Lima: Football is South America's number one pastime embedded in an atmosphere of unchecked passion and emotion, but, continental and universal fascination aside, the game runs along a lot of socio-economic fault lines as well. The two finalists of this year's Copa Libertadores highlight that divide: Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo are the club of the masses in Brazil whereas Argentina's River Plate belong to the snooty part of the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires.
In many ways River Plate against Flamengo is a game of the haves against the have-nots. In the late 30's, Flamengo president Jose Padilha wholeheartedly embraced professionalism and transformed the club into the people's champion with two masterstrokes: he introduced coach Dori Kushner and his Danubian school of football, and signed the three leading black players of the time Fausto, Leonidas da Silva and Domingos da Guia.
With the support of Jornal Dos Sports and mythical journalist Mario Filho, Flamengo garnered nationwide support. They were the club from the capital and their message reverberated through radio around the whole country.
In the age of GetÃºlio Vargas and Brasilidade, expressions of nationalism through the Brazilian way, Padilha nurtured what he considered 'Generation Flamengo,' citizens as pliant 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 radio commentator Arry Barroso coined the 'Charanga,' the out-of-tune band. They didn't play music particularly well, but added to the cultural spectacle that football had become in Brazil. Like millions, de Carvalho had migrated from the country 's poor northeast to the big cities in the south in search of a better life. In 1950, he became the mascot of Brazil's national team.
Today, the club's popularity remains intact and, above all, unmatched. Flamengo claim to have 40 million supporters. That might not be far off the truth. They can fill stadiums around Brazil. On match day Flamengo fans can become quite neurotic. In the second leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final against Gremio, Rio de Janeiro nearly buckled under its own nerves.
River Plate do not command the same support, but, along with the rest of Argentinean football, its importance for the continent can't be understated. Argentina spread the game once the English had anchored in Buenos Aires. The city's port would become the club's birthplace. It's a stretch to argue that River Plate can't be understood without their Buenos Aires sibling Boca Juniors, but the two clubs have an intertwined history. Boca Juniors were founded in the working class dockside areas of the city.
River Plate soon emigrated to the upscale outskirts where lush, spacious avenues dominate suburbia, a stark contrast with the cramped, narrow alleyways around Boca's Bombonera Stadium. They became known for their elaborate passing game, the La Nuestra style, again a contrast with Boca's blue collar style. River Plate were nicknamed Los Millionarios for their big spending and in the 40's, the golden age of Argentinean football, the club enjoyed their heydays with 'La Maquina', winning consecutive titles and, as a trailblazer, exporting players abroad.
South American club football tells the 'elite team versus the people's team' narrative of River Plate and Boca Juniors abundantly: Universitario vs Alianza Lima or Olimpia vs Cerro Porteno in Paraguay or Nacional vs Penarol in Uruguay. These are true derbies in the confines of a single city. The Brazilian enactment would be Flamengo vs Fluminense, the club from Laranjeiras, an upper-middle class neighborhood in Rio, that revels in its own elitism.
Over time these social and economic fault lines have somewhat faded. Upscale Rio de Janeiro has a major stake in Flamengo, lower-class Argentina also supports River Plate. The days that these clubs were truly inaccessible for the average man belong to the past and today much of the attention rightly focuses on the actual spectacle.
This season Flamengo have flexed their muscles financially, spending in excess of $40 million on new recruits, bringing veteran full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis back from Europe, but little feted central defender Pablo Mari and Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus have been the two most important recruitments. With his speed and mobility, Mari allows Jesus to develop a team that pushes high up, presses, retains the ball quickly and passes its way past opponents. As a result, Flamengo have taken the Brazilian league by storm, but in a near perfect season, closing in on the national title and humiliating Gremio in the semis of the continental competition, lurks an obvious danger: hubris.
Flamengo think they are favourites, but River Plate upend that notion. The team of coach Marcelo Gallardo has continental pedigree, having won the title four times, including in 2015 and 2018, is well-drilled and knocked out Boca Juniors in commanding style in the last four. The reigning champions boast adventurous full backs, rely on Enzo Perez to hold the team together and press high up the field. Their game management, not without the occasional trickery, is excellent.
This game is not a repeat of the 'finals to end all finals' that hooked Argentina and hipster fans around the world in 2018, but supporters from across the social spectrum in both Brazil and Argentina will rejoice over a showpiece match that should be high in quality, stir emotions and in footballing terms surpass last season's final. River can become the first team to win two-in-a-row since 2001 and Flamengo want to emulate Zico's team of the 80's. The game has all the makings of a classic.