A torrential storm fell on Rio de Janeiro late on Tuesday afternoon. But the flood was nothing compared to the river of tears shed by fans of Brazilian giants Flamengo, who fell 3-2 to Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the semifinal of the Club World Cup.
Since the current format was established in 2005, this is the sixth time that the South American champions have fallen at the semifinal stage. The game is an emotional nightmare — so close to the paradise of a dream final versus European champions Real Madrid, and yet so close to humiliation — which is how defeat will inevitably be viewed back home.
And Al Hilal were always unlikely to make things easy. Designated as the representative from Asia, they have built up considerable experience in this competition. They played well in a semifinal versus Flamengo in 2019 before going down 3-1, and gave an even better account of themselves a year ago in a 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Chelsea. They deserve their moment.
Flamengo travelled to Morocco with extremely high hopes. They have a deep squad, full of attacking options. Going into the tournament there were two causes for concern. First, would a front-loaded side be able to defend at this level? Second, might it matter too much? Winning this trophy is the dream of all South American clubs. Would this prove a heavy responsibility to bear? Flamengo were undone by both of these worries.
Before the game Al Hilal’s Argentine coach Ramon Diaz had complained that the format gives the South Americans an undue advantage. They come straight in at the semifinal stage, while his team had already played a quarterfinal match — where they lost powerful midfielder Mohamed Kanno to a red card.
Flamengo’s defensive unit collapsed right at the start.
Al Hilal moved the ball smartly from right to left, with Argentine striker Luciano Vietto running round the outside, only to be bundled over by right-back Matheuzinho. Salem Al Dawsari, who scored Saudi Arabia’s group stage winner over Argentina at the World Cup, this time fired home from the penalty spot against Flamengo.
Diaz had sprung a surprise with his team selection. Colombian Gustavo Cuellar was his only out and out midfielder, with Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo improvised alongside him, replacing Kanno. It permitted Flamengo space in the centre to build some rhythm. Their fast passing moves started to flow, and before the twenty-minute mark they were level, a shrewd pass from Matheuzinho allowing centre-forward Pedro to score with a typically precise cross shot.
At this point they looked on course for a fairly comfortable win. But the bad start — opening up the dreadful possibility of defeat — had taken its toll. Flamengo were nervous, and picked up yellow cards as a consequence. One — a crude attempt to win a penalty with a dive — went to midfielder Gerson.
Brought back from Europe for a second time, Gerson is the club’s main reinforcement for this season. The price of his signing was the transfer of Joao Gomes to Wolverhampton Wanderers. In an attack-minded side, the lung power of Joao Gomes was an important balance. The left-footed Gerson is very talented, but he is a different type of central midfielder. Indeed, after his experiences in Europe, some doubt that he is a central midfielder at all. He did far better for Marseille higher up the field in an old inside right position, and Flamengo coach Vitor Pereira often used him there in this game.
In the second half, though, he could not be used at all as he was sent off and gave away a penalty just before the interval. Pinned back for a while, Al Hilal had worked their way up the field, and Vietto had his ankle snapped back by an unwise Gerson tackle. It was hard to spot with the naked eye, but the VAR image was clear enough. Flamengo protested — and will protest away. But the decision was probably fair enough, and Al Dawsari scored his second on the night from the spot.
Flamengo, then, were a goal down and a man down, with coach Pereira worried about how to balance out his side as they chased the game. He took off Giorgian De Arrascaeta, one of his main constructive players, to bring on Chilean holding midfielder Erick Pulgar.
It was a conspicuous failure. Under pressure Flamengo played an awful second half, neither attacking nor defending well. Half way through the second half winger Everton Soares came on for Everton Ribeiro, the club’s other attacking midfielder, and the team was bereft of ideas — while still defending badly. Pulgar lost possession and a three man Al Hilal move ended with Vietto firing a fierce shot in off the bar, and the game was as good as over. There was a brief late rally when a shot deflected kindly for Pedro to tap home his and Flamengo’s second.
But, missing a few clear chances along the way, Al Hilal held on for a deserved win — and Flamengo trudged off to face the post mortem.
There is one way that Flamengo’s Club World Cup campaign can be partially redeemed — if Real Madrid lose to Al Ahly of Egypt in Wednesday’s other semifinal, and then Flamengo defeats them to claim third place on Saturday. But even that will feel hollow.
The bad news for South American football is that, after this sixth semifinal defeat since 2010, the continent’s right to an automatic place in this stage of the competition must surely come under question.