This feature is part of A Tale of One City

“When did Fla-Flu begin? I dare to say: Fla-Flu has no beginning. Fla-Flu has no end. Fla-Flu came into existence 40 minutes before nothing. And then the multitude was awakened.” Nelson Rodrigues.

Brazil has always been a nation that breathes football. Although people often point to the success of the national team as the greatest indication for the country’s undying love for the sport, it also boasts a magnificent domestic league complete with several derbies that rage with passion and intensity. Indeed, of all the derbies, there is none more beguiling or engrossing than the Rio de Janeiro epic, known widely as the ‘Fla-Flu’, contested between Flamengo and Fluminense.

The genesis of the Fla-Flu rivalry began like other intense rivalries in football. In 1911, unhappy members of Fluminense left the club and went to Flamengo and formed the football wing of the club. Since then, the matches have been intense and must see action. Fla-Flu is a term coined by legendary Brazilian sports journalist Mário Filho and is a clássico which stretches back to the early stages of the 20th century when the two sides had their first meeting on July 7, 1912, with Fluminense edging the contest 3-2 in front of 800 people.

Ever since that fateful day, the derby has been an essential feature of footballing culture and identity in Rio and Brazil as a whole. The match has become synonymous with a packed Maracanã, bouncing and brimming with excitement at the prospect of watching a great rivalry, consuming sporting moments of great drama, elation and heartache. The spiritual home of Brazilian football, the Maracanã is at its finest when it is awash with flags, banners and fireworks celebrating the build-up to the Fla-Flu. Due to the huge numbers it attracts, it has been labelled The Derby of the Crowds. Like so many other rivalries in world football, it is a game driven by the fans and contested for them.

The Maracanã stands as a symbol of the magnitude of the rivalry, and Brazil’s most famous sporting arena has never been more alive than when it is hosting one of these famous derbies. The majestic footballing amphitheatre was first opened in 1950 but it didn’t actually stage a Fla-Flu until 1963, when the two sides met to decide the Rio championship. The match was far from a classic, a drab 0-0 draw handing the title to Flamengo. However, the match was written into folklore due to the monumental attendance it attracted. The official attendance of 177,656 is the highest Fla-Flu attendance of all time and a gauge of just how fanatical the support for this great match is.

Interestingly, the derby has transcended the realms of football and has taken on a unique literary significance in Brazilian sports writing. This is thanks to Brazil’s greatest ever playwright, Nelson Rodrigues, who illuminated the derby with a wonderful, dramatic voice when reporting on an October 1968 edition. Rodrigues used his prodigious writing gifts to immortalise the Fla-Flu as more than just another football match in Brazil; he transformed it into a great literary event of true drama, taking football writing to a new dimension. He went on to describe the match like this:

“But yesterday the red and black team held its head high, and its spirit was not to be denied … Of course I cannot gloss over the goal. When Wilton, taking advantage of a long pass, scored a goal, the entire Mário Filho Stadium filled with red and black roar. Hand! Hand! And in fact, our worthy striker, yes, in his eagerness to score, used his hand. That’s what I saw. Everyone saw the hand, except the linesman and referee.”

It should be noted that Rodrigues was a lifelong Fluminense fan and he wrote his report as such, contrary to normal journalistic objectivity that fans are accustomed to reading:

“First off, let us praise our players’ fighting spirit. How they strove, heart and soul and how they dripped, from the first to the last second, epic drops of sweat … And so it was that our fans left the stadium in a state of euphoria.”

The Fla-Flu has always upheld a glorious, unscripted drama throughout the ages, whether it was observed by playwrights or not. It has written extraordinary and mythical chapters into the storied history of Brazilian football, such as the infamous ‘Fla-Flu da Lagoa’, the Fla-Flu of the Lake. Contested on November 23, 1941, the match holds a special resonance in the tradition of the Fla-Flu. Playing the decisive match in the Rio Championship, Flamengo entertained Fluminense in their Gávea stadium situated next to the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – a large lake in southern Rio, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a small strip of land belonging to the district Ipanema. Driven forward by a young Zizinho, it was Flamengo that opened the scoring. They were now champions-elect, but then Fluminense equalized, and scored another to make it 1-2. Time was running out for Flamengo. Fluminense seemed to have the championship sealed.

