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It is no secret that soccer is Brazil’s national sport. With five World Cup titles, the country perfected the game which was created in England back in the 19th century, and it is by far the biggest show in town across a nation of 200 million people. Because of Brazil’s size, soccer developed here at a regional level, creating lots of deep-seated local rivalries, many of which transcend the sport itself. Here are some of Brazil’s biggest soccer derbies.
Probably the best known Brazilian rivalry around the world, the Fla-Flu (as it is commonly known) is less of a grudge match and more of a celebration of the color and vibrancy of soccer fan culture in Rio de Janeiro. The two clubs were rivals before even playing a match: as soccer began to take root in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the 20th century, it gradually replaced rowing as the city’s favorite sport. Flamengo, one of Rio’s most prestigious rowing clubs, jumped on the bandwagon and decided to start their own soccer team, tapping up nine top players from Fluminense F.C. in the process.
Fluminense, of course, were not happy with Flamengo, a club with whom they always held good relations. Previously the two clubs even had an agreement where Flamengo’s rowers were able to play soccer for Fluminense and vice-versa. So, when it came time for these two clubs to play each other for the first time, there was already a bit of needle in the fixture. Fluminense, fueled by a desire for revenge, won the first meeting three goals to two.
However, the Fla-Flu as we know it today did not begin until the 1930s. In an effort to bring more fans to the stadium and increase the popularity of the sport, Rio de Janeiro sports journalist Mário Filho started a competition in the local newspaper, to see which set of fans could create the best and most colorful atmosphere at the next Fla-Flu. Both sides accepted the challenge with gusto and brought streamers, flags, balloons, drums, ticker-tape, confetti, and even rice flour. The match was like a carnival party and the tradition has continued until today.
When the government built the massive Maracanã Stadium in 1950, where both Flamengo and Fluminense would play their home matches, it was named after Mário Filho, the “father of the Fla-Flu.”
While it is certainly the best-known derby in Rio, and Brazil as a whole (it has even made its way into Brazilian-Portuguese, with any tribal dispute referred to as a Fla-Flu), Flamengo vs Fluminense is not the fiercest rivalry in the city. That title belongs to Flamengo vs Vasco da Gama, the two most popular teams in Rio de Janeiro.
While soccer in Rio de Janeiro tends to be jovial and colorful, with a distinctly carnivalesque atmosphere, soccer in Brazil’s biggest city of São Paulo is a totally different affair. Nowhere in the country is soccer taken as seriously as it is in São Paulo, a city large enough to fit three massive clubs: Corinthians, São Paulo F.C. and Palmeiras. While all three teams have their own animosities between one another, with fourth club Santos (from the nearby beach city of the same name) entering the mix as well, the biggest mutual rivalry in the city is the so-called Derby Paulista, played between Palmeiras and Corinthians, two clubs with similar backgrounds.
Both teams were founded by groups of factory workers in the 1910s. After seeing English club Corinthian F.C. touring the southeast of Brazil in 1910 and demolishing the local opposition, seven laborers got together in the central neighborhood of Bom Retiro and decided to form their own club, Sport Club Corinthians Paulista. Four years later, in very similar circumstances, a group of Italian factory workers decided to create their own team after seeing Italian clubs Pro Vercelli and Torino play in exhibition tours in São Paulo. They named their club Palestra Itália, later being renamed Palmeiras during World War II.
Corinthians and Palmeiras both had distinctly working-class and immigrant followings, as their foundation came at a time when soccer in the city was restricted to the white elites. Corinthians rallied behind the banner of being the “Team of the People,” while Palmeiras modeled themselves as the club of São Paulo’s huge Italian community. The rivalry has always been city-wide and inclusive, meaning it is not uncommon to have neighborhoods (or even families) in São Paulo which are split between Palmeiras and Corinthians.
The closeness of the rivalry means that there has always been a certain underlying level of respect between the two clubs. Both Palmeiras and Corinthians see São Paulo F.C. as “the enemy,” while regarding each other as “rivals.” However, on match day, there is absolutely no love lost between the teams.
Arguably Brazil’s fiercest soccer rivalry is found in the southern city of Porto Alegre, between Grêmio and Internacional – the so-called Grenal. The intensity of this particular derby can be explained by a few different factors: firstly, Porto Alegre, a city of just under 1.5 million people, is the ideal size for hosting two massive soccer clubs. It’s small enough to stop the rise of any potential third team, but it is large enough to ensure that Grêmio and Internacional each have large support bases to draw from. As a result, the city is split into two: the sky blue, black and white of Grêmio, or the red of Internacional.
