On the first Thursday of February 2019, Cristiano Esmerio slept uneasily. He switched on the TV and watched late-night shows. Intermittently, his wife Lais urged him to return to bed. Early next morning, Cristiano’s phone rang. At the other end his brother enquired in a panic, “Where is my nephew?” 

In 2015, Christian, Cristiano’s middle son, had joined Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular club, where the boy grew into a promising goalkeeper. “Father, I am going to honour the [Flamengo] shirt,” Christian had often said. Due to his talent and consistency, the 15-year old was selected for Brazil’s national youth team and sought out by European scouts. 

“Dude! He is at the Ninho,” responded Cristiano. 

‘Switch on the TV! Don’t you know?” the boy’s uncle shouted down the line. “The Ninho is on fire… Switch on the TV!”

Football is South America’s immutable pastime, entrenched in passion and emotion. However, continental and universal fascination aside, the game often runs along socio-economic fault lines. In Brazil, Flamengo, established in 1895, is the club of the masses. From the impoverished north-east to the remote capital, Brasilia, to São Paulo, the club claims 40 million devotees. Delighted or dismayed, the multitudes follow their games each weekend. 

But Flamengo haven’t always commanded such popular appeal. In the 1920s, it was a fixture of Brazil’s football establishment, being both a sports club and an elite social organisation that opposed professionalism and the mixing of the classes, a view its Rio de Janeiro counterpart Fluminense also firmly endorsed. In fact, the idea of football as a sport for the masses revolted the Botafogo president Rivadavia Meyer so that he condemned players who considered a professional career as “gigolos who exploited a prostitute”. He argued that “professionalism degrades the man.” 

Controversy and confusion among the clubs, the media, the fans and Brazil’s sporting body Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (CBD)characterised football’s transition to professionalism in 1933. However, increasing urbanisation, European investment after the First World War and declining unemployment helped to grow the game. 

José Bastos Padilha, Flamengo president between 1933 and 1938, seized on the opportunity of the moment. He transformed the club into the people’s champion with a double masterstroke: Padilha introduced coach Dori Kürschner and his Danubian school of football, and went on to sign the three leading black players of the time, Fausto dos Santos, Leônidas da Silva and Domingos da Guia.

With the support of the Jornal dos Sports and legendary sports journalist Mario Filho, the club gained nationwide support. They were Flamengo from the capital and their message reverberated through radio broadcasts across the country. “Padilha was the brother-in-law of Mario Filho and understood the media’s importance to popularise Flamengo,” says Luiz Veloso, who was Flamengo president in 1993 and 1994 and whose family owned the Jornal dos Sports in the 1980s. 

During the 1937-45 dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas and ‘Brasilidade’ – expressions of nationalism through the Brazilian way – Padilha nurtured what he saw as ‘Generation Flamengo’, citizens as compliant patriots. Padilha championed the people’s club, but Flamengo remained very hierarchal, in line with the institutions of the ‘Estado Novo’ that looked down upon “the average lout”.

Then, Jaime de Carvalho came along in 1942 with his brass band which the radio commentator Ary Barroso christened the Charanga– or the out-of-tune band. They didn’t play music particularly well, but they did add to the cultural spectacle that football was becoming in Brazil. Like millions, De Carvalho had migrated from the country ’s poor north-east to the big cities of the south in search of a better life. By 1950, he was the mascot of Brazil’s national team.

Padilha’s shrewd thinking, and the club’s ensuing magnetism, didn’t translate to immediate sporting success, bar a flourish in the early 1980s when Flamengo consolidated their popularity and won multiple domestic league titles, the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup. For decades, however, Flamengo were crippled by financial mismanagement with accusations of graft becoming more and more frequent. The club stuck to the traditional Brazilian club model; operating as a non-profit organisation with presidents elected, almost always along tribal lines, by the club’s membership.

In 2009, Flavio Godinho was Flamengo’s chefe da delegação [head of mission] at the team’s penultimate league game away to Corinthians. Godinho, flattered, took pictures in the dressing room. Flamengo won 2-1, later claiming the national title against Internacional after storming through their final 17 games in a championship in which no club dominated. Jorge Andrade coached a blue-collar team with a few stand-out players; the returning striker Adriano, the veteran playmaker Dejan Petković and central defender Ronaldo Angelim. Godinho, who worked for the Brazilian entrepreneur Eike Batista1, alongside Rodolfo Landim, was taken by his Flamengo experience. “They – very wealthy, Flamengo crazy and business-minded – knew Flamengo had the assets to become a major club,” said the Brazilian sports lawyer and former Flamengo director Marcos Motta. 