However all was not lost, and in the 84th minute, Flamengo equalised. Six minutes were left to score the winner. Flamengo conjured all its feelings of hate for Fluminense and all their desire for the championship to launch one final devastating assault on Fluminense’s goal. Flu’s squad, understandably so, were struck by fear. Their goalkeeper Batatais had by now broken his collarbone but with substitutes not yet allowed at this stage in football, Fluminense knew they were about to crack.

So from then on, legend has it, the Fluminense players decided to kick the ball into the lake. A reserve ball was given. A few moments later, it landed in the lake as well. Another ball was sought as the Flamengo staff quickly jumped in a boat to retrieve the ball. As soon as the ball was handed back, Fluminense players declared that, the water soaked ball (in those days, balls soaked up water like a sponge) was unplayable. So for good measure, they kicked it into the lake once more.

The referee became increasingly exasperated and sent off Fluminense striker Carreiro for time wasting. Carreiro, realising he had nothing more to lose, took an eternity to leave the field. Time became relative. For Flamengo, it flew. For Fluminense, it stood still. Objectively, after half an hour, the six minutes still hadn’t been fully played out. But the referee had seen enough. He blew his whistle. The final score read 2-2 and Fluminense had won the league, in bizarre and astonishing circumstances.

From the past to more recent memory, perhaps the most thrilling and memorable Fla-Flu was the 1995 Campeonato Carioca final at the Maracanã. The match was neck-and-neck and the atmosphere unbearably tense inside the stadium as the score remained locked at 2-2 heading towards the climax. However Fluminense refused to settle for a draw and their legendary striker, Renato Gaúcho, sealed the championship for his side with an unorthodox goal, guiding the ball over the line with his stomach. Flu finished a single point ahead of Fla in the final standings courtesy of a derby that remains one of the greatest in the history of the fixture.

Renato Gaúcho, scorer of that decisive goal, was a titanic figure in the context of the Fla-Flu and a hugely revered footballer in his country. Gaúcho had four separate spells at Flamengo and is deeply entrenched with their tradition but in all the Fla-flu derbies he contested in, his most famous moment came whilst he was wearing the shirt of their bitter rivals. It is a topic of great tension between the two sets of supporters that such a distinguished figure of Flamengo was the architect of their crushing defeat in the ’95 final. Gaúcho etched his name into annals of Brazilian club football history with his goals in the Fla-Flu derby. Standing alongside him as well are some of the finest footballers to ever grace a pitch. One of them is Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico.

Brazil’s renowned playmaker, who was central to their attacking drive in three World Cups from 1978 to 1986, is also a fabled character in the derby. Indeed, no player has ever scored more goals at the Maracanã than Zico and his goalscoring prowess in the colours of Flamengo – his haul of 19 cannot be bettered – makes him arguably the game’s finest participant.

Zico’s footballing journey began as a Flamengo-mad kid inside the Maracanã, cheering on his idols and dreaming of one day gracing the pitch himself. Indeed there is one occasion still lingers bright in his memory: “In 1963 I came to see the Fla-Flu derby with 177,000 paying fans, a record for a club match. I remember when I came out of the corridor into the stadium and being hit by the colours – the red and black of Flamengo, the green, red and white of Flamengo.”

Zico is Flamengo’s favourite son, amassing an incredible 580 appearances for his beloved side and scoring approximately 400 goals in an illustrious career in Brazil. Zico helped Flamengo to six Rio State Championships during his time as their key attacking force and his peerless displays, not coincidentally, came during a wonderfully fruitful spell for the Mengão. They took the championship five times between 1972-79 in a particularly prosperous spell for the club and it was during Zico’s years of genius that Flamengo also claimed an historic triumph in the 1981 Copa Libertadores.