Another reason for the passion shown by the fans of these two clubs is that the south of Brazil sees itself as being culturally independent of the rest of the country. Porto Alegre, for example, is closer to Montevideo and Buenos Aires than it is to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. As such, much of the traditions of southern Brazil borrow more from Uruguay and Argentina than they do from the rest of Brazil, including their soccer fan culture. Seeing a match in Porto Alegre feels more like watching Boca Juniors or River Plate than going to see Flamengo or Corinthians.
The Grenal was originally a rivalry drawn upon class lines, with Grêmio being the exclusive club of the European (particularly German) elite in Porto Alegre, and Internacional created to be the inclusive club of the people. While this divide is still perceived by many who report on Brazilian soccer, recent surveys show that Grêmio is now the most popular team among the region’s working class, with Internacional being slightly preferred by the more affluent social groups in Porto Alegre. As is the case with many soccer derbies in Brazil, the Grenal ceases to be a class-based derby and is now more of a sporting rivalry.
As a result of the fierce nature of the derby, matches between Grêmio and Internacional are often some of the most physical (and at times violent) games in Brazilian soccer.
Another of Brazil’s most traditional rivalries is based in the southeast city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais: Atlético Mineiro, who play in black and white striped shirts, against the all-blue of Cruzeiro. As was referred to with the Grenal, the city of Belo Horizonte is not quite tight enough to have as fierce a soccer rivalry as their cousins in Porto Alegre. With an extra million people, Belo Horizonte also has space for a third club, América Mineiro, which slightly dilutes the main rivalry between Atlético and Cruzeiro. However, make no mistake, the so-called Clássico Mineiro is still the only show in town.
Originally, the derby was between Atlético and América. The former was founded in 1908 by a group of middle-class students, while América was initially seen as the team of the Belo Horizonte elite. In the 1920s, a group of Italian factory workers formed their own club, Palestra Itália, in the molds of the São Paulo team of the same name who would later become Palmeiras. Against their elite and middle-class opponents, Palestra Itália was the team of the working class and during World War II, just like Palmeiras, they were forced to change their name and became Cruzeiro Esporte Clube. In the process, they abandoned their green, white and red colors (a homage to the Italian flag), and began playing in blue.
Atlético and Cruzeiro soon became the major forces of the city and played out a number of very heated and violent matches against one another, giving rise to the rivalry which still exists today. As the other teams in the state fell by the wayside, Atlético and Cruzeiro essentially shared the Minas Gerais state trophy between them from 1940 onwards. The derby always passed through periods of dominance: Galo (Atlético’s nickname, “The Roosters”) reigned supreme in the 1940s, ’50s and ’80s, while the Raposa (Cruzeiro, “The Foxes”) ruled proceedings in the ’60s and ’70s.
The Clássico Mineiro has taken on an added significance in recent years, however, as both of the Belo Horizonte giants have been performing very well on the national stage. Atlético won the Copa Libertadores of 2013, South America’s most prestigious club competition, as well as winning the Brazilian Cup the following year, defeating Cruzeiro in the final. Meanwhile, Cruzeiro were the champions of Brazil in 2013 and 2014, making matches between the two more than just a local settling of scores, but also disputes between two of the best teams in the country.
The northeast of Brazil is just as obsessed and passionate about soccer, with huge attendances and their own bitter local rivalries, but the region has never been able to translate this fervor into success on the pitch. The biggest clubs in the northeast often spend their seasons trying to avoid relegation to Brazil’s second division and only three times in the country’s history has a northeastern club won the national championship.
The proud owner of two of those Brazilian titles (won in 1959 and 1988) is the region’s largest club, Bahia. Along with their city rivals Vitória, they contest the Ba-Vi, the biggest derby in the northeast. Despite the great animosity between the two clubs, this is one of the newest among Brazil’s big rivalries. For the first half of the 20th century in the gorgeous coastal city of Salvador, Bahia’s biggest rivals were other local clubs such as Galicia, Ypiranga and Botafogo-B.A. Vitória, meanwhile, having been formed by the Salvador elite, were only interested in rowing and cricket.
Staunchly against the idea of professionalizing soccer in the 1930s and allowing poor black players to play, Vitória remained an amateur club up until the 1950s. When Vitória finally became professional, Bahia were untouchable in Salvador, forcing their rivals to open themselves up to the poorer sections of society to try and compete. By the 1970s, the two teams were neck and neck, and the Ba-Vi rivalry was born.
From then on, matches between the two clubs began attracting huge attendances and splitting Salvador into two warring factions. With the state of Bahia having a large population descending from African slaves and various traditions influenced by West African religions, there were always stories of fans on both sides of the Ba-Vi divide taking part in witchcraft rituals (pejoratively referred to as “macumba” in Brazil) to make sure their team would win. Neném Prancha, a famous Brazilian soccer coach and physiotherapist, once said that, “if macumba worked, the Bahia state championship would always end in a draw.”