Flamengo’s journey to write their names into Brazilian football history continues on Tuesday with their opening match in the Club World Cup.
Al-Hilal stand in the way of the Rio de Janeiro side and a potential final with Liverpool, a dream outcome for the likes of Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa, Filipe Luis and the rest of Jorge Jesus’ Copa Libertadores winners.
While those stars have taken centre stage this year, however, other, less heralded names must also be remembered as the adventure begins in Qatar.
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Christian Esmerio and Athila Paixao could only dream of reaching the heights of Libertadores glory and the opportunity to become world champions, but they and eight other young hopefuls will not be there on Tuesday, reminders that 2019 was a year of tragedy as well as triumph in Flamengo.
On February 8, the club’s Ninho de Urubu training complex in Rio went up in flames, the cause later identified as a faulty air conditioning unit. Tragically, the blaze was centred on a dormitory full of teenage academy players who had come from across Brazil for the chance to make it as professionals. Ten youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16 lost their lives, with three others injured.
“This is without a doubt the worst tragedy this club has been through,” Flamengo president Rodolfo Landim told reporters in the wake of the conflagration. “The most important thing now is for us to try to minimise the pain and suffering of these families.”
Flamengo’s grief aside, the tragedy opened up several fierce debates.
Questions were asked over the condition of the club’s academy – the affected dormitory was found to have housed 26 boys, and Rio city authorities later confirmed that it had been officially registered as a car park – and the intensive youth system itself, which hothouses thousands of hopefuls each year with the objective of turning out a handful of prospects.
The dream, of course, is to emulate the likes of Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Gabigol himself; make it big in Brazil before sealing the lucrative move to Europe that will ensure financial security for life, both for the player and his extended family. But for most it is just a fantasy, with the vast majority falling short of professional standard.
Esmerio was one of those tipped for the top. A hulking goalkeeper, the Rio native was Brazil’s first choice at Under-15 level and was expected to sign a professional contract with Flamengo on his 16th birthday.
He never made it, dying in the blaze three weeks before that landmark; harrowing testimony from survivors tells how his 6’3” frame made it impossible for him to squeeze out of the window grate which served as the escape route for several team-mates.
He was the first to be identified after the fire, the authorities forced to use his dental records due to the unrecognisable state of his charred remains.
“We were very close. I wish he were here with me,” Esmerio’s father Cristiano said to El Pais back in August, on the poignant occasion of his first Father’s Day without Christian. “There is not enough money in the world to make up for how much I miss him.”
Money, however, has been at the forefront of the families’ dispute with Flamengo in the aftermath of the fire. The Rubronegro have been accused of dragging their feet on compensation claims, all the while laying out astronomic sums to bring players such as Filipe Luis, Rafinha and Pablo Mari across the Atlantic from Europe.
“The board has decided to extend our suffering. Flamengo spent R$200 million (£36.5m/$49m) to sign players. And I will grieve for my son my entire life,” Esmerio added.
A breakthrough was achieved on December 5, almost 10 months to the day following the tragedy, when a Rio judge ordered Flamengo to pay a provisional monthly stipend of R$10,000 ($2,380) to each of the 13 families of those killed or injured in the fire until a permanent settlement could be reached.
In his ruling – immediately appealed by the club – Judge Arthur Eduardo Magalhaes Ferreira offered a frank condemnation of Flamengo’s previous conduct.
“Since the financial situation of the accused’s finance is the subject of great pride, more so should be its ability to responder, without complaints, with compensation for the damages caused to the victims’ families,” the magistrate stated.
For Magalhaes Ferreira, Flamengo refused to comply “in any shape or form, spontaneously, partially or provisionally” with the families’ demands, a dereliction of duty that casts a shadow over the wild success of a season that saw the club crowned both South American and Brazilian champions.
Flamengo contend that they have voluntarily come to an agreement to pay R$5,000 a month to those affected and claimed the verdict was reached behind their backs.
“Flamengo were not informed of this decision, but if it is unfavourable and we are not in agreement we will appeal,” vice-president Rodrigo Dunshee de Abrantes told Globo.
We will never know if Christian one day could have donned the gloves for Flamengo, nor if he could have followed in the footsteps of Alisson and Ederson, and become a star in his own right among the elite of European football.
But he will be a part of Tuesday’s semi, along with his nine tragic team-mates who dreamed of emulating Gabigol and Co. and making it big at the Maracana.
The onus is now on Flamengo to ensure their memories are honoured, and that no youngster ever again pays such a dreadful price for following their dreams.
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