South American heavyweights Flamengo have one eye on Liverpool at Club World Cup

Brazilian side take on Al Hilal in semi-final on Tuesday, hoping to set up a repeat of the 1981 final

Flamengo, South America’s most popular football team, play Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal on Tuesday in the semi-final of the Fifa Club World Cup. A final against Liverpool or Monterrey could follow on Saturday – a repeat of Flamengo’s greatest ever moment of their 1981 triumph which, coincidentally, was also against Liverpool.

Man-of-the match in that 3-0 victory was the Brazilian legend Zico. Fresh from winning the club’s first ever Brazilian title in 1980, Flamengo had entered the Copa Libertadores which they won for the first – and until last month – only time.

Success in the Libertadores took them to the Intercontinental Cup and a final against European champions Liverpool in Toyko. Flamengo thus became the first Brazilian club world champions since Pele’s Santos.

Flamengo, league champions again in 1982 and 1983, captured the hearts of a generation of Brazilians and became country’s most popular team. They still are, but success has generally eluded them, despite players such as Zico who went to Italy in 1984 and came back after two years. He would score an incredible 508 goals for Flamengo before retiring in 1990.

Flamengo were Brazilian champions in 1992 and 2009, they won a couple of domestic cups too, but they punched below their weight.

In 2018, the club which had started out as a rowing club in 1885, re-elected Rodolfo Landim as club president on a three-year term. In June 2019, Landim appointed tactically astute Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus, formerly of Sporting and Benfica and until January, Al Hilal.

With increased revenue from broadcast and merchandising, players were brought in with experience of European football in addition to Giorgian De Arrascaeta, who at $18 million (Dh66m) was the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club. Full back Rafinha joined after eight successful years at Bayern Munich, fellow full-back Felipe Luis after an equally successful time at Atletico Madrid.

A Spanish central defender, Pablo Mari, was the most surprising acquisition. He came from Manchester City, yet he had not even met Pep Guardiola let alone trained with City’s first team, after being immediately sent out on loan to Holland and Portugal. He has been the best defender in Brazil this year.

The star has been Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa, a 23-year-old Brazilian striker on loan from Inter Milan. He scored two in the final two minutes as Flamengo stunningly came from behind to beat River Plate and win their first Libertadores since 1981.

Flamengo are flying. They went 30 games unbeaten until last week when they finally lost a league game to second-placed Santos. The title was already theirs, by a huge margin of 16 points. This has given them the space to turn their attention to the Club World Cup and the team with average home attendance of over 60,000 this season arrived in Doha for the tournament on Saturday evening after a 15-hour flight from Rio.

Flamengo estimate that they have 30 million supporters in a country of 200 million. Rio is their stronghold but they enjoy nationwide support and around 10-15,000 are expected to travel to Qatar. Big crowds are the norm for South American teams in a tournament they call ‘Mundial’. It’s seen as the pinnacle of football, yet European teams have won 11 of the last 12 competitions.

In England, by contrast, the Club World Cup has in the past been ignored or derided. Manchester United were officially upgraded to two-time Club World Cup champions in 2017 when Uefa ruled that their 1999 Intercontinental Cup final victory over Brazilian side Palmeiras should be recognised. However, United’s withdrawal from the FA Cup in 1999-2000 to participate in the competition caused a national scandal.

Liverpool’s involvement has generated positive interest although it remains to be seen what lineup Jurgen Klopp fields. If Flamengo beat Al Hilal and Liverpool get past Monterrey, Flamengo believe they have every chance of repeating their 1981 victory and lifting a trophy which is a very big deal in South America.