The legendary midfielder achieved many things in a decorated career but it is his unsurpassed record in the Fla-Flu derby that is truly remarkable. Never was his influence quite as immeasurable as during a famous victory for Flamengo when fans saw their favourite technician operate to his maximum potential. With Flamengo winning 4-1 in the 1986 Campeonato Carioca, Zico stole the show by scoring all four goals in a performance that fully demonstrated his creative guile, masterful finishing and leadership qualities. Fluminense simply had no answer to one of Brazilian football’s all-time greats in full flight, and duly wilted under his relentless brilliance.

On the opposite side of the derby’s spectrum is Rivelino, a Brazilian legend in his own right and widely regarded as one of the most gifted players of all time. The moustachioed maestro was the outstanding talent in a formidable Fluminense outfit during the mid-1970s when they won the 1975 and 1976 Rio State Championships. Rivelino was an exceptionally blessed footballer who treated the Fluzão fans to their own saviour and genius. Sometimes, as shown in the examples of these two great Brazilian heroes, a derby can be electrified by the individual artistry of the players it showcases.

However, almost inevitably, the level of passion can sometimes descend into a volatile atmosphere that perhaps shows the more fanatical elements of Fla-Flu. The match is often the scene of pitch invasions and chaos amongst the terraces of the mighty Maracanã and illustrates that impassioned support treads closely to violence and mayhem.

Crammed inside the Maracanã and forced to tolerate each other for upwards of two hours, it is perhaps unsurprising that the two sets of fans clash regularly. It is a facet of the vast majority of major derbies across world football but instead of repelling fans, it only emboldens the sense that these football matches mean something. In the same manner as the footballers themselves letting their tempers be frayed, the fans are often guilty of letting their tensions boil over amidst the cacophonous support inside the Maracanã, especially factions of fans from either club dedicated to upholding the more “extremist” characteristics of football fandom.

The groups, which have names like the ‘Red-Black Race’ and ‘Flu Force’, are often run by teenagers and have up to 40,000 members. They fight with fists, knives, bottles, guns and sometimes homemade bombs. “For me, fighting is fun,” a 17-year-old Torcida member told the Rio newspaper Jornal do Brasil. “I feel a great emotion when the other guy screams in pain. The boy, known only as “Red”, added that he didn’t care about how other people felt “as long as I’m happy”.

The Fla-Flu derby, despite having a rich history of beautiful footballing moments, stands as a reminder of how rivalries can turn ugly. Fan violence and organised groups have infected Brazilian football for years now and unfortunately, the Fla-Flu derby is not exempt.

 In recent times, the derby has continued to produce exciting matches filled with goals and memorable action, events worthy of upholding the fixture’s great history. In 2010, the two clubs treated fans to a feast of attacking football when they drew 3-3 in the Campeonato Brasileiro before a thrilling 3-2 victory for Flamengo a year later in the same competition.

The derby maintains its status as one of the greatest spectacles in Brazilian football and its appeal is forever enduring to fans, pundits and players alike. There are those in Rio that would argue the biggest derby in Rio is now Fluminense and Botafogo, who have faced off in the Carioca final several times in the past decade in a rivalry known as the Clássico da Rivalidade. However, with the stories throughout years of rivalry, the incomparable feats of Zico, the famous Derby of the Lake and the match that breathes a unique life into the Maracanã, the Fla-Flu is, in my opinion, untouchable in Brazilian football rivalries

“Huge, overwhelming, capable of turning a football spectacle into a carnival, the Maracanã is already a legend. The reality, however, is much greater. The memory I’ll forever have of Fla-Flu and, even more, of Brazilian football itself, will be of this huge, pungent, happy human experience.” Hugh McIlvanney in The Observer, 1969.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11