Building a championship-worthy side is arguably the most difficult job in football. Required to be good on the pitch with adequate support off the pitch, it can take years of effort to build a side capable of taking on the world. In Brazil, a country that needs no introduction about its footballing heritage, Flamengo conquered the early 1980s having brought together some of the finest Brazilian talents that would be the dominant force domestically and at continental level, thus becoming one of the greatest football teams of all time.
Now Brazil’s most popular club with over 39 million supporters nationally and millions more worldwide, it was this era between 1980 and 1983 that made the club what it is today. Formed in 1895, the club from Rio de Janeiro had never won a domestic or continental top-level honour until this period, but with some of the most popular footballers of all time, that was about to change.
Led by the inspirational Zico, the original ‘White Pelé‘, he was the world’s finest footballer at the time and the right man the take the club to the top. Zico was as good as it got, talented on the ball, he was a formidable figure and an icon to the Flamengo faithful – just like how Pelé is to the Santos fans. With the most accurate shot in the game at the time and the eye to pick out the perfect pass, Zico was the driving force behind Flamengo’s 1980 Brasileirão-winning side. He scored 21 goals that season, including two in the semi-final and one in the final against Coritiba and Atlético Mineiro respectively as the Rubro-Negro sealed a historic first league title in convincing fashion.
That success allowed them to participate in the Copa Libertadores of 1981 while maintaining the added pressure of having to defend their Brasileirão title. Placed in Group 3 of the continental competition alongside the Paraguayan duo of Olimpia and Cerro Porteño, they were also joined by their Brazilian counterparts Atlético Mineiro who they were starting to form an intense rivalry with. The group stage was a complicated affair due to the high quality of the two Brazilian sides in the group and the lack of competence by the Paraguayans.
In Flamengo’s first group encounter, they drew 2-2 with Mineiro, before winning the next game against Cerro Porteño, with Zico and Nunes scoring a brace each to put Flamengo in the driving seat. That momentum was halted as they would draw three of their remaining four group games, with the only win being another dominant display against Cerro Porteño, with Zico this time bagging a hat-trick. The group ended with Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro being level on eight points at the top and although Flamengo finished at the top of the pile due to their superior goal difference, there had to be a play-off to determine who would enter the next round as goal difference was not taken into consideration.
In a rather bizarre affair between the two, Flamengo progressed from this game as it had to be called off by referee Jose Roberto Wright after Atlético had five players sent off inside 40 minutes. The game was abandoned due to the lack of sportsmanship and ludicrous amount of violence meaning that Flamengo were given the green light to progress to the next round on the basis of fair play. With no score, this was a lucky escape for the club.
Another star name on the side was the ever-explosive forward Nunes, who was in supreme form for the club over the years and gained a habit of scoring in the crucial games. A journeyman who started his career with Flamengo in the 1970s before having stints in Mexico, he returned to his first professional club in 1980 and was at the tip of the attack, becoming one of the most important players in the club’s history. Being a typical number 9 who was at the peak of his playing career, Nunes was able to score any sort of goal, becoming one of the greatest ever forwards to grace the Brasileirão.
As often seen with many clubs, Flamengo prioritised the Copa Libertadores and as a result, were not at their best in the Brasileirão. After showing the form that made them champions of the previous season, they showed fatigue in their play and weren’t as dominant as they once were. After making it through two round-robin group stages in Brazil’s mazy race for the national championship, they dispatched Bahia in the Round-of-16 but fell to Botafogo in the quarter-finals. It made the Libertadores their top priority, and they were ruthless there.
The difficulties of the previous round were put away when Flamengo were pitched against Colombia’s Deportivo Cali and Bolivia’s Jorge Wilstermann in Group A of the semi-final stage of the continental competition. In another round-robin format which meant that each team had to play four times, Flamengo showed the form of champions winning all four of their games, scoring 10 and conceding just two in the process. Cali were dispatched 1-0 in the away game and 3-0 in the home fixture, while Jorge Wilstermann fell 2-1 at home and lost 4-1 away. With form and fire on their side, they were to face a two-legged final against Chile’s Cobreloa – a club that was just four years old at the time.