Over lunch at the Alcapara restaurant, a classic Rio de Janeiro restaurant in the middle-class neighbourhood of Flamengo, Landim, Godinho and Luiz Eduardo Baptista, the president of Sky Brazil, discussed what the future of the club might look like. A nucleus of confidants, Chapa Azul (Blue Plate), was formed.  

In 2012, Chapa Azul and Eduardo Bandeira de Mello won Flamengo’s presidential election. Bandeira de Mello, head of the department for the environment at Brazil’s development bank BNDES, had replaced Wallim Vasconcellos as Chapa Azul’s presidential candidate after the latter didn’t meet the statutory, electoral requirements. Their pitch was unconventional; they didn’t want to spend money, but to modernise the club’s management and professionalise its sporting operations. In the unforgiving and short-term environment of Brazilian football, selling the idea of financial austerity was both audacious and risky. “Flamengo was a club that often defaulted on payments,” recalled Bandeira de Mello, who would serve as president between 2013 and 2018. “At Flamengo, and most Brazilian clubs, you work impulsively and irresponsibly. The horizon is the current season. You field a team that you can’t pay and the debts rise. Cruzeiro is the example. They lived beyond their means and, now, comes the atonement.” 

His first season, in 2013, underscored the perils of austerity. Flamengo won the Brazilian Cup, but were almost relegated in the domestic league. The club released their star player Vagner Love and offloaded others on big salaries. “The fans were crazy and so tired of Flamengo not matching their sporting expectations,” said Motta. “Chapa Azul held a modern non-political speech.”

“The fans bought into the idea,” said Bandeira de Mello.

The global auditing firm Ernst & Young examined Flamengo’s books and revealed a debt of 750 million reais (£135m), which reached 800 million reais after some “skeletons in the cupboard” were discovered, according to Bandeira de Mello. The majority of Flamengo’s debits came from ‘fiscal debt’, a quick and irresponsible financing mechanism that was made possible by withholding employee taxes from the government. It is a practice which Bandeira de Mello unequivocally calls “a crime”. 

Overall, in 2014, Brazilian clubs owed the government approximately 4 billion reais in tax. The following year, the country’s senate passed a law permitting clubs to restructure their debts on the condition of fiscal responsibility and compliance with Profut, the Program of Modernisation in Brazilian Football. 

Profut was a trade-off between the government and the clubs. The Brazilian government had little hope of recouping the debts so it allowed the clubs to repay in up to 240 instalments, with a reduction of both fines and interests. In return, the new legislation demanded good practice from the clubs. Obligations included, but were not limited to, publishing standardised and audited financial statements, investing a maximum of 80 per cent of gross revenue in the game and the personal liability of club directors. Flamengo reinforced the latter requirement with the introduction of the Rubro-Negro (red and black, after their colours) law of fiscal responsibility. 

“Flamengo got a signing bonus of 38 million reais for a partnership with Adidas,” said the Brazilian sports lawyer Pedro Trengrouse. “It was a symbolic moment because that money was used to pay fiscal debts.” 

The Rio club also reduced their bank and other debts. Flamengo tended to dismiss employees without severance pay. The queue of disgruntled former employees, and creditors, was well over 600. Labour courts allocated 15 per cent of Flamengo’s revenue to debts stemming from labour disputes. However, revenue grew steadily, from 347 million reais in 2014 to 543 million reais in 2018, Bandeira de Mello’s last year as Flamengo president, with a 2016 high of 648 million reais.

In the background, boardroom tensions over control of the club simmered. Bandeira de Mello won reelection in 2016, breaking a gentleman’s agreement that should have seen him take a step back after his first mandate, according to Landim and his closest allies. The rupture was irreversible and, in the next presidential elections, Landim ousted Bandeira de Mello.

