Just about every big city in the world has a famous football rivalry. Milan is split between AC Milan and Internazionale; North London has seen Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur fight it out for decades; Buenos Aires has arguably the most intense discord in football between Boca Juniors and River Plate and when it comes to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, it is no different.
It would’ve been curious if the second-biggest city in Brazil in a country that lives and breathes football didn’t have a football rivalry and this rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense in Rio is one of the oldest in the game’s history. As narrated by the Brazilian novelist, Nelson Rodrigues: “Fla-Flu came into existence 40 minutes before nothing”.
Fla-Flu is an acronym created by Mário Filho for the clash between the two sides and it is a match that can’t be compared to any other in the city. Despite the presence of other Rio sides like Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, two successful sides in the city, this rivalry eclipses all the others in the country and it’s difficult to tell the story of one without mentioning the other.
Fluminense was founded on 17 July 1902 by Oscar Cox, a sportsman born in Brazil from English parents who is often credited with bringing football to the South American country after he played it in Switzerland. The colours for the club were chosen to be red, white and green which gave the club its nickname: Tricolor.
The name of the club was initially supposed to be Rio Football Club, but seeing as there was already another club in the region with that very name, Cox and his group of friends with whom he founded the club decided to stay local and take reference from Rio’s Guandu River. He opted to take Rio’s Latin name, Flumen, and name his club after that. In Fluminense’s first-ever game, they beat Rio FC 8-0, with Cox playing and he was also in the side that won Fluminense’s first-ever title – the 1906 Campeonato Carioca.
One of the key players in that team and also part of the title-winning squad was Alberto Borgerth. The son of a Brazilian father and Hungarian mother, he was an exemplary athlete and a competent footballer. In September 1911, however, he was part of a group of players who were expelled from the club and he didn’t take it lightly.
In the aftermath he decided to go back to the club where he was a rower as a child: Clube de Regatas do Flamengo.
This was a club that was more invested in rowing that football, but that didn’t stop Borgerth, who decided to request them to create a football team. He had the option of joining one of Rio’s other football clubs like Botafogo or Vasco da Gama, but this choice would lay the foundations for one of the biggest matches in Brazil.
Two months later, he and nine other players were amongst the first to join them, but the club wasn’t fully formed yet. In an extraordinary assembly on Christmas Eve that year, a motion against the club taking part in football competitions was defeated and Flamengo’s football section was born. They took the famous red and black colours like their rowing team, and in the grander scheme of things, the battle lines between them and Fluminense were drawn as well.
Due to their English roots, Fluminense immediately became a team of the upper classes. Back then, it was easy to see fans in posh clothing and this was a team where black or mixed-race players weren’t allowed to represent them. Shockingly, one of the first mixed-race players in the club’s history was Carlos Alberto, but in order to represent them on the pitch, he had to cover his face in rice powder.
It was an extreme measure taken in order to avoid problems with the fans but soon it became something they were synonymous with. Fluminense supporters embraced the fact that their club were involved in such activity and frequently made songs about the situation. In the modern-day, before every big match, rice powder is often thrown around the pitch as they aim to create a striking atmosphere.
On the contrary, Flamengo became a club for the people. Its fans were mostly from the working or lower class and this connection to the socio-economic group has been a topic of interest for their rivals. When Flamengo lose, opposition fans can often be heard chanting “Ela, ela, ela – silencio na favela” [“Ela, ela, ela – silence in the favela”], as told by Alex Bellos, in his book ‘Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life’.
Nowadays, despite being the younger side, Flamengo is one of the most supported clubs in Brazil with around 35 million supporters in the country itself. To compare, that’s more than the population of Australia, the Netherlands, Peru and more, making the Naçao Rubro-Negra a dynasty in the country.
It’s easy to understand why Fla-Flu is such a unique encounter in Brazil: these two teams represent two souls of the same city. There’s no division based on religion or politics, it’s just a matter of pride – like a war between brothers.
There have been some epic clashes between the two over the decades, such as one in 1963, when 194,000 people filled the Maracanã Stadium. This was the third-biggest attendance ever at the venue, behind the Maracanazo – the 1950 World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay – and a match between Brazil and Paraguay four years later. Unfortunately, this match between Flamengo and Fluminense wasn’t quite as dramatic, ending 0-0.
Another element that makes matches between these two teams special is the football calendar in Brazil. With the national and state championship both happening during the same calendar year, the two sides get to meet at least thrice every 12 months and that has only added to the aura of this clash.
Some of the best clashes between the two sides have been played in the Campeonato Carioca.
In 1916, Fla-Flu became one of the first-ever matches suspended in the league’s history due to a pitch invasion from the Fluminense fans. To provoke matters, it was the decision of the referee, who allowed Flamengo to take a penalty thrice.
The first try was saved by Flu’s goalkeeper but was set to be re-taken after the referee’s call. Flu’s goalkeeper, Marcos de Mendonça, saved the second effort as well only for the referee to notice that his teammates had entered the box before the strike and ordered for it to be taken for a third time, which never happened due to the invasion.
In 1941, the two squared off in the same competition again. Flamengo needed a win in order to seal the title while a draw for Flu would’ve been fine. At the end of the first half, the Tricolor was leading 2-1, but they conceded a late equaliser.
From there on, the match took a dramatic turn. At the time, Flamengo’s stadium was in the middle of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. This meant that every time the ball flew out of the stadium, it would’ve landed in open water. Fluminense’s players took advantage of this and started to overheat shots out of the stadium in a bid to waste time.
Having anticipated this beforehand, Flamengo’s board had ordered rowers to stay in the lagoon to return the ball quicker and carry on with play. This shrewd move failed to work, however, as Fluminense held on and won the title.
The most iconic game of all, however, came in 1995 and is known as the “belly game”. Once again it was the Campeonato Carioca with Flamengo at home, needing only a point to win the title. On a rainy day at the Maracanã and Flu went into half-time with a 2-0 lead thanks to Renato Gaúcho and Leonardo.
Flamengo reacted strongly in the second period, levelling the scores through Romário and Fabinho. Everything was set to go their way, but three minutes from time, Renato Gaúcho, clearly in an offside position, deflected a cross into the net through his belly and won Fluminense the title. This goal was, however, never credited to him and instead, went to the crosser: Ailton.
Renato Gaúcho is one of the most significant players in Flueminense’s history. Alongside him, the likes of Telê Santana and Rivelino also made a huge impact while on the red-and-black side, Zico’s name stands out. Like in most rivalries, many stars have represented both sides of the divide and that includes legendary names such as Romário and Ronaldinho.
In the modern-day, players like Ganso and Gabigol have taken over the mantel and while the derby is still played with much of the same passion, intensity and colour as it was in 1912 when it was first played, the two clubs are going through contrasting periods.
Fluminense have struggled in recent years and are languishing in the bottom half of the league having been embroiled in a relegation battle and failing to win a trophy since 2012. It is a sorry state of affairs for a club that was so well-revered in Brazil.
Meanwhile, their rivals are on the opposite end of the spectrum, being the best club in South America. The Rubro Negro recently completed the double of the Copa Libertadores and domestic league title, having overcome the defending champions River Plate in a dramatic final in Lima, Peru as well as sealing the league in comfortable fashion.
With names such as ex-Benfica coach Jorge Jesus, goalkeeper Diego Alves and full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luís, the Mengao have become an entertaining outfit and could possibly face Liverpool in the Club World Cup in Qatar.
No matter how different their form is, the passion and intensity of this rivalry will always stand out. At the end of the day, there is always going to be the same drive for the next meeting between the two and then it all starts again.