Most of the world’s great footballing rivalries divide teams across massive social fault-lines. They pit against each other fans of clubs from such different sides of the rift that they probably couldn’t see eye to eye on pretty much any topic.
With some it’s religious; you see Glasgow separated by a sectarian divide when Rangers play Celtic. With some it’s political – Sampdoria and Lazio stand on the right of the spectrum while Genoa and Roma are very much encamped on the left. With others it’s a class divide between the haves and have-nots of society, as the split in Buenos Aires highlights; Boca Juniors (known as the club of the working class) counter River Plate (the club of the rich elite) in this derby.
For others it’s a complicated, strange, historical mix of pretty much all the above. This is probably most true of El Clasico; Real Madrid, the club of the establishment, are heavily associated with the Franco dictatorship famously stealing the signing of Di Stefano from under the noses of the rebellious Catalan Barcelona. This, however, is a divide that is ingrained in hundreds of years of Iberian history, with Barcelona having been denied trading rights with the New World and the royal seat of Madrid having been concerned about giving too much power to such a fractious part of the country, allowing places like Granada and Sevilla to grow at Catalonia’s expense.
Derbies are often seen as a war, and for the above you can associate such games with the American Civil War: countrymen facing each other across a field in pitched battle, the same people but vastly differing ideologies, and even in some cases a massive geographical divide.
Brazil’s most famous derby, the Fla-Flu, pits city rivals Flamengo and Fluminense against each other in the world’s most iconic stadium: The Maracana. The Fla-Flu Classico is fairly unique. The opposing teams are not at polar extremes; there’s no religious, political or social divide amongst them or their fans at all. They are not just different sides of the same coin, they are both the face.
Flamengo are Brazil’s most supported club with a reported 42 million supporters in Brazil alone. To put this into context, if Flamengo’s Brazilian fanbase were to decide to create their own independent sovereign state of Flamengo, it would be the 33rd largest country in the world, ahead of Poland, Canada and Australia. The world record for the highest attendance in a domestic league match is a Fla-Flu derby from 1963, when an astonishing 194,000 turned up to watch Fluminense win 3-0.
Flamengo grew out of Fluminense when a group of dissatisfied Flu players trudged over to the then-rowing club of Flamengo and asked them if they could set up a football club. This split caused instant rivalries, with the perfect example being Nelson Rodrigues, a Fluminense fan, and his brother Mario Filho, who followed Flamengo. Both influential writers at the time, they built up the rivalry and eulogised about their respective teams.
If most derbies can be seen as the American Civil War, Fla-Flu should be perceived in the context of the English Civil War, a war that pitted father against son and brother against brother.
The rivalry certainly re-ignited in this year’s edition of the derby. Flamengo, chasing hard for the title, took an early lead through Leandro Damiao, only for Fluminense to equalise early in the second half. Flamengo, however, left with all three points after a Fernandinho winner, a goal that closed the gap with Palmeiras, who head the table by just one point. Palmeiras drew with an erratic Cruzeiro in a game they would have been expecting to win.
Fluminense are in a fight of their own. Riding surprisingly high in the table after losing their star striker Fred to title-chasing Atletico Mineiro, they are now faced with an outside chance of qualifying for the Copa Libertadores. The loss in the Fla-Flu hasn’t changed their league position, but the teams around them are all bunched together on similar points.
The game returned to the iconic Maracana as well after all of Rio’s teams were kicked out of their home grounds to make way for the Olympics and Paralympics. Flamengo in particular ended up travelling all around the country – not unlike the Harlem Globetrotters – and it’s amazing that three Rio teams are riding so high in the table after these disruptions (Botafogo are also playing for a chance to qualify for the Copa Libertadores in just their first season back in the top flight).