Murder. Machine guns. R$40 million IOUs. Mysteriously disappearing blood samples. Barack Obama. Creaky hotel floorboards. 'Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’chassis,' said Captain Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, but it is a sane and well-ordered place compared with the recent history of Brazil’s biggest club, Flamengo.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the rot set in. At the end of 2009 things looked rosy enough. Flamengo had just won their first Campeonato Brasileiro since 1992, under former player turned coach, Andrade. Yet it was not the kind of triumph from which a dynasty might spring. This was an ageing, somewhat cobbled together side, led by 36 year-old Serbian playmaker Petkovic and the goals of Adriano, who would leave the club for Roma in the following June.
Even more so than many recent Brasileirão seasons, 2009 ended in a rather unseemly stumble over the finishing line. Flamengo won the title on the last day, courtesy of a late Angelim winner over Grêmio. A seething throng of 85,000 packed the Maracanã to watch it.
But change was coming. The day after the Grêmio game, with the bubbles still fizzing from the popped champagne bottles, Patricia Amorim, a former champion with Flamengo’s swimming club, was elected president. A few months later, Andrade and Vice President of Football Marcos Braz were fired, just after the club had qualified for the last 16 of the Libertadores (Flamengo would go on to beat Corinthians before falling to Universidad de Chile in the quarter-finals).
Since then a succession of coaches, including Silas, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and now, Joel Santana, have tried and failed to recapture the success of 2009. In 2010, Flamengo finished 14th, only two points off the relegation zone, before recovering enough last year to clinch a Libertadores spot. Although the club boasts a raft of talented youngsters, such as volantes Luiz Antonio and Muralha,and midfielders Thomas and Adryan, plus the goals of Vagner Love, expectations for this season’s Serie A campaign are not particularly high.
Instead, it is in the less salubrious area of off-field scandal that Flamengo have excelled. Twisting Franny Lee’s maxim about cups for cock-ups just a little, if there was a campeonato for calamity then the Gávea would be heaving with shiny pots.
Some foreshadowing of what was to come had surfaced in 2008, when a story broke that a number of players, including midfielder Marcinho and striker Diego Tardelli, had been partying with prostitutes at goalkeeper Bruno’s Minas Gerais country home. That afternoon ended with Marcinho allegedly assaulting one of the women, and the player left the club soon after.
Then, in 2010, Adriano, who was already on his way to Roma, was caught on camera posing with the (allegedly replica) machine gun of a traficante acquaintance in a Rio favela. Around the same time, Vagner Love, who would join the club in 2012, was filmed partying in similarly dubious, gun-toting company.
Worse by far came to light a few weeks later, when details of the (still unproven) murder of Eliza Samudio broke. Goalkeeper Bruno was arrested and charged with involvement in the murder of the young woman, with whom he had fathered a child, and the player remains in prison awaiting trial.
Former goalkeeper Bruno was charged with murder in 2010
While none of the club’s directors have gone as far as to be accused with murder, a look behind the scenes during the same period makes grim reading. In recent years, Flamengo have been riven by backstage power games and bloodletting. Club legend Zico could stand only four months as chief executive in that chaotic year of 2010, saying that 'today’s Flamengo has died in my heart, represented by people that I’ve never even met, but that walk around as if they owned the club.'
His current job training the Iraqi national team must seem idyllic by comparison. Virulent internal politics have become a staple of life at Flamengo, illustrated by the imbroglio that surrounded Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s exit from the club earlier this year.
Caught in the middle of a feud between financial director Michel Levy and Amorim, Luxemburgo demanded that Ronaldinho, in a miserable run of form, be sacked after the player was caught on camera visiting the hotel room of a female chum at the club’s pre-Libertadores training camp. Instead, it was Luxemburgo who lost his job, as player-power won out in Brazil once more.
With hindsight, it is a decision Flamengo might like to undo. The club is deep in the financial mire and the situation has worsened with the Brazilian courts’ relatively new found enthusiasm for ensuring that workers’ contracts are enforced. At the time of writing, Flamengo are on the potential hook for a combined R$85 million from the contracts of just four players (Romario, Ronaldinho, Petkovic and Paraguayan Zagueiro Gamarra). The club’s 2011 balance sheet revealed debts of around half a billion reais.
