Brazil flagIn any club’s Golden Age there’s usually one particular season when everything just comes together. 2013 was the year it all clicked into place for Bayern Munich. Manchester United had 1999. For Clube de Regatas do Flamengo their zenith was 1981. This was the year when the Rubro-Negro  were at the peak of their considerable powers in an era when they dominated Brazilian club football capturing three national titles and three Rio State championships between 1978 and 1983. 

The Flamengo team was littered with exceptional players, some of whom would be part of the fabled Brazil squad that would gloriously fail at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. There was Leandro, another in the long and illustrious line of attacking right full backs to represent the Seleção, the stylish Júnior, who could play at left back or on the left hand side of midfield with equal aplomb despite being predominately right footed and, of course,  the jewel in Flamengo’s crown, the legendary Zico.

Born Artur Antunes Coimbra in Rio de Janeiro on March 3rd 1953, the gifted playmaker was considered by many to be the world’s best player during the late seventies and early eighties. Such was Zico’s influence at the Estadio Maracanã, he was made captain of the club and while Socrates possessed the armband for the national team, Zico was undoubtedly the star attraction. At the beginning of the 1981 season, Zico was 28-years-old and in his prime. The ‘White Pelé’ was the driving force behind Flamengo’s 1980 Brasileirão success, scoring a league-leading 21 of the team’s 46 goals for the men coached by Paulo Carpegiani. The men from the Rio district of Gávea lost just two of their 22 league fixtures, defeating Atlético Mineiro in the two-legged championship play-off.

This resilience would stand them in good stead for their 1981 campaign which would include not only  the defence of the national title and the Campeonato Carioca domestically, but also the quest to secure their first ever triumph in the Copa Libertadores, the competition to find South America’s continental club champions. The season kicked off in January with teams invited to join the national championship under a new format of group stages based on finishing places in their respective regional competitions from the previous year. Having progressed through Group D of the opening phase as runners-up, they then proceeded to top their section in the second phase. The quarter-final was a two-legged knockout encounter against another of Rio’s big four clubs, Botafogo.  Flamengo (the Portuguese word for Flemish) were defeated 3-1 on aggregate and so by mid-April 1981 they had to relinquish their grip on the Brasileirão trophy.

Just one month after this elimination, Flamengo set about winning back the Campeonato Carioca which had evaded their grasp since 1979. The convoluted system to determine the champions of Rio State included the first stage, the Taça Guanabara, where the big four (Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama) are seeded and drawn into groups with other participants, then comes the second stage called the Taça Rio. The winners of Taça Guanabara and Taça Rio compete in a two-legged final with the winner crowned the tournament’s overall champion. If the same team wins both the Taça Guanabara and the Taça Rio, they would automatically be the tournament champion, rendering a final unnecessary.

By July, Flamengo had secured victory in the Taça Guanabara. The standout result came against Americano; a 7-0 thrashing at the Maracanã. And, having won that initial part of the State championship and having guaranteed their participation in the final play-off, Flamengo could afford to take it easier for the Taça Rio spanning the latter part of the season. This came at a very convenient time given that the group phase of the Copa Libertadores kicked off just as the Taça Guanabara was won.

The first group stage proved tough for Flamengo. They were drawn alongside fellow Brazilians and old foes, Atlético Mineiro, and two Paraguayan clubs, Cerro Porteño and Olimpia Asunción in Group Three. Zico and Nunes lit up the competition with two goals each in a 5-2 win over Cerro Porteño, two more for Nunes in a pair of 2-2 draws with Atlético Mineiro and a hat-trick for Zico in the return fixture with Cerro Porteño. After two victories, four draws and no defeats each, a play-off was needed between Flamengo and their fellow countrymen from Belo Horizonte to decide who filled the winner and runner-up berths for qualification for the second round (goal difference was not taken into consideration). An extraordinary game, played at the neutral Serra Dourada stadium in Goiânia on a pitch with the most bizarrely patterned cut-grass, was abandoned after only 37 minutes, as referee, Jose Roberto Wright, sent five Mineiro players off for various crimes of violence, intimidation and gamesmanship. Amid the all-too-common South American scenes of police and officials storming the playing surface, Wright strode from the field, and the game, and therefore the honour of being group winners was awarded to Flamengo.

The round-robin second stage was negotiated with ease. Carpegiani’s men blitzed past Club Jorge Wilsterman of Bolivia and the Colombians, Deportivo Cali. Winning all four games, Zico was yet again the inspiration with Nunes and Adilio assisting with the goalscoring as Flamengo advanced to the Copa Libertadores final with a 100% record. The final itself would not come against another of the continent’s more famous or glamorous clubs, but with Cobreloa, a club formed just four years earlier in 1977 in the Chilean desert mining city of Calama. On November 13th 1981, almost 94,000 spectators filled the Maracanã for the first leg, and after 30 minutes the home fans had seen their hero, Zico, score twice. The Chileans, despite the early onslaught, held firm and in the second half, Victor Merello pulled a goal back to give them hope for the second leg back in Chile. A week later in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Flamengo hung on to their 2-1 aggregate lead until the 84th minute. Merello scored the goal that took the Copa Libertadores into a third and deciding match as the away goal rule traditionally used in European club competition was not utilised in South America.

Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, held the final installment of the Flamengo-Cobreloa drama, and there was only one candidate for the role of chief protagonist; Zico. The great man’s double strike, in a game where five players were dismissed, gave the Brazilian giants their first Copa Libertadores title. Finally, their domestic dominance had been transferred to the continental scene and confirmed this generation as the greatest in Flamengo’s history. Far from being content with this accolade, the team had two more mountains to climb before their immortality would be rubber-stamped and it took a tragedy to test their renowned powers of togetherness to galvanise them for the tasks ahead.

Cláudio Coutinho, the coach credited with building the foundations of Flamengo’s success throughout the late seventies before taking charge of the national team, drowned whilst diving in the Cagarras Islands, an archipelago near Ipanema Beach. The accident occurred just a week before Flamengo took on Vasco da Gama in the Rio State final. Vasco had earned their place in the championship decider by topping the Taça Rio. They also possessed in their ranks the season’s leading scorer, the explosively named Roberto Dinamite, who had notched an impressive 31 goals. Spurred on by emotion, Flamengo regained the Campeonato Carioca after a 2-1 victory. Their triumph was immediately dedicated to their former leader.  Júnior presented his match-worn shirt to Coutinho’s son in honour of the man the players called ‘Smudge’.

The ultimate accolade for Flamengo would come on an even further-flung foreign shore than their Libertadores success. As champions of South America they were obliged to take part in the 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo and take on Europe’s top team, Liverpool, for the title of World Club champions. The English side were feared around the world having, like Flamengo, dominated their domestic league for the previous few campaigns and won their continent’s top prize three times in five seasons. Liverpool were considered favourites for the showpiece occasion, yet traditionally this competition was not taken as seriously by its European participants as it was by the South Americans, especially as it came right in the middle of the long European season and was seen as an unwanted and distantly-held distraction. While Liverpool’s star names such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and England’s Player of the Year, Terry McDermott failed to sparkle, Nunes, Adilio and in particular Man of the Match, Zico dazzled for O Mengão as they romped to an unexpected 3-0 win. The Toyota Cup and more importantly, the coronation as the world’s best team was secured with style.

For the captain, Zico, 1981 was the year he was confirmed as the planet’s top footballer. His creative and goalscoring genius allied to Flamengo’s other stellar cast members and their will to succeed helped propel the Brazilians to legendary status. Eleven months of toil, tragedy, drama and determination resulted in the recognition that Flamengo ruled the world.

By Mark Godfrey

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona