How to go from champs to chumps in the space of a year

Flamengo, Brazil’s biggest club and current league champions, are facing the humiliation of becoming the first side to win the Brasileiro and go down the following season. Brazilian TV commentator Jon Cotterill looks at what’s gone wrong...

Eleven months ago, Flamengo were lifting Brazil’s national league championship, the Campeonato Brasileiro. Now the holders have three games to save themselves from making a dramatic and spectacular switch from heroes to zeros.

Flamengo are one of the most successful and glamorous clubs in Brazil. Huge stars such as Junior, Zico, Bebeto and Romário all wore the famous red and black jersey and it’s estimated that the Rio outfit has 33 to 40 million fans across the country.

According to many Fla supporters, that statistic makes their team the biggest in the world. And if the numbers are correct, it could mean oceans of tears will be shed when this season’s Campeonato Brasileiro comes to an end on December 5.

Less than a year ago, the glory days were back as Flamengo lifted their sixth league title. Now, the Rubro Negros (Red and Blacks) are just three points above the relegation zone with three games remaining. 

If Fla do go down, they will join the growing list of Brazilian giants to have crashed out of the First Division in recent times. Since 2000, Palmeiras, Grêmio, Atlético Mineiro, Botafogo and Vasco have all had a spell in Série B.

What’s special about Flamengo’s case is that no reigning league champion has been relegated from the top flight, although Corinthians did come close. With the likes of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano in the squad, the Musketeers won the Brasileiro in 2005. Two seasons later, they were in the Second Division.

Flamengo are desperate to avoid the this unwated piece of history. But what got them into this pickle in the first place?

In many ways, winning the league in 2009 papered over the cracks of Fla’s set up. Poor infrastructure, under-investment, a lack of long-term planning, managerial in-fighting leading to a change of president, and severe debt have all contributed to the club’s current predicament.

But failing to build on last year’s success and making some very poor footballing decisions in 2010 is what could ultimately cost Flamengo most.

The biggest mistakes were made on the coaching and playing fronts. After handing the club their first Brasileiro since 1992, coach Andrade failed to deliver the Rio state championship. Fla also struggled early on in the Libertadores, but made it out of the group stage.

Instead of showing faith in the coach that had led them to the league only four month previously, Andrade was shown the door in April. His replacement was junior team coach, Rógerio Lourenço. With no experience of handling a senior side, Lourenço did well to last four months before getting the chop.

By this time, former Flamengo and Brazil star, Zico, had been made director of football. Instead of going for a big name manager, he opted for another relatively inexperienced coach, Paulo Silas – a man who had just been fired after a calamitous spell at Grêmio. Silas survived just six weeks. Zico was accused of transfer irregularities by a fellow director and soon followed Silas out of the door.

In early October, Vanderlei Luxemburgo was brought in. With five titles to his name, Luxemburgo is the most successful coach in the Brasileiro history. However, the 58-year-old arrived on the back of a disastrous time at Atlético Mineiro in which he had left the Belo Horizonte side in the relegation zone.

Initially, the move restored confidence and Flamengo won two out of their first three matches under the former Real Madrid coach. But in the five games since the Rio club have drawn three and lost two, including a 4-1 thumping by Atlético Mineiro last week, and have now slipped back into trouble.

At the end of 2009, Fla boasted a squad that included Adriano, Aírton, Everton, Zé Roberto, Bruno Mezenga and Bruno Fernandes. While the first five left at the end of their contracts, goalkeeper and former captain, Bruno Fernandes, is missing for an altogether more grizzly reason.

The 25-year-old always had something of a bad boy image, but that didn’t make it any less of a shock when in July he was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the disappearance and possible murder of former girlfriend Eliza Samudio. Samudio’s body has not been found and it is believed that she was chopped up and fed to dogs owned by one of Fernandes’ accomplices.

Early this year, Fla had benefitted from the experienced forward duo of Adriano and Vágner Love. But after the club’s exit from the Libertadores, the stars were on their way and scoring became a problem.

Lesser names were drafted in as replacements - and Val Baiano, Cristian Borja, Leandro Amaral all struggled in front of goal. Halfway through the season, Fla finally reached for the cheque book to bring in ex Fenerbahçe man, Deivid de Souza, and former Olympiakos striker, Diogo Santo, but the signings have proved ineffective.

Deivid has hit the net four times, Diogo just once. Fla have now scored just 38 times in 35 matches - only Grêmio Prudente (37) and Guarani (32) have scored fewer goals.

As well as the problems up front, Flamengo failed to refresh an aging side that has suffered due to the rigours of a tough Brazilian season that started way back in January.

Léo Moura, Ronaldo Angelim, Maldonado, Renato and former World Cup winner and Manchester United midfielder Kléberson are all in their thirties. Midfielder Petkovic, who was inspirational last season, is now 38, but remains the club’s top scorer with five goals.

To add to these woes, keeper Marcelo Lomba appears to have lost confidence at a crucial time and has not kept a clean sheet in five outings.

As things stand, Fla are in 14th on 40 points. Then come Atlético Mineiro and Vitória both on 39, with the current bottom four made up of Avaí (37), Guarani (37), and Goiás (32) and the already relegated Grêmio Prudente, who went down last weekend. Three more sides will follow them into Série B.

Though their current situation looks perilous, the Rubro Negro’s fate is in their hands. On Saturday, they’re at home to Guarani. The Campinas side have not won in ten matches and have won just once on their travels (1-0 at Vasco).

Three points at the weekend is essential but still may not be enough. In their penultimate game, Fla are in Rio against a Cruzeiro team pushing for the league title, and on the final day are away at Santos.

The boys from the Vila Belmiro have already qualified for the Libertadores. Flamengo’s survival may depend on the mood of Neymar and co, who are more than capable of taking Brazil’s biggest club to the cleaners and condemning them to Série B.

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