To make matters worse, Flamengo’s income stream from player sales has dried up, while crowds have tumbled dramatically during the closure of the Maracanã for World Cup rebuilding work. At the same time, ludicrously, the club has gone without a principal shirt sponsor since the beginning of this year.
In this context, accepting full responsibility for Ronaldinho’s contractual payments - a large chunk of which had previously been the obligation of sports management company Traffic - at the end of 2011 might have seemed a noble gesture, but it quickly became evident that making those payments would prove impossible, and Ronaldinho went months without receiving his wages and valuable image rights payments.
Coupled with the player’s limp on-field displays, something had to give. As usual, the crisis was handled with in a particularly cack-handed manner. When Ronaldinho declined to travel to the north eastern state of Piauí for a friendly in May, director Paulo Cesar Coutinho bragged to a group of fans that the star was finished at the club. He was right. The next day, Ronaldinho’s lawyers obtained a court order cancelling the player’s contract, and announced plans to sue Flamengo for R$40 million.
The fun was just beginning. Threatening retaliation, Flamengo legal director Rafael de Piro stated that the club was in possession of a legal “bomb” in the form of a blood test showing that Ronaldinho had recently turned up drunk for training. A few days later, Amorim announced that the blood sample had 'gone missing'. A day or so after that, Flamengo medical chief José Luiz Runco stated that no such blood test existed, and that neither he nor his team had ever been asked to take one. Flamengo have since dropped their claim, while Ronaldinho’s agent and brother, Assis, is threatening further legal action, this time for moral damages.
Ronaldinho left the club after failing to receive millions in unpaid wages and bonuses
It is a staggering list of mishaps. And throughout it all, the club’s leadership, instead of attempting to implement any kind of long term, sustainable development plan, has lurched blindly from one disaster to another.
When the Ronaldinho storm was still brewing, and with Vagner Love already ensconced at the Gávea, Flamengo were recently first in line to sign another seemingly disillusioned, chaos-courting star - Adriano. Not much consideration, it seems, was given to the fact that the player is unlikely to ever recover his fitness or form, the damaging effect he may have on team spirit and impressionable younger players, or the unwelcome headlines his off-field antics might attract. Damaged or not, Adriano is big box office, and so, runs the thinking, is exactly the kind of player Flamengo need.
The klaxon-mouthed, ill-considered behaviour that marked the Ronaldinho debacle runs throughout the club, from Amorim down. The club president is a dichotomy – on one level a strong, intelligent woman who has had to overcome a great many obstacles to succeed in a male dominated world, and who has at least demonstrated the will, if not the means, to reform the club. But at the same time she possesses the same unfortunate talent for self-aggrandising marketing stunts and tribalism as her male counterparts, usually at the expense of clear, practical thinking.
When Barack Obama visited Rio, there was Patricia, thrusting a Flamengo shirt into the bewildered President’s hands, so she could boast that Barack was Flamenguista. When Ronaldinho was unveiled in front of 25,000 screaming fans, there was Patricia on the stage beside him, clad in a team shirt, punching the air. Whenever the club’s basketball or volleyball teams win a trophy, Patricia is there, basking in the glory.
Yet her mandate has included a drastic worsening of the club’s financial situation, countless off-field scandals, little footballing success, and now the Ronaldinho debacle. In many ways, Flamengo resembles what might happen if a group of primary school children were told to organise a football club – a lot of shouting, little sense of order, and nobody really in command.
Which is where the question of morality comes in. A club that is idolised by millions of Brazilians has an important role to play in Brazilian society (which needs all the positive role models it can get). Perhaps it seems naïve to say it, but Flamengo can, and should, be an example to many. Aim above morality. 'Be not simply good, be good for something,' as Henry David Thoreau put it. Instead, senior Flamengo officials, from the president down, bicker and snarl in public, engage in cheap oneupmanship with rivals, play fast and loose with their legal obligations, and, on at least one occasion (Ronaldinho’s blood test, for example), display an impressive disregard for the truth. All of which make for an unedifying spectacle.
If Flamengo is to one day to return to its former glory, progress on the pitch will be only half the battle. For that glory to be more than fleeting, then the thinking of the club’s leadership, if not the leadership itself, will need to change.