Retrospective: Liverpool 0-3 Flamengo 1981

Retrospective: Liverpool 0-3 Flamengo 1981

Nunes Flamengo

Liverpool have more reason than most European clubs to avoid arrogance in the Club World Cup. Three times they have attempted to become champions of the world, and three times they have failed. It may be little more than a fancy Supercup, yet – in much the same way as the European Cup is obviously the greatest, most prestigious and most difficult trophy available, but most Liverpool supporters would probably trade in their chances at another if it guaranteed a Premier League victory – the absence of a Club World Cup in the trophy cabinet should probably lead Liverpool to take it more seriously than most even if it is generally a pretty meaningless honour.

Liverpool’s first attempt at becoming the official champions of the world came in 1981, after defeating Real Madrid in Paris to win the European Cup. They had the chance in 1977 and 1978 against Boca Juniors only to pull out of the tournament (Boca also pulled out of the second), but by 1981, the competition had been rebranded and teams were now contractually obligated to play, although the players didn’t necessarily feel the same. “There had been dispute with the club over payments,” Mark Lawrenson remembers, “as there was nothing in our contracts to say we had to play this game but, eventually, it was sorted out.

Liverpool - Flamengo line-ups

“We didn’t fully appreciate the demands of what was expected. We played Arsenal on a Tuesday night in the League Cup then got a coach to Heathrow. There was an issue with not being able to fly over Russian airspace at the time, so we had to go west to go east with a stop in Anchorage.

“As for the flight, you could say it was ‘relaxed’. Ted Croker, from the FA, was part of the group that travelled. When we met him at the airport, everyone greeted him as ‘Mr Croker’ – after nine hours out to Anchorage and a ‘few’ drinks, it was ‘all right, Ted!’

“The jetlag when we arrived was horrendous. We stayed by Tokyo Tower but nobody could sleep and a few of us ended up on a nearby driving range at 4am. It was no way to prepare for a game.

“We thought it was an exhibition but Flamengo – who had been in Japan for 10 days – had other ideas.”

And who can blame them? Less than a month previously, Flamengo had won the Campeonato Carioca – the Rio de Janiero state championship – over three legs against Vasco de Gama. Days before the first leg, former Flamengo manager Claudio Coutinho died in a scuba diving accident, but the club battled on.

That battle was taken somewhat literally in the Copa Libertadores, where Flamengo players claim to have been attacked with rocks by Cobreloa players. The match took place in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, which had been used as a detention facility by the United States and Margaret Thatcher-backed regime of Augusto Pinochet, torturing and executing prisoners after the coup d’etat in 1973. Flamengo took them to a replay and won the South American championship on neutral ground in Montevideo.

Coming off the back of those hard-fought victories to book their place in Tokyo, it’s little surprise that Flamengo were a bit more up for it than Liverpool.

“Winning the Mundial, for us in Brazil, is the biggest title that a club can win,” says midfielder Andrade. “To be world champions.

“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.

“We were playing at a really high level. 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.”

As Liverpool’s players nursed their hangovers, Flamengo’s went through their usual ritual. “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.'”

Junior’s liberal definition of the word pitch was referring to an oversized sandpit, but Liverpool soon seemed to acclimatise to the conditions, starting the match with their typical pass-and-move style. Bob Paisley set up his team in a 4-4-2 formation, however Sammy Lee and Ray Kennedy would tuck inside off the wings and Kenny Dalglish would drop back into midfield, making it easy for Liverpool to form little triangles to work the ball forward.

Paulo Carpegiani had Flamengo playing in a 4-2-1-3 shape. Leandro and Junior were the full-backs in the famous 1982 Brazil side, but Zico was the star: an untouchable playmaker spinning away from defenders to set up the front three of Tita, Nunes and Lico.

Liverpool started the match keeping good possession of the ball. Bruce Grobbelaar would roll the ball out to a defender and Flamengo would allow them to dribble out a little distance, blocking passes forward into midfield, before moving up to press the backline. Nunes would close down whichever centre-back had or was nearest to the ball while Tita and Lico would close down Lawrenson and Phil Neal respectively. Being the eighties, Liverpool’s reaction was simply to pass back to Grobbelaar, killing the pressure dead.

Flamengo press Liverpool high
Flamengo press Liverpool high

As Liverpool crowded the centre, they generally didn’t find it difficult to find a free man in midfield. With Neal pushing forward down the wing, Lee often staying wide and Craig Johnston making diagonal runs to the right, Graeme Souness always had an option to spread the ball wide or hit a ball over the top if he wanted to use his passing range.

Liverpool looked a bit lethargic, yes, but their game was based around intelligent short passing, so they were less affected than many other teams would have been. Only Alan Hansen looked really off the pace early on, uncharacteristically misplacing a couple of passes into midfield.