Landim entrusted Abel Braga with the coaching role. His football failed to inspire. During the month-long break for the 2019 Copa América, the club replaced Braga with the Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus, who had previously held talks with Vasco da Gama and Atletico Mineiro. In Jesus’s first league game at home a compact and confident Flamengo thumped Goiás 6-1. The scoreline was emphatic, but it was his new brand of proactive football that caught the imagination of the Flamengo fans, whose swagger and braggadocio have always been a part of the club’s identity. 

His team quickly absorbed his training methods and ideas. During his first practice at the Ninho do Urubu [Vulture’s Nest], Flamengo’s training complex in Rio de Janeiro’s East Zone – named after the breeding ground of the club mascot – Jesus perfected the attacking midfielder Vitinho’s weightlifting in the gym, introduced a drone to monitor tactics and ran along during warm-up to adjust the pace. “I never said that Brazilian coaches were outdated,” Jesus said at a news conference in September. “I said that skills are more valued than tactics here.”

In Portugal, Jesus had already won three national league titles with the Lisbon giants, Benfica, between 2009 and 2015. He imparted Flamengo with modern, European ideas, which included a high defensive line, attacking full-backs and an all-round press. With his help, Flamengo passed their way past opposition. Perhaps those features are self-evident in the modern game in which possession, pressing and positioning dominate, yet in the Brazilian context, they are anything but. For all its success, the country’s football has traditionally been conservative and, at times, anti-intellectual. 

Brazil are the five-time world champions and, thus, in the local mindset, have little more to learn. Aversion to foreign coaches, and foreign ideas, has bred a league in which tactical innovation and new ideas are rare. Defence and caution have long prevailed. The domestic environment preserves the status quo and frowns upon coaching education. On the international stage, Brazil parted ways with the beautiful game in the early 1970s, when technocrats began to dominate2. The notable exception was Telê Santana’s national team in the 1980s. 

Winning the next game is paramount in Brazil and so, by default, the next match will always be bigger. It renders the top flight and its actors – the players, coaches, club directors, media and fans – neurotic. In the end there are few winners, least of all the quality of football on display. The pressure for results is excessive, leaving no time to reflect on the game and its strategies. Coaches who lose too many successive games are dismissed. A new coach often arrives with a similar short-term view and the cycle repeats in perpetuity. In September 2019, the São Paulo manager Cuca, the Cruzeiro manager Rogério Ceni, the Fortaleza manager Zé Ricardo and the Fluminense manager Oswaldo de Oliveira resigned or were sacked, all within the space of 24 hours. 

By then, Jesus and his Flamengo had already demonstrated how dated Brazilian clubs and their coaches were. A compact, dynamic team breezed past opponents to top the table. In midfield, Jesus rejuvenated Gerson. The lanky midfielder’s passing accuracy just fell short of 90 per cent, but his versatility was equally striking; helping out in defence, recovering possession and dictating the play. Previously, Gerson had failed during stints at his boyhood club Fluminense and at the Italian clubs Fiorentina and Roma.

Further up field, Giorgian De Arrascaeta developed into a wonderful passer of the ball, having lethal effect in the final third of the field. The Uruguayan contributed little to Flamengo’s marking, but the interchangeability and flux of the team’s front four offset that shortcoming. On the left, Bruno Henrique blossomed at last after a truncated career on the margins of the Brazilian game and an unhappy stint at Wolfsburg in Germany. His ferocious speed, agility and technical ability were devastating. 

Amid all the bravura of Jesus’s Flamengo, the quality of the team’s backline is often overlooked. A plethora of stars excelled to contribute to the free-flowing game and stellar score lines. The veteran full backs Rafinha and Filipe Luís were essential with their attacking support while the Spanish central defender Pablo Marí was the key to the success of the system. His speed and versatility allowed Flamengo to play that high line and move as a lean unit, keeping space tight between the lines, battering and upending the paradigms of Brazil’s domestic game. Santos, coached by the Argentinian high priest of the high press, Jorge Sampaoli, were one of the few Brazilian clubs to match Flamengo’s game. 

At the season’s halfway point, Flamengo registered an important 1-0 win against Pelé’s former club and the league runner-up, playing front-foot football against an opponent that mirrored their style. The game was, arguably, the best of the season in the Brazilian league. After the final whistle, the home crowd at the Maracanã stadium serenaded the Portuguese for his progressive philosophy. Shouts of “Mist-eeeer, Mist-eeeeer!” echoed from the stands, in appreciation of the foreigner who had rescued their club’s identity. His idea of modern, compact football had convinced the board, the players and the fans. 

