Gregory Sica
Wednesday July 16th, 2008

"Underachievers" is a label many clubs get saddled with these days as they spend millions in fruitless attempts to chase trophies. But there aren't many clubs who deserve the tag more than Brazilian giants Flamengo.

The Mengão -- Brazil's most popular club with an estimated 40 million supporters -- last lifted the national championship in 1992, and since has seen its status sucked down the drain. With few exceptions, the Rio de Janeiro-based club hasn't even come close to winning the league title since then and has constantly found itself on the brink of relegation (a run of seven Rio State championships is of small consolation).

But if this season is any indication, Flamengo could return to being the powerhouse it once was. After 11 rounds of the Brasileirão, it sits in first place, five points ahead of closest pursuers Cruzeiro and Grêmio.

Flamengo has been in sensational form and, last Sunday, won its eighth match of the season, a comfortable 3-1 victory over crosstown rival Vasco da Gama in front of almost 70,000 fans at the Maracanã. Caio Júnior's side put on a remarkable performance and proved that, for now at least, it seems to have all the necessary ingredients to win the championship.

Since its "Golden Age" of the 1980s -- when it won four domestic championships, the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup (thrashing Liverpool 3-0 in the final in Tokyo) -- Flamengo hasn't come close to creating such high expectations. Even though it doesn't currently boast a player with the caliber of the legendary Zico, who guided the team to all those titles, Flamengo's league matches are all played in front of massive crowds (even the away ones) and, at times, its squad has looked invincible.

Having said that, we're still less than one-third of the way into the season, and as is usually the case in the Brazilian championship, big-money transfers often jeopardize the title aspirations of the early front-runners.

In Brazil, success seems to come with a price. Just last week, Flamengo lost key attacking midfielder Renato Augusto to Germany's Bayer Leverkusen for a reported $15 million. Flamengo is obviously happy to earn that much cash for the 20-year-old, but will now have to make do without the player around whom its game plan revolved.

To make matters worse, more changes could soon follow. Caio Júnior, who only replaced South Africa-bound Joel Santana as the club's coach in the first week of the season, contemplated a big-money move to Qatar before confirming he'll see out his contract. Meanwhile Marcinho, the league's top scorer with seven of Flamengo's league-high 25 goals, could be on his way out after being involved in a violent incident with two prostitutes at a private party in Belo Horizonte last week.

Another key loss could be that of Juan, currently regarded as the best left back in Brazil and an "irreplaceable" figure in Caio Júnior's back line. Manchester City has confirmed interest in the gifted winger. Other players who have attracted interest from abroad in recent weeks include Kléberson, Léo Moura, Obina, Diego Tardelli and Ibson (Flamengo renewed Ibson's loan deal from FC Porto for another year).

At this rate, Flamengo's squad could be completely disassembled by midseason. This will surely affect its title aspirations, although many of its rivals find themselves in a similar situation.

"This happens to all the teams, especially the big ones," declared an optimistic Caio Júnior. "I'm not so preoccupied because Kléber [Leite, the club's vice president] assured me in relation to this. The Brazilian championship is very important for the club, and we will maintain the base of the squad until the end of the season."

Despite Caio Júnior's hope to retain Flamengo's key squad members, it's almost a formality that the Mengão will suffer further losses now that the European transfer market is in full swing. Although the rest of South America is affected in a similar way, nowhere is this as evident as in Brazil. For decades, rich European clubs have raided the league of its best players and, although Brazilian clubs have often benefited from the sales in financial terms, it has drastically reduced the level of quality in the competition.

But that's a whole different issue. Brazil is renowned for producing world-class players, and even if it's constantly selling its best players to Europe, tremendous talent keeps emerging from the youth ranks of its clubs. Unlike most of its rivals, Flamengo understands that in order to achieve immediate results, it needs to find suitable replacements. To that end, the club is vigorously seeking the services of established stars instead.

In recent days, Flamengo has been linked with several high-profile players, including Juan Román Riquelme and Andrés D'Alessandro as possible replacements for Renato Augusto, as well as three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldo. The local press had stated that Flamengo was in negotiations with Boca Juniors for Riquelme, although the Argentine giants insisted that the playmaker will remain at Boca.

D'Alessandro's transfer seems more realistic. The San Lorenzo midfielder has returned to his top form since returning to Argentina, but is apparently in conflict with his club's directors and would welcome a move to Brazil. If Flamengo wants to secure his signature, it'll have to act quickly, because fellow Brazilians Internacional has confirmed it will offer the player a lucrative contract by the end of the week.

If Flamengo doesn't manage to get its man, it's likely to go for former club idol Felipe, who has played for five different Brazilian clubs and is currently on the books at Qatari champions Al-Sadd. He would be the conservative choice, however; if Flamengo wants to keep up the momentum in the championship, it should go for a player who hasn't failed them in the past. Another alternative could be former São Paulo midfielder Danilo.

Meanwhile, Flamengo president Márcio Braga seems to have come to a verbal agreement with Ronaldo to join from AC Milan once he recovers from his latest injury setback. Although images from the press this week have revealed that he is excessively overweight, O Fenômeno has the tendency to prove everyone wrong on the field, and could be a good solution for Flamengo's attacking departures. First he has to lose all those extra pounds, of course.

Even if these transfers aren't made immediately, it's vital for Flamengo to continue to pick up positive results in the championship. After years of failure, Flamengo finally has the opportunity to revive its past glory, and is in a favorable position to do so after an exceptional start to the season.

The Mengão has been by far the most dynamic team of the Brasileirão so far, and despite its overall depth, it will have to learn to deal with sudden changes in its squad as the season progresses. Its reputation depends on it.

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