Flamengo certainly looked the more determined of the two teams though. They attacked quicker than Liverpool, often trying to get their attacking trio running in behind the backline as quickly as possible. Their main plan obviously consisted of getting the ball to Zico, who would quickly turn and immediately spray through balls forward for the attackers. The Flamengo captain put in one of the best performances you will see against Liverpool – even when surrounded by all four of Liverpool’s midfielders, he frequently managed to wriggle away and pick out an attacking pass.

Zico is surrounded by Liverpool players
Zico is surrounded by Liverpool players
Zico dribbles away from them and passes forward
Zico dribbles away from them and passes forward

If Flamengo didn’t want to risk passing into a marked Zico though, they had other ways of advancing the ball. Andrade picked out nice passes to the flanks, where Leandro and Junior would push forward from full-back. They would often send the ball down the line to the wingers then underlap, making runs through the centre to receive a one-two. If the wingers came short to receive the ball, the full-backs would sometimes overlap, pushing high up the pitch.

Junior moves high up the pitch
Junior moves high up the pitch

Flamengo took the lead when Zico dinked a perfect pass over the top to Nunes. Phil Thompson misjudged the flight of the ball, missing his header so that Nunes could run onto it ahead of Grobbelaar. It was a bad time for Thompson – with Liverpool in tenth position in the league coming into the match, he would be relieved of the captaincy in the new year.

Thompson misjudges the flight of Zico's pass, allowing Nunes to run in behind him
Thompson misjudges the flight of Zico’s pass, allowing Nunes to run in behind him

Having taken the lead, Flamengo eased off a bit. They stopped chasing after Liverpool’s defenders and instead sat back in a 4-2-4 (if that sounds too attacking to make sense, think of it as a 4-4-2 where the wingers stayed close to the opposition full-backs and Zico and Nunes blocked the passes into midfield).

When they had the ball, they were more patient, trying to manipulate Liverpool into leaving Zico free rather than immediately looking to play directly to their forwards. This was mainly achieved by passing to Andrade at the base of the midfield, who could bait Terry McDermott into pushing up, leaving Zico in more space. By now McDermott and Souness seemed to be really suffering, spending most of the time stood around with their hands on their hips and barely mustering more than a jog. Zico being on top form hardly eased their problems, with him twisting away from their challenges to run at the defence or play a through ball. Breaking through the midfield usually forced Hansen to step up to confront him, leaving a gap in the defence and Liverpool’s backline three against three when Flamengo’s forwards made runs in behind.

McDermott pushes up to close down Andrade
McDermott pushes up to close down Andrade
Zico receives the ball and turns
Zico receives the ball and turns
Hansen pushes up to close down Zico, leaving a gap in the defence
Hansen pushes up to close down Zico, leaving a gap in the defence

McDermott got frustrated enough with Zico’s ability to keep the ball no matter what he tried that he ended up just going straight through the back of the Brazilian after about half an hour. Grobbelaar parried the resulting free-kick straight into the path of Adilio to make it 2-0.

A third came minutes later, with Zico again picking up the ball and slipping the ball through to Nunes running in behind, shooting past Grobbelaar at the far post.

As Andrade puts it: “It was a doddle in the first half. In the second half we managed the game.” Flamengo came out and protected their lead well, making sure to get their back four, Andrade and Adilio behind the ball.

Liverpool’s intelligent passing allowed them to work the ball forward in the first half and their ability to pick out a pass made them look a threat on the counter. Nevertheless, while they could get the ball into the final third, they rarely looked like scoring. Johnston’s tireless running was a great addition to Liverpool – and the fact he even made it to this level is testament to his incredible work ethic – yet he lacked the technical ability of many of his teammates. As the focal point of the attack, the ball would frequently fall to him at key moments and, more often than not, Flamengo would then win it back.

Shortly into the second half, Paisley made a change, substituting McDermott for David Johnson. Liverpool switched to a 4-3-1-2, with Dalglish behind Johnston and Johnson. An extra man in attack gave the Flamengo backline more to think about and eased the dependence on Johnston to finish.

Liverpool went direct, looking to get the ball to their attackers quickly, but while they had the better of the second half, they never looked like mounting a comeback.

The win was the finishing touch on one of the greatest seasons in Flamengo’s history, immortalised in a song by their supporters.

38 years later, Liverpool get their chance at revenge. The odds are stacked more heavily in their favour this time around and we can only assume they are taking it more seriously, but, having had a tough time against Monterrey, they will need to work hard to ensure they avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.

“Looking back, it’s a bit of a regret,” says Lawrenson. “I won plenty of things with Liverpool but the Club World Cup would have been a nice addition.”

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