Over an hour before kick-off and the stadium was already awash with flags, banners and fireworks as it rocked to the drums and chants of the Torcidas. I was in Rio for the game known as the Fla-Flu, the derby between Flamengo and Fluminese. While not as big as Vasco vs Flamengo, the excellently named derby of the millions, the Fla-Flu is a game of historical significance. And the pre-match atmosphere was certainly living up to the hype as the two sets of fans took in turns to explode into action.
I had been in Rio for a week and despite finding the city rather intimidating I still found it hard to believe that Brazilian football fans could be anything other than the friendly, happy-go-lucky, attractive girls I was used to seeing dancing on my TV screen during the World Cup. Yet here I stood, surrounded by hordes of sweaty men, women and children. Crammed together like sardines. Decked out in red and black from head to toe. Singing, chanting, banging on drums and waving flags in an almost trance like state. Like an army ready to go to war. My supermodel image of the Brazilian football fan evaporated and the Torcida, with all its colour and passion, quickly took its place.
Who are the Torcida? They are the street vendor, the slum dweller, the student, the bus-driver, the lawyer and the school teacher. They are a mass of ordinary, anonymous people. The sort of people you wouldn't look twice at if you passed them on the street but when they are together in the stadium, they hypnotise you. Without realising you start dancing and singing with them and after a while you stop watching the game and instead watch the Torcida. I had never seen anything quite like it in Europe and I had to admit, it was addictive.
Of all the football clubs in Brazil I had been told Flamengo was the biggest, the most popular and, of course, had the best Torcidas. This was mainly due to the club's huge following amongst the lower classes, a sizeable group in country like Brazil. Then again I had also been told Brazilians like myths and exaggerations, an image not helped by my guide assuring me that all Flamengo fans were from favelas while all Fluminense fans were gay. He was a Botafogo fan.
Nação Rubro Negra or The Red and Black Nation is how many Flamengo fans refer to themselves. They estimate their numbers, or should that be population, to be something in the region of 34 million, making them not only the largest supported team in Brazil, but the whole world. A quick internet search reveals hundreds of Flamengo related sites, blogs, chatrooms and even dating sites. Inter-club relationships, it seems, are frowned upon. So just how did a club like Flamengo become so huge?
Marcel Pereira is the author of A Nação, a book which attempts to answer that very question. The issue is clearly complicated and Pereira is quick to dismiss the idea that only poor, black people from favelas support Flamengo. In fact, the club has something of an elitist background, having been founded by rich kids from one of Rio's more affluent neighbourhoods. The real reason for the club's popularity, according to Pereira, is rooted in Brazilian history and the symbolism of the city's other clubs.
“At the beginning of the XX Century, Fluminense was associated with the aristocracy. Vasco da Gama was the sign of the Portuguese in Brazil and the memory of the colonialism was still alive. Who could beat the power of the aristocracy and the power of the colonialists? Flamengo was doing it.”
Pereira was also keen to highlight the importance of Rio to explain Flamengo's nationwide appeal.
“The club had the spirit of freedom of the teenagers who founded it. And this spirit was beating the aristocracy and the colonialists. It had been the way to conquer Rio de Janeiro. A way of conquering Brazil. And to understand this process it's necessary to understand the symbol that Rio de Janeiro represented to the country in these moments of Brazilian history. Rio was the capital, the federal district, but was much more. Rio constructed the Brazilian dream of progress and at the same time was a symbol of the Brazilian culture, with Samba and Bossa Nova, an image of the paradise.”
Pereira's views were a real insight and seemed to offer a deeper, historical reason for Flamengo's dominance. At the same time though, a cynic could argue that it was success, not romantic notions of a new Brazil or conquering colonialism that made Flamengo popular. People supported Flamengo because it was a successful club in the same way you can find Manchester United fans throughout England.
For a second opinion I turned to an Englishman, someone not caught up in the passion of being a Flamengo fan. Tim Vickery has been in Brazil since 1994 and knows Brazilian football and society inside-out. Like Pereira, he recognised that Flamengo's popularity owed a lot to history but also pointed out other factors.
“Flamengo is an elite club, who in a stroke of genius acquired the popular touch in the mid 30s. Just after the game professionalised they signed the leading 3 black players of the day - Leonidas (very much the prototype bad boy), Domingos da Guia and Fausto. At the time Rio was still the capital, with radio taking their games all over the country, and millions, especially in the north-east identified with their fortunes. Of course the late 70s early 80s Zico team won over lots of converts with the titles won and the style of its play, but the huge national following comes from the 30s.”
After talking to Pereira and Vickery it was clear that there was a mixture of reasons why Flamengo was so popular and that the usual cliches about race or class were either too simplistic or too romantic. In a country as diverse as Brazil, simple explanations are just not possible. Even about football. And with that I leave the last word to Pereira.
“It's not easy to understand and explain Flamengo, I need 272 pages!”
A huge thanks to both Tim Vickery and Marcel Pereira. More of Tim's work can be found at ESPN, World Soccer, Sports Illustrated and BBC Sport.