In each game Flamengo played in the Maracanã during this year’s Copa Libertadores one song rang out louder than any other. “In December 1981,” they chanted, “we ran rings around the English. 3-0 against Liverpool, it went down in history. In Rio there’s no equal, only Flamengo are world champions. And now your people ask for the world again.”
Fans were desperate for the continental title and urged their players toward it. Yet with Liverpool confirmed as European champions they could not help but cast their thoughts further ahead. With each passing round they were a step closer to a repeat of the greatest moment in the club’s history, when a side led by Zico beat Liverpool 3-0 to take the 1981 Intercontinental Cup – or Mundial, as it is known in Brazil – in Tokyo’s National Stadium.
With the 2019 Libertadores now secured and Flamengo and Liverpool a Club World Cup semi-final win away from meeting again, 38 years on, the stories and mystique that surround their victory in Japan have flooded Rio de Janeiro. “The Mundial, for us in Brazil,” says Andrade, who anchored the Flamengo midfield that season, “is the biggest title a club can win.”
Like it has this year – in November Flamengo lifted the Brazilian and South American titles – a magical month preceded their trip to the Mundial in 1981. “We won the Rio state championship over three games,” Andrade recalls, “and then the Libertadores, which ended up being over three games as well. They were very balanced, hard‑fought matches.”
The Libertadores final was against Cobreloa of Chile, the tournament’s surprise package. “We won the first game in the Maracanã 2-1, with two goals from Zico,” says Nunes, Flamengo’s top scorer that year. “We lost the second game in Santiago, 1-0. And the third game was in Uruguay, a neutral venue.”
Those encounters in Chile and Uruguay turned ugly. In Santiago the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, announced over the stadium’s loudspeaker: “Cobreloa is the fatherland in football boots.” The Chile centre-back Mario Soto took to the pitch with a rock in his fist, which he used to cut Adílio’s and Lico’s faces. In Montevideo Andrade and two Cobreloa players were sent off in the first half, with Soto and Flamengo’s Anselmo also dismissed before the final whistle. Despite the violence, two more goals from Zico were enough to seal Flamengo’s passage to Japan.
“We were playing at a really high level,” Andrade says, smiling. “It didn’t even come into our heads that we might be beaten. Not by Liverpool, nor anyone else. We respected Liverpool, but with the form we were in we were certain we’d win.”
Bob Paisley’s side, by contrast, were going through a transitional period and found themselves 10th in the league. Before the game, which kicked off at noon on a cold winter’s Sunday, Flamengo went through their usual ritual, knocking out a few samba tunes before forming a huddle in the tunnel. “Each one of us would say something [and] we’d say a prayer,” Andrade recalls. “[The Liverpool players] thought that was strange and started laughing at us. Júnior used that to motivate the group. He said: ‘Look, they’re laughing. When we get on the pitch, let’s show them who we are.’”
Flamengo’s young coach, Paulo César Carpegiani, had procured VHS tapes of Liverpool’s European Cup campaign to help his players prepare, but, Nunes remembers, “I didn’t really care about that stuff. I just wanted to train and let the opponents worry about me. And I made sure they were worried about me.”
After 12 minutes Zico saw Nunes making a run between Phil Neal and Phil Thompson. The Brazil No 10 played a perfectly weighted pass over Thompson’s head and, with his first touch, Nunes dinked the ball around the onrushing Bruce Grobbelaar.
“Zico and I could understand each other with just a glance,” Nunes says. “That first one I scored, [was because] I had good acceleration … He was confident in making the pass because he knew I’d get there. Everything we did in training came off.”
Andrade recalls: “At the time people said that English football was played with a lot of aerial balls. But that ended up not happening. We took the initiative.” Before long they had extended their lead.
Grobbelaar got down to parry Zico’s free-kick after half an hour but Adílio reacted quickest and pushed the ball over the line. Five minutes before the break Zico again saw Liverpool’s defence pushing up and played another immaculate pass in behind. Nunes took one touch into the penalty area and drove the ball past Grobbelaar with his second.
“Zico was the great player in that team,” Andrade says. “But alongside him there was a lot of quality … It was a doddle in the first half. In the second half we managed the game.”
In his autobiography, My Liverpool Home, Kenny Dalglish expends more effort recalling the golf driving range he, Graeme Souness and Terry McDermott visited beforehand than he does on the match, suggesting they did not take it entirely seriously. “If Liverpool had won,” he wrote, “we wouldn’t have been gloating about being champions of the world.”
But that, perhaps, does not tell the entire story. Paisley was informed of the death of Grobbelaar’s father before they travelled to Japan and deliberately kept the information from his goalkeeper to maintain his focus on the game; not the act of a man to whom victory was unimportant.
Liverpool had refused to participate in the Intercontinental Cup after winning the European title in 1977 and 1978, worried about the potential for brutality on the part of the South Americans. With that still in mind the Liverpool manager readied his side for a battle. Instead, they were played off the park.
According to Eduardo Monsanto, the author of a book about Flamengo’s 1981 season, “essentially, the reason for Flamengo’s superiority was their quality. Liverpool were competitive, but Flamengo had the foundations of the 1982 Seleção, with Júnior and Leandro at full back and Zico, the game changer.”
Andrade argues: “When you lose, [you say] it’s not important. You try to devalue your opponent’s achievement. [Only] when they win will they know the importance of the Mundial.”
Nunes’ voice fills with pride at the thought of that chant about December 1981 booming around the Maracanã: “The homage Flamengo fans pay us is deserved. It’s the proof of the love they have for the club and its history.”
• The original version of this article was published on Yellow and Green Football