeiras club.

Last Sunday, however, Fluminense secured the Série A title with a 1-0 victory over already-relegated Guarani, completing a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. It was only the third national title in the club’s 108 year existence, and their first since 1984. Conveniently, fate has served to connect the dots between these two peaks in the side’s history; the current crop of champions bears an uncanny resemblance to the group which reached the summit of Brazilian football 26 years ago.

The 1984 side was spurred to victory by the iconic Paraguayan midfielder Romerito, who netted the winner in the first leg of that year’s final (the Brazilian league system only abandoned the playoff format in 2003) against Vasco da Gama. A player whose bravery more than compensated for his diminutive stature, Romerito racked up over 200 appearances during his five years with the club, and is remembered fondly by the Tricolor faithful.

Fluminense’s success this term has also been inspired by an impish foreign playmaker; Argentine schemer Darío Conca kept Flu in the hunt almost single-handedly when a series of injuries threatened to derail their title challenge. Conca, a player whose praises I have already sung on this site, deservedly cleaned up at the Brasileirão end-of-season awards, walking away with gongs for best player and fan favourite. Having just signed a five-year contract extension, he seems destined to cement his place as one of the icons of the club.

Fluminense rather limped over the finish line this season after seeing the goals dry up in the final weeks. With Emerson and Fred struggling with injuries, much of the responsibility fell on the appropriately broad shoulders of Washington, a veteran in his second spell at the club. The striker, whose career looked to be over when he underwent heart surgery in 2003 (he courageously battled back, earning the nickname Coração Valente (Braveheart) in the process), displayed reasonable form early in the campaign, but endured a 16-game goal drought during November and December, putting increased pressure on what is (Conca aside) a rather functional Fluminense midfield. Washington’s profligacy in front of goal regularly provoked howls of derision from the club’s fans, which in turn only deepened his malaise. Similarly, the class of ’84 was led by a bustling, unorthodox forward, who at times failed to convince those in the stands of his calibre. He too finished the season with a dry patch in front of goal. His name? Washington, of course.

Finally, in the year previous to the 1984 championship, Flu had the displeasure of watching their most bitter of rivals romp to victory. A Flamengo side boasting seleção stars Júnior, Leandro, and Zico, claimed the Campeonato Brasileiro title, while their neighbours loitered in the lower reaches of the table. The year 2009, too, was a glorious one for the Rubro-Negro, who added the Série A crown to the state trophy they picked up in the first part of the season. It is testament to the unpredictability of the Brasileirão that the clubs found their roles utterly reversed this term; Flamengo only just managed to escape the drop whilst Flu were taking control at the head of the table.

Much of the credit for the Tricolor’s resurgence must be put down to the club’s decision to contract Muricy Ramalho, the coach who had guided São Paulo to three consecutive Campeonato Brasileiro titles between 2006 and 2008. A tactically astute, if somewhat defensive manager, Ramalho has done an incredible job in sculpting a successful team out of relatively moderate resources. Two of Fluminense’s most high profile signings of recent times, the former Chelsea pair Deco and Juliano Belletti, have made scant impact on the pitch, hampered by injury and indifferent form.

Instead, Ramalho’s ability to coax performances from the existing squad members has been crucial. The first-choice centre-back pairing of Leandro Euzébio and (brilliant Brazilian name alert) Gum have been dominant at both ends of the pitch; marrying no-nonsense defensive work with an aerial threat in attack. Right-back Mariano has also excelled, bombing down the wing and providing an excellent supply-line to the forwards. In the middle of the park, Conca’s purely creative remit is enabled by the astute covering of Diguinho, Fernando Bob, and Valencia, who have been rotated in defensive midfield. Up front, admittedly, it is has been a recent acquisition who has provided the greatest threat; Emerson has been in fine fettle since arriving from Al Ain.

When Carlos Simon blew the final whistle (the last act of his distinguished refereeing career, incidentally) on Sunday, then, the eruption of the Flu fans inside the Engenhão stadium told the story; the weight of history has been lifted off the back of this prestigious club after 26 long years. Whatever the future may bring, Fluzão's recent turnaround will stand lovingly alongside the 1984 success in the Brazilian footballing consciousness. Parabéns, Fluminense; campeão Brasileiro de 2010!

Jack writes regularly for IBWM, and also runs his outstanding blog on Brazilian football: Snap, Kaka, and Pop! You can follow him on Twitter @snap_kaka_pop.