Think you can do better? Fine!

When Brazilian journalist Washington Rodrigues criticised football club Flamengo, the president made him manager. Phil Davison reports
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The Independent Online
Just suppose that Manchester United were bottom of the League. They sack their manager, Alex Ferguson. Then, with the country's leading coaches queueing up to replace him, the United board announce a shock successor: John Motson, the TV commentator, and United's fiercest critic during their decline. It sounds ridiculous, but that, in essence, is what happened in Brazil last month, when Flamengo sacked their manager and called in one of the country's top TV pundits to run the side.

Washington Rodrigues, an affable, overweight 59-year-old father of three, had covered Flamengo for 35 years for radio, TV and the newspaper Jornal de los Esportes. After the team he supported all his life finished 17th of 24 in last year's Brazilian championship, then lost to arch-rivals Fluminense in the final of the regional Rio de Janeiro league, he wrote that they were demoralised and needed a morale-booster.

With Flamengo's 100th anniversary coming up on November 15 and major celebrations planned, the club was desperate to get out of the rut.

"The Flamengo president, Kleber Leite, an old friend, called me into his office on 11 September, said something had to be done and that we should both propose new managers and compare notes. I said my money would be on Tele Santana," said Rodrigues, referring to the former Brazil manager, who is now with the First Division side Sao Paulo. "Kleber looked at me and said: 'I've got a better candidate. You'."

Rodrigues recalls his reaction: "I thought he was joking." Leite, however, was extremely serious. "He said, 'Well, you've been following this team longer than just about anybody else. Here's a chance to put your money where your mouth is'." Rodrigues took a 90-day sabbatical from his various media jobs and assumed his new role two days later, with Flamengo paying him around pounds 60,000 for the period he will be in charge.

Flamengo are the only Brazilian club side with true nationwide support, in a country that is famously fanatical about its football. Whichever city you're in, north or south, thousands of miles apart, you'll see men walking around the streets in the red-and-black strip of the rubronegros. First formed as a rowing club for wealthy whites in 1895 - its title and logo remains CRF (Club de Regatas do Flamengo, or Flamengo Rowing Club) - the club began kicking footballs on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo district in 1911. Flamengo went on to 22 Rio championships and five Brazilian titles after the national league was formed in 1971. Their fans expect much of them.

Rodrigues has tried not to let the new job and pressure affect his personal life. Unless the team is ensconced in its out-of-town training camp at Teresopolis, he likes to sip a beer after work with his fellow sportswriters to a background of samba music in one of Ipanema's many bars. Nor has team management forced him to trade in his favourite jeans and waistcoat.

Despite a recent spate of kidnappings in Rio, Rodrigues drives to his office and training ground at La Gavea, on the edge of the glitzy Ipanema district, driving his own family saloon. His wife, Maria Lucia, and their youngest son, Bruno, 14, often come along to watch him put the players through their paces. He has another son, Washington, 16, and a daughter Patricia, 21.

Although an unashamed Flamengo fanatic since childhood, Rodrigues' writing for the Jornal de los Esportes was considered relatively impartial. But that was harder to sustain when he commented "live" on Flamengo games for the Radio O Globo network, where he made his name. Like many of his Brazilian colleagues, he was able to stretch the word "gol" out for 15 seconds' duration if it was Flamengo who had knocked one in.

Football on radio remains a way of life in Brazil, refusing to bow to TV. At any Brazilian league match, every second fan will have a transistor radio held to his ear, or a Walkman with headphones, to listen to the "live" radio commentary for that extra sense of atmosphere. That's how Rodrigues became a household name among football fans, who nicknamed him Apolinho - little Apollo.

His tenure started well. He steered the side to a 3-2 win in the first leg of a South American Supercup tie but that (followed by a second-leg victory over Velez) was just about the only bright spot of his first month in charge.

Brazil's league championship is a complex affair in two phases, each with two groups of teams. The teams who finish top of their group in the first phase automatically qualify for the four-team knock-out round at the end of the season. But they participate in the second phase anyway. Flamengo, who finished bottom of their first phase group, will have to finish top in the second phase to get into the knock-out.

Failure to qualify would not normally be disastrous. Even Liverpool have bad years. The problem this year is the fact that Flamengohas spent well over $10m of borrowed money to build what fans hoped would be "the dream team", which includes the star of the 1994 Brazilian World Cup team, Romario.

Rubbing it in for Flamengo fans is the fact that arch-rivals Fluminense, with a team that cost relatively little, have fared far better this year, topping their first phase group and therefore already qualifying for the final four knock-out.

Romario has been scoring sporadically, showing a fighting spirit and mostly retaining the affection of the fans, but the performances of the other star in the team, Edmundo, have been dismal. After the recent "local derby" against Fluminense, known as the Flu-Fla game, fans threw stones at Edmundo only to find that "The Animal" lived up to his nickname by throwing them back. Both Romario and Edmundo were missing from Wednesday's Flamengo line-up in the first leg of a South American Supercup match against Nacional in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, because of a brawl they were involved in in the previous round against Argentina's Velez Sarsfield. It wasn't lost on the Flamengo fans that their team played better without the highly paid stars and beat the favoured home side 1-0 in Montevideo. What's more, it was a home-grown player who cost the team nothing, Savio, who scored the only goal.

Edmundo, the man who was welcomed to Rio in a convoy of fire engines and circus elephants earlier this year, is now the players fans increasingly want to see sold. The daily O Globo reported yesterday that he may follow close to the footsteps of Juninho by joining Newcastle for an estimated $7m.

It's a sorry phase for the club whose motto is "The Most Beloved in Brazil" and which, with the help of the legendary Zico, demolished Liverpool 3- 0 in 1981 to claim the title of the world's best side.With an estimated 35 million fans in Brazil and abroad, president Kleite has launched a campaign to get 0.1 percent of those fans, or 35,000 people, to become shareholders in return for monthly payments of $50 a head. "That would save us from the shipwreck," he said, suggesting that the debt could be paid off within little more than a year.

Making matters worse for Flamengo, although it's a problem shared by Rio rivals Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco de Gama, is the fact that for most of this season they have had no home ground. Due to a partly-financial, partly-political dispute with the state of Rio de Janeiro, owners of the mighty Maracana, the stadium has lain disused for weeks.

"The state wants too much of a cut, 30 to 35 percent," says Rodrigues. Others told me the question was political, with Rio governor Marcello Alencar using the stadium as a lever of power with a view to re-opening it to applause nearer re-election time.

The clubs have taken the Rio Sports Administration (Suderj) to court and, every week, fans do not know until the last minute where their team is going to play its supposed home games. To get better gates - because of their nationwide popularity - they have taken to playing "home games" in cities and towns hundreds of miles from Rio.

Still, the jowly Rodrigues perseveres. He knows that anything short of total victory over the next week or two will mean the championship is out of reach and that he will be politely sacked. "That doesn't matter. But every time Flamengo loses, it's like a dagger in the ribs to me. Whatever happens, I'm going back to journalism after my 90 days is up. You might say I was called up. It's a kind of military service.

"I'd far rather be a journalist. A manager has very little influence. The most he can really do is correct things. For example, I'm trying to get the players to shoot from outside the box. But they're Brazilians. They want to walk it into the net."