While the attacking line-up in the team was unstoppable, the defence was equally astute. Marshalled by Carlos Mozer and Marinho, the two centre-halves, it was the two full-backs, Leandro and Júnior, who revolutionised offensive defenders for generations to come. Leandro, the right-back, was sensational on both halves of the pitch and was a keen goal scorer, while Júnior is one of the most iconic Brazilian footballers of all time as he sported an afro that became a trend in the country. Júnior had experience of playing in Italy and his extraordinary skill set, which included the ability to use both feet equally well (despite being naturally right-footed) would often allow him to play the whole game in midfield. With an eye for a chance to score and abilities that was so rare at the time, the two were another element to the attack, while maintaining excellence in their primary roles as defenders.
The final against Cobreloa was another stern affair. Flamengo earned the spoils in the first leg at a packed Maracanã Stadium with two goals from Zico in the first half but were put under pressure by the end of the night as Chile scored just after the hour mark, giving Flamengo a tougher job defending their lead in Chile. In the second leg, after doing a fantastic job at the back, they were heartbroken as Victor Merrelo, the same man that scored the consolation in Brazil, scored the winner in Chile to level things up at 2-2. Since there wasn’t an away goals rule in place in South America, it was decided that a third game between the two at a neutral venue, selected to be the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, Uruguay, would be the tie breaker.
Amidst the aura of the Centenario, the stadium that hosted the first ever World Cup Final 51 years prior, Flamengo showed the form that made them one of the world’s best teams. Zico scored two fine goals, the first in the 18th after a fumble in the box by the Cobreloa players which allowed him to thump it into the net with his right foot, and the other coming six minutes before the end of normal time with a sublime free-kick which beautifully glided over the wall and into the net just in time. In another poorly-mannered encounter, Cobreloa ended the game with eight men on the pitch, while Flamengo had one sent off at the death for another bizarre reason. Anselmo, a forward on the fringes of the first team, was asked by the manager, Paulo César Carpegiani to get on the pitch for one reason: punch Cobreloa’s captain Mario Soto. He obliged and after a cameo appearance, was sent off in the 89th minute as the result was sealed. Flamengo were South American champions, winning the competition in their debut campaign.
In the same year, they also won the Copa Carioca – a regional championship held between teams from Rio de Janeiro. A competition that the club were famous for winning, this win in 1981 was particularly sweet as it was dedicated to Cláudio Coutinho, their former manager who was in charge of building and developing the core of the side and had tragically passed away in a diving incident. And while keeping him in their memories, they were set for bigger successes, this time on the world stage, when they were set to take on Liverpool in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, Japan.
Liverpool were at their best at the time and themselves were going through the greatest phase in their long, illustrious history. The champions of Europe had some of the greatest players on the roster including Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, captain Phil Thompson and England’s Footballer of the Year, Terry McDermott. In a rather tepid affair amongst the 60,000 seated at Tokyo’s National Stadium, England and Europe’s best were kept quiet as Flamengo’s blistering attacking display blew them away. Two goals from Nunes, the first a cheeky dink after a sublime pass and the second coming with a brilliant right-footed finish following a great Flamengo move that involved several passes. His two goals in the first half sandwiched attacking midfielder Adílio’s goal which came after a fumble in the Liverpool box. The three first-half goals were enough to seal the win as Flamengo made history.
Following an incredible year in 1981, Flamengo wouldn’t stop there. They added another league title, this one being the most impressive as they lost just one game, with Zico being on the top of the scoring charts for the second time in three years, scoring 21 times. Porto Alegre side, Grêmio, were the victims in another three-legged final as the two-legged result ended 1-1 on aggregate. Nunes scored the only goal in the third game, further enhancing his reputation as their big game player.
They still weren’t done, as they added a third Brasileirão in four years, and although they were much shakier in the league rounds, the knockout round were impeccable. The final against Santos, however, brought a scare after they lost the first leg 2-1. With a league to overturn, a grand total of 155000 people attended the second leg at the Maracanã and they completed a historic turnaround. Zico scored in the first minute to give Flamengo the lead and he was joined by goals from Leandro and Adílio as Flamengo trounced Santos 3-0 amidst a raucous Maracanã atmosphere.
This team could now be confirmed as one of the greatest teams to ever play the sport. Zico departed in 1984 for Italy with Udinese and they failed to replicate their success. In those four years, however, they redefined fearless, attacking football and built a side that was ready to take on and overcome any opponent. Etched in Brazilian football history forever, the Flamengo side between 1980 and 1983 is a revolutionary team.