Flamengo fly to Club World Cup dreaming of beating Real Madrid and ending run of European dominance

Parts of Rio de Janeiro were brought to a standstill on Thursday night by the so-called "Aero-Fla" -- the mobilisation of thousands of supporters of local giants Flamengo, marching to the airport to see the team off on its way to Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup. If the dream is fulfilled and the team come back with the trophy, then an even bigger crowd will greet them upon their return.

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This might amaze and even perplex supporters of European sides, but for a South American team there is nothing bigger than the Club World Cup. There is no glory greater for Flamengo than that of beating Real Madrid in the final on Feb. 11. Should the Champions League's most decorated club improbably fall in their semifinal to either Al Ahly or the Seattle Sounders then the possibility of a Flamengo win would increase, but a considerable amount of shine would be taken away.

A proud footballing culture, for decades at least the equal of anything on the other side of the Atlantic, has been forced to watch with gritted teeth as the supremacy of the European club game has been established. This is a chance for revenge, an opportunity to bring the mighty to their knees and force them to acknowledge the grandeur of South American football. Brazil has an almost megalomaniac obsession with things being the biggest or best in the world. If Flamengo emerge victorious then they can shout out that they are world champions, and a triumph over Real Madrid will make it incontestable and all the sweeter.

But there is no denying that the Europeans have exercised a dominance of the trophy -- and, especially infuriating to the South Americans, without appearing to care too much. The last South American win was back in 2012, when Corinthians beat Chelsea. Like the other triumphs for the continent (Sao Paulo in 2005, Internacional in 2006) it was a 1-0 win for a Brazilian team based on backs-to-the-wall defending and sporadic forward breaks.

Flamengo, though, are not really built that way. Together with Palmeiras, their more pragmatic rivals from Sao Paulo, Flamengo have dominated the recent years of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. Each have won two of the last four titles.

Flamengo have done it on the front foot. The key moment was the arrival in mid-2019 of Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus, who managed to solve a riddle that had flummoxed his predecessors: how to find space for the club's four attacking talents in the same starting lineup. Back then it was seen as a huge and possibly unbearable risk to select the strike pair of Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa and Bruno Henrique together with the attacking-midfield duo of Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta. Now, anything other than a front four would be heresy.

The one change has been the replacement of the injured Bruno Henrique with centre-forward Pedro, but the attacking quartet remains, and week after week they fire together to great effect. Both Pedro and Everton Ribeiro were in Brazil's squad for the World Cup in Qatar, where De Arrascaeta scored both of Uruguay's goals. Gabigol failed to make the cut for Brazil, possibly as he is too temperamental and restricted to the left foot to tip the balance at the very highest level. But, in the red-and-black of Flamengo he is a legend, the charismatic star who has often delivered on the big occasion.

Over the last few years, Flamengo have learned how to make money from their massive fan base, and their model is clear. They look to produce and transfer young talent -- like West Ham's Lucas Paqueta and, especially, like potential Feb. 11 opponent Vinicius Junior -- and they use the proceeds to acquire two types of player from Europe: veterans looking to round off a career with a move back home -- such as defenders David Luiz and Filipe Luiz -- and younger players who, for whatever reason, proved unable to settle in the European game -- like Pedro and Gabigol. The success of the model has allowed them to build a squad with considerable depth, especially in attacking positions. They have enough firepower to roll over any of their continental opponents.

But can they defend efficiently against Real Madrid, or even their semifinal opponents? This is the key question. They are a front-loaded team; balancing out the attacking quartet with the need for defensive solidity has never been easy. It was done best -- by far -- in 2019 with the surprise acquisition of Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari who, used to attacking the halfway line rather than running back to his own penalty area, helped the team stay compact high up the field. Since he left for Arsenal, the defence has never looked as good. And after Saturday's 4-3 Supercopa do Brasil defeat to Palmeiras, coach Vitor Pereira confessed that his team are not at their best without the ball.

This, then, is the technical challenge of the next few days. But there is also a psychological test. Throughout the history of this competition, the semifinal has usually been a nightmare for the South American side. On one hand, they are tantalisingly close to paradise. On the other, they are vexingly close to humiliation. A defeat to the non-European side -- which has happened on a number of occasions in recent years -- will be seized upon with delight by supporters of rival Brazilian clubs. Whether they take on Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia or Wydad Casablanca of Morocco on Tuesday all the pressure will be on Flamengo and, should it be the latter, there will be a noisy home crowd against them.

The experience of this competition in 2019, when Flamengo gave Liverpool a decent game before losing 1-0 after extra time, is a great help. So, too, is the fact that in comparison with that team, the current side has a deeper bench, with options that they can bring on if the situation demands.

Flamengo's 2023 side could be the most capable team that South America have sent to the Club World Cup in some time. For the next few days, then, the dream of those who took part in the "Aero-Fla" is still flying high.