The two Jorges, gringos to the Brazilian media and the public, enchanted Brazilian football. Their fresh approach, new ideas and innovation demonstrated what the local game, so obtuse at times, could learn from European football. They were cool and sexy, everything their predecessors, Cuca and Braga, stalwarts of the coaching establishment, were not. In Rio, Jesus moved and spoke with the allure of an ageing rock star; self-assured and almost arrogant, but with enough charm to endear and fascinate his audience. Cleverly, he never failed to tap into the fans’ overwrought sense of self-importance. According to Jesus, Flamengo were “a maior do mundo”, or the biggest in the world, along with the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid and the Argentinian behemoth Boca Juniors. 

To back up that claim, Flamengo, a club informed and obsessed by the Copa Libertadores since Zico’s exploits in 1981, were desperate for a continental win. Domestic domination in 2019, in the form of a first title since 2009 with a record haul of 90 points, was not enough. 

On a balmy October day in Rio, Flamengo welcomed Grêmio in the last four of South America’s premier club competition. A fortnight earlier, the two teams had played out a tantalising 1-1 draw in Rio Grande do Sul. 

Back at a rambunctious Maracanã, cagey play, pressing and tight marking characterised a tense first half. Nerves trumped flair and Grêmio controlled the game, marking Gerson out of the match. Instead, Gabriel Barbosa, nicknamed ‘Gabigol’, and Bruno Henrique became match-winners with two quick goals on either side of the interval to break Grêmio’s resolve. First, Bruno Henrique tapped in a rebound in the 42nd minute before Barbosa’s ferocious strike found the roof of the net in the 46th minute. Flamengo were unleashed, and suddenly, in total control. They swept past their Brazilian rivals 5-0, reaffirming the team’s domestic potency.

The Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro, along with vast parts of the Brazilian hinterland, and Twitter, exploded. After 38 years, Flamengo were returning to the Copa Libertadores final. Hysteria ensued.

In Leblon, an upscale Rio neighbourhood, lawyers, asset managers and even former players gathered every fortnight at a famous bar where they sang, danced and drank to the tunes of their Flamengo compulsion. From Casa Clipper, they boarded the Urubus, a rebranded old-timer bus in the club’s black and red colours, to the match. It was a proper fan bus with a unique tweak; standing only, in homage to the old ‘geral’ [standing area] at the Maracanã stadium.

On its journey, the bus passed Lagoa, Jardim Botânico and Christ the Redeemer, some of Rio’s major landmarks. The singing reached a peak and Ony Coutinho, the driving force behind the Urubus, beamed. This was Flamengo’s moment, and these were moments worth living for. “I had to study in ’81 and couldn’t simply go over to the Maracanã,” said Ony, a lifelong Flamengo fan. Now, he considered remodelling the Urubus into a comfortable living space for the 3,700km drive to Santiago, the host city for the showpiece game against the reigning champions River Plate from Argentina. However, on November 5, the South American governing body Conmebol conceded that Santiago was untenable as a host city as Chileans took to the streets to protest against their government. The final was moved a 41-hour drive north to Lima. Ony scrambled.

His son, Ony Jr, began searching the web. Flights to the Peruvian capital went up every few minutes by US$20 or so. He picked up the phone and 55 minutes later it was a done deal. He had got his father and himself on US$900 return flights via Santa Cruz, in Bolivia, with Avianca, the Colombian national carrier. 

Not everyone enjoyed the same good fortune. Latam and Gol, two giants of the South American airline industry, tried to accommodate fans but weeks before the final flight prices to Lima spiralled out of control with return tickets costing as much as US$3,000. So, fans became creative. Some took a detour via Miami; others hopped on to a bus in São Paulo for a 95-hour journey or explored every potential gateway to Lima, including travel plans through the Amazon rainforest.

In the days leading up to the final, Conmebol released more tickets for general sale. An outcry followed; fans wanted to purchase tickets, but no living soul could afford to fly to Lima. The governing body had stretched fan spending to the limit.

