As Real Madrid win Club World Cup, Flamengo’s run exposes certain hard truths

Flamengo experienced some euphoria at the end of Sunday as three late goals led to a 4-2 win over El Ahly of Egypt to claim third place in the Club World Cup in Morocco.

But in fact it was a sad event for the Brazilian giants. Many of their traveling supporters chose not to accompany them to the windswept Tangier. The game was scheduled in Rabat, but concerns about the pitch – the grand final is yet to come – forced a change in venue. This, of course, has been a financial headache for the fans, and it is not surprising that some of them decided to stay in Rabat to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see Real Madrid in the final against Al Hilal, the Saudi team that will beat Flamengo on Tuesday.

Those Flamengo fans who made the trip to Tangier were rewarded with victory. But it was all a little empty, and not only because it was a battle for third place. In truth, Flamengo won not only the game, but the match that Al Ahly lost. The Egyptians squandered chances to end the draw in the second half and then spent the final stages inventing bizarre ways to concede – a rash goalkeeper error, a botched back pass, a stupid handball and a 2-1 score turned into a defeat.

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And for Flamengo, the victory does not relieve the disappointment of missing the final and meeting the dream with Real Madrid. This is the sixth time the South American champions have lost in the semi-finals since the introduction of the current format in 2005. This is becoming more frequent and it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the status the continent enjoys in the competition.

Together with the Europeans, the champions of South America immediately go to the semi-final stage. Representatives of other continents have to fight for the right to meet with them. Like other recent winners of the Copa Libertadores, Flamengo do not deserve this privilege – and they claim to be the strongest team that South America has ever sent to this competition.

A big part of their problem, which has become all too obvious in the last few days, is that they are a pre-loaded team. They have amassed a powerful collection of offensive talents that are more than enough to defeat the local opposition. But after losing Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari three years ago, it has become difficult for them to balance their dashing game with effective defense. What’s more, some of their players have an inflated reputation – or at least are good at hiding their flaws – in an environment where their team is financially and technically superior.

After the last victory of the South American team in this competition in 2012 (Corinthians over Chelsea), this has become another extremely disappointing option for the club football of the continent.

But not necessarily for South American football. Continental-made stars shone in the final from both sides. For Real Madrid, two of the five goals were scored, and Vinicius Junior scored one goal for Flamengo. Two more balls belong to the dynamic Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde. Both of these players are in line with the current model of major European clubs, with South American talent being shipped across the Atlantic as early as possible to develop and feel at home in a faster, more intense style of football.

But there is more to life than geeks, as Al Hilal has made clear. After scoring in the semi-finals, there were two great goals from the much traveled Argentine striker Luciano Vietto. Another former Premier League player, Peruvian Andre Carrillo, excelled surprisingly as a winger, improvising in a deeper midfield role. And the third goal of Al-Khalal in the final was the business of the whole of South America. The ball was tackled by Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar, who once played for Flamengo, as was Brazilian winger Michael, who hit the touchline and recovered when Vietto scored smartly. And there is also a significant South American contribution to this year’s participation of the Seattle Sounders, the first Major League Soccer team to qualify for the Club World Cup.

There is much to be excited about South American football, but it cannot be denied that the local game has become an export industry. Europe takes the best players, while other centers such as Saudi Arabia, the US and Mexico take others. As a result, the best South American clubs are no longer clearly stronger than the non-European champions and may well be hampered by the weight of history and expectations.

This truth is not easy to swallow. This is something that many in South America have to re-watch every year. However, this should be clear for a while to everyone who has followed this latest iteration of the Club World Cup.


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