The Fla-Flu derby is more than a game

Rio de Janeiro was mighty different 104 years ago except for one vital constant: the passionate shouts of fans at the Flamengo v Fluminense football derby.

On Thursday, more than a century and some 300 games later, the two teams face off again in the latest episode of Brazil's most romantic football series.

It's not the most consequential game, although Flamengo is fighting near the top of the Brazilian championship and Fluminense is eying a berth in the South American Copa Libertadores.

Instead of being held in the usual Maracana stadium, which is the scene of the most memorable encounters but is undergoing post-Olympics maintenance, the next Fla-Flu encounter will take place two hours from Rio at the Volta Redonda club.

But fans and players have bigger things to worry about than stadiums.

"Fla-Flu has no beginning. Fla-Flu has no end. Fla-Flu began 40 minutes before time. And then the masses awoke," wrote the famed mid-20th century writer Nelson Rodrigues in typically mystical terms.

To find the seeds of this struggle for supremacy between working class Flamengo and upper crust Fluminense you have to look back to a curious incident in 1911.

Fluminense was pushing to become Rio champion when nine of its players rebelled against the board, defecting to nearby Flamengo which had been created in 1895 as a rowing club with no footballing interest.

That July 7 some 800 people showed up at a football field in the Laranjeiras, which remains the Fluminense headquarters, and witnessed the first battle. Fla 3 - Flu 2: the endless cycle of revenge was on.


Rio residents, or Cariocas, call this footballing fixture "charmoso," or the charmer.

"Fla-Flu has become a synonym for rivalry but it's not like other rivalries. It's not something warlike. Flamengo was born out of Fluminense, so it's more like rivalry between two brothers who know each other very well," said Renato Terra, who directed a documentary on the derby.

Beyond the stadiums, the rivalry has leaked into literary culture and the radio, which contributed to "converting Fla-Flu into a more important derby in the popular imagination" across Brazil, said journalist Roberto Assaf, co-author of the book "Fla-Flu, Game of the Century."

The legendary peak of this great contest was arguably on December 15, 1963, when 177,000 people were registered as having crammed into the Maracana -- more than double current capacity -- for the final of the Rio championship. Unofficial estimates were that as many as 193,000 attended, with Flamengo taking the title.

In that human tide was a 10 year old called Arthur Antunes Coimbra, otherwise known as Zico, and who would grow up to be one of Brazil's greatest players -- and virtually a saint to his club Flamengo.

"Fla-Flu became my favorite 'clasico.' I loved coming onto the pitch and looking up into the stands and seeing the colors. It was a great sight," Zico told Globoesporte channel in 2012.

Leading Flamengo to its sole Copa Libertadores title and Intercontinental championship in 1981, Zico wracked up 19 goals in 44 games, still the club record.

Other Flamengo stars included Rivellino, Assis, Zagallo, Bebeto, and Romario. Ronaldinho who would play for both clubs.

Fla-Flu, wrote Rodrigues, "was a game for all times. It was not a game for a century. A century was very little for the thirst and hunger of Fla-Flu."

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