On an intrepid bus journey from Rio de Janeiro to Lima, Flamengo fans shared their struggles and excitement. The travellers’ thoughts were dominated by food, currency exchange, bathing out on the road and access to intermittent internet. As they crossed the Andes, oxygen balloons provided relief against the altitude and, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, protesters blocked the bus, demanding Flamengo fans sympathise with their cause. Marcos Vinicius, a waiter from Nova Iguaçu in Rio state, had begun the journey with just US$24 and without a ticket. By the time the bus reached Lima, Vinicius had a ticket and at least US$263 in his account through a number of well-wishers on social media. “Seeing the madness of those fans, I understood extreme love and worship,” said O Globo’s reporter Marcello Neves, who covered the bus trip.

In the Peruvian capital, Vinicius and his companions’ attention finally turned to the game. Flamengo had to prove they were the continent’s best, and thus more than just a domestic force. Things were going almost too well at home. Where was the struggle in the Brazilian league? Where was the adversity? There was none. 

Flamengo’s last domestic home game, a 4-4 draw with Vasco da Gama, provided a cautionary tale because it illustrated how teams could counter the Rio club. Since the arrival of Jesus, Flamengo had lost just two games; 3-0 away to Bahia in the Brazilian league and against Ecuador’s Emelec in the Copa Libertadores.

The Vasco da Gama coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo belongs to a brigade of conservative Brazilian managers. However, at the Maracanã, he set up his limited team innovatively enough to frustrate Flamengo for much of the game. An encounter of coaching ideas resulted in a topsy-turvy game with a last-gasp equaliser for Vasco. In defence, Rodrigo Caio was exposed multiple times.

The wingers, Rossi and Marrony, played as strikers to get in behind Flamengo’s high line and force the opposing defence to drop back. The duo drifted to the wings as well to exploit the space left by Flamengo’s two advancing full-backs. At River Plate, Matías Suárez and Rafael Santos Borré played similar roles. The Argentinians, too, transitioned quickly. In a 4-1-3-2 formation, the lateral movement of Nicolas De La Cruz would pose additional problems for Flamengo.

At Lima’s El Monumental stadium, Flamengo were impotent for large parts of the game against River, opponents who wielded the mastery and cunning of a defending champion and, arguably, the best side in South America in the last decade. But in a stirring finale, a Gabigol brace completed a stunning 2-1 comeback and crowned Flamengo continental kings.

Yet, the scoreline and late heroics from Gabigol belied a match that River Plate had dominated for 80 minutes. Diego Alves, Rafinha, Rodrigo Caio, Pablo Marí, Filipe Luís, Willian Arão, Gerson, Everton Ribeiro, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Bruno Henrique and Gabigol, Flamengo’s new generation, hadn’t been born in 1981 when Zico led Flamengo to victory against Cobreloa in the same competition. Under the stewardship of Jesus, Flamengo wanted to repeat the feat, but they encountered a reigning champion that was superior in every department of the field. The team of coach Marcello Gallardo pressed everywhere and their aggression and dynamic attack bamboozled the Brazilians.

In the second half, the substitute and veteran midfielder Diego transformed the final, picking the right passes and exploiting the space left by tiring opponents. In a classic, madcap finale to the game that encapsulated the richness and unpredictability of South America’s top-tier club competition, Gabigol etched his name into the Brazilian pantheon with two late goals. At last, Flamengo had conquered South America again.  

From the stands, the fans serenaded the team. They sang, “In December ’81, you ran circles around the Englishmen, you beat Liverpool 3-0, it left a mark on history! And there is no other like you, only Flamengo is world champion, now your people want the world again.”

Back in Rio de Janeiro, Cristiano recounts his steps. After his brother’s call, a friend drove him to the Ninho do Urubu, the club’s training complex. Flamengo hadn’t contacted him. At the entrance, however, he began to grasp the horrible truth. Samuel Rosa, his son’s close friend, was dead.

By 11 am, on Friday, February 8, Cristiano, amid all the confusion, anxiety and panic, was sure, even without the official confirmation, that his son Christian was among the 10 youth players who had perished in the flames that had engulfed their dormitory. “The natural order, part of human life, is a son burying a father, but a father burying a son, that had never happened in our family,” said Cristiano.

