Football: The fall and fall of once-famous Fluminense

Brazil's most traditional club is the latest, and most celebrated, victim of the chaos in the country's football. By Tim Vickery in Rio de Janeiro
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THE ORGANISATIONAL and financial chaos of Brazilian football - cited in these pages as a key factor in the World Cup defeat - claimed its biggest victim so far when Fluminense were recently relegated to the third division.

It could well mark the end of professional football at Brazil's most traditional club - it is months since Fluminense have paid their players and staff, and there would seem to be no chance of the club remaining viable - unless there is a reprieve. It is not completely out of the question. In the Brazilian game a good lawyer is as important as a goalkeeper. Fluminense are clinging to the hope that other clubs will lose points for fielding ineligible players, and compensation will be found in the tribunal for poor performances on the field.

There are those inside the game who feel that, despite three consecutive relegations, Fluminense should be restored to the first division. A club of many conquests, they are "too big" to languish in such disgrace. The players have continued training while their destiny is decided. A recent session came to an abrupt end when it was announced that the water in the showers was running out. The sprint to the changing-rooms was described as the fastest the players had moved all season.

For the Rio de Janeiro club's many supporters the accumulated humiliation of the last years has been too much to bear. This season's home games were held in small grounds in the suburbs or played in front of a few thousand in the giant Maracana. The fear - well-grounded - was that had they used their own stadium an angry mob would have destroyed the place.

Their Laranjeiras ground is the country's oldest. It is where Brazil played their first game, against Exeter City in 1914. The cricket-style pavilion is an eloquent expression of the club's aristocratic origins. Founded in 1902 by some of the upper class, Fluminense never lost their connection with the Rio elite. Their mascot is a man in a top hat, and their nickname is "rice-powder", which up until the 1950s the club's black players used to lighten their skin before playing.

The former Fifa president Joao Havelange has a long association with Fluminense - the greatest hope of club insiders was that he would take over at Laranjeiras after stepping down from Fifa. But Havelange recognised that the cause was lost and turned the offer down. The club had a squad of more than 60 professionals. If they were unable to form a decent team from that lot, they were beyond help.

In addition to their own administrative incompetence, the club were sunk by the problems of Brazilian football. Attendances have plummeted as poverty, urban violence, appalling public transport and blanket TV coverage have all taken their toll. Season tickets are unheard of - no one can ever be sure when and where games will take place. The first six months of the year are given over to ludicrous regional championships, in which the big clubs waste their time playing tiny teams from the interior. These games make no football or financial sense, but are invaluable for those club directors who are launching or consolidating political careers, since they help to provide an electoral base in remote areas.

Hyper-inflation helped to paper over the cracks. The simple measure of paying the players late helped the clubs meet their commitments, but after Brazil stabilised its currency in 1994 Fluminense's freefall began and two years later they were relegated from the first division. But the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) cynically took advantage of a corruption scandal to keep them in the top flight. The CBF's man in charge of referees was caught offering favours to club directors who supported his political campaign. With a cloud of suspicion over the refereeing, the CBF said, no club should be relegated. Fluminense celebrated with champagne.

It was only a stay of execution. Last year's campaign was another disaster, and this time there was no let-off. The CBF chief Ricardo Teixeira is Havelange's former son-in-law. The favouritism he has shown to Havelange's team proved to be a political mistake - it gave a huge boost to Pele, the Sports Minister who was campaigning to clean up the Brazilian game.

Forced to play in the second division, Fluminense began their campaign with high hopes. Their opener was marketed as their first step on the way to the World Club Championship. They were soon 3-0 down. Results continued to be poor, and as disaster loomed all hopes were pinned on the return of Branco. Now 34, the ex-Middlesbrough man was the star of the show in his first game back. The next match was Fluminense's last, and they needed a win to ensure their safety. Branco was sent off and they held out for a 1-1 draw. The players then heard on the radio that a late goal in another game had sent them down - and perhaps kicked the future out of a famous old club.