Christian wanted to play as number one for both Flamengo and the national team. In Brazil, clubs and football schools, big and small, across the country, sell a glamorous dream of professional football. The pull to become the next Alisson or the next Vinicius Junior is irresistible for families and their boys, many from underprivileged backgrounds, even if just 3-5 per cent of players in Brazil’s sprawling youth football industry turn professional. 

“It is a pyramid,” explains Veloso. “You have a structure that will select the best and few will turn professional but from the age of 16 they get something that they might never get again: education, health assistance and good food. They receive all the support. It starts with dozens of players and, as the players grow older, there are not so many left.”

Motta, who recalls “carrying bags with 50, 60, 70 oranges to the training ground for the youth players” during his time at Flamengo, points at the social role the game plays in Brazil. “Many of the kids find in football the possibility of a better life,” he said. 

Christian’s father disagrees. He invested in his son’s career with his own resources, and through loans from family and friends, but he condemns the industry his son was a part of, rebutting any romanticism around the youth game. In 2018, football spent US$7billion on transfers, according to world federation Fifa. 

“My son was a commodity for Flamengo,” said Cristiano. “It is about return, about profit, like with [Lucas] Paquetá, Vinicius [Junior] and Reinier. Lazaro scored for the Seleção [U-17]. No club invests in a player without looking at the future. That’s the way directors work at each club.” 

At the age of 16, Vinicius Junior became one of the most valuable teenagers in the world with a $50m move to Real Madrid in 2017. A six-year-old Vinicius enrolled in Flamengo’s escola [football school] run by Carlos Eduardo Abrantes in São Gonçalo, a forgotten and destitute commuter city across Rio’s bay where his family lived. São Gonçalo doesn’t have the riches of neighbouring Niterói with its middle-class districts, Oscar Niemeyer architecture and pristine views of the ‘Marvellous City’. In São Gonçalo, hardship, poverty and crime dominate. Vinicius himself grew up in a humble house on a dirt road by the side of the city’s main thoroughfare. 

The escola has basic facilities: a single artificial pitch, a dressing room and an office. Vinicius, looking on in the form of two posters on the property, nods in approval. He is the school’s patron saint; a virtuous athlete, whose talent and hard work led him on a whirlwind teenage journey to Flamengo’s Ninho do Urubu, 70 km or a three-hour commute away, and then on to global stardom in the Spanish capital, when Real Madrid snapped him up after just a few outings as an impact substitute for the Rio club. 

At 150 reais [£27], enrolment at Abrantes’s school isn’t cheap. The monthly due is 180 reais. Some 1,250 children between four and 17 are enrolled, but only 1-2 per cent will be good enough to get a trial at Flamengo. There are dozens of Flamengo schools in greater Rio with 150 across Brazil, according to Time Forte, which runs the franchise network. Abrantes admits that his school is as much about “dreams” as it is about “business”. Having benefited personally from Vinicius’s transfer to Madrid, Abrantes also left São Gonçalo to live in Recreio, near wealthy Barra da Tijuca.  

In January, the 17-year-old Reinier followed in Vinicius’ footsteps, signing for Real Madrid. He is a flying midfielder and clocked up 710 minutes in just 14 games for Flamengo. Another gamble by Real Madrid, the arms race for the best human capital in football is suffocating. Increasingly, players, poached ever younger, inhabit a larger-than-life industry that leaves few untouched. In the last three years, Flamengo sold various players for a total of 465 million reais. They spent 435 million reais on incoming players.

The club also allocated 23 million reais to upgrade the first-team training complex and to build new youth dormitories. Until their completion, however, Christian and his team were housed in a row of six conjoined steel modular units, sharing a single exit, one of the many grave shortcomings of the makeshift dormitory, along with the absence of a caretaker – a federal requirement – and the grated windows. 

The structure was never the subject of a fire inspection because Flamengo simply didn't include the dormitory in the building plans. The City of Rio de Janeiro fined Flamengo 31 times for lacking proper fire certificates for other buildings at the site. In 2015, the State of Rio prosecuted the club for poor conditions at the Ninho do Urubu, describing conditions for youth players as “even worse than those currently offered to juvenile delinquents”.

On the day of the fire, Christian had planned a surprise 15th birthday party for defender Arthur Freitas and decided to remain at the training complex instead of commuting to the Para Pedro favela, where his father lived in a small four-roomed house. At 15, he was within touching distance of signing a professional contract at Flamengo. Four weeks before his 16th birthday, he died in the fire. 

Cristiano buried his son a stone’s throw from home at Rio's Irajá cemetery, where Christian’s grandparents and other family members rest. His coaches from Flamengo came to his funeral along with youth coaches from Rio’s three other major clubs. During the service, some mourners sang Flamengo’s club anthem.

The previous day, Cristiano and the other bereaved parents had met with Flamengo officials, the club president Landim and one of his vice-presidents Rodrigo de Abranches. Cristiano got a pat on the shoulder. After 15 minutes, De Abranches excused himself, saying that he had an important engagement elsewhere. Flamengo did little to help with the identification of his son, argues Cristiano. His brother furnished the dental records from a local hospital and a long-forgotten root canal confirmed Christian’s remains. At a news conference, Flamengo’s CEO Reinaldo Belotti had claimed that the training complex’s “licences, authorisation and fines” had "nothing to do with the accident that occurred.”

Bandeira de Mello says that as club president he “didn't have access to these details.” 

Since February last year, Bandeira de Mello, Landim and Flamengo have provided few reasons as to why 10 of their youngest players were the victims of what they call a “tragedy”. Cristiano says this is because, “In Brazil, first it has to happen before something is done.

“We have to get what is fair for the families,” acknowledged Veloso, but few in the current Flamengo administration agree with him. In 2019, the club registered a record revenue of 857 million reais, spent a record of 161 million reais on new signings, and even agreed to pay the former coach Dorival Junior 13 million reais in a labour dispute over arrears. This year, Flamengo could breach the frontier of one billion reais in revenue in a bid to become the first super club operating outside Europe. The club tweaked their operating model to their own size and reality, without substantial outside investment. Revenue is generated from ticketing, merchandise, membership, television income and outgoing transfers. “Everything at Flamengo is organic,” said Motta. “You know, it is not FC Bunyodkor.” 

Never before has a club in South America generated such revenues. Yet the club has fought tooth and nail to pay as little compensation as possible to the families of the 10 boys. Flamengo proposed a compensation of 300,000 reais for each family and a 10-year minimum salary. Rio’s public prosecutor, however, demanded two million reais and 10,000 reais monthly until the respective youth players’ 45th birthdays.  In October, the public prosecutor imposed a temporary measure forcing Flamengo to pay 10,000 reais to the families until a final judicial decision was made, but the club quickly appealed against the ruling.

As the season progressed, Flamengo convinced three families and a mother to agree on compensation, on the condition that the exact figure they received is kept secret and that they forfeit further legal action against the club. Both Trengrouse and Motta point out, in a perverse application of legal principle, that one family shouldn’t receive more than the others.

Cristiano is holding out, and so is the mother of Samuel. The police investigation hasn’t been concluded yet. “The investigation is important, but I want to hear from Flamengo – an explanation, something concrete, an act of dignity towards the families.” 

In 2019, Flamengo became the first Brazilian team since Santos in the 1960s to win the double. In Doha, Jesus and his team went toe-to-toe with European champions, Liverpool, for the world crown. At times, the English club ran circles around Flamengo. At other times, Flamengo ran circles around Liverpool in a marvellous box-to-box game that delivered on its promise of a fascinating intercontinental encounter. In extra-time, the Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino broke his compatriots’ hearts, but even against the best club in the world the Rio team imposed its own philosophy and thrived, the culmination of a stellar season. 

Flamengo’s sporting success jars with Cristiano’s excruciating last 12 months. It was the first Father’s Day, first Christmas and first birthday spent without his son. However, to honour his son’s love for the club, he remains a dedicated Flamengo fan. A sign at his home’s entrance warns visitors that this is “Rubro-Negro territory”. He still drinks from a mug embossed with the Flamengo crest and his couch is still upholstered  in the club’s colours. “The institution of Flamengo is one thing,” said Cristiano. “Our anger is with the directors: how can they treat the life of a child, the human life, the way they are?” 

“Inhumanity,” proffered leading Brazilian football journalist Juca Kfouri. “It is the same thing Vale is doing with the victims of Brumadinho. Flamengo don't care about the families of the boys that died.” 


Flamengo didn’t reply when prompted for comment by this reporter. 

This article reflects the legal situation as on 16 January 2020.