Some of the first football matches I ever went to in Brazil involved Fluminense, the team supported by my first friends in Rio.
We went to the Maracana (where else?), to watch them play, mostly in local derbies.
One of my outstanding memories of Brazilian football humour was when Fluminense scored against Flamengo and the Fluminense fans chanted, “Ela, ela, ela, Silencio na favela.”
The message “Silence in the favelas” was a clear wind up to the Flamengo fans. The team is the most popular in Brazil and many of its fans are drawn from Rio’s and Brazil’s lower classes.
That memory came back to me last week when Bruno (pictured below), the Flamengo captain and goalkeeper was arrested on suspicion of murder. (Details of the case are here in my Time magazine story.)
Bruno, like many Flamengo players, grew up poor and was suddenly catapulted to fame and fortune. He probably earned more in a month than his family – who abandoned him as a child – earned in their entire lifetime.
His arrest caps a miserable few months off the pitch for the Brazilian champions and comes at a time when the club was finally getting itself together after years of corruption and mismanagement. (I talk a bit about that period in this 2002 story for The Scotland on Sunday.)
Flamengo won its first league title for 17 years in December and has just elected a progressive female president. It scored a coup in convincing Zico, its greatest ever player, to return to Brazil and work for the club.
But its players continue to disgrace the club’s name. World Cup winner Adriano appeared in photographs with a machine gun and making gang signs alongside a Rio drug trafficker. He consistently missed training, fought publicly with his girlfriend, and was recently sold to Roma.
His partner up front Wagner Love was recently hauled before police after he was filmed attending a funk ball in a Rio favela with bazooka wielding drug traffickers providing him security.
It’s tempting to see that sort of behaviour as somehow linked to the club’s ties to Brazil’s poor and that favela culture.
But more relevant is Flamengo’s tolerance of such acts and the increasing trouble that they and other clubs have in dealing with them.
One of the most surprising facts about Brazilian football clubs is that they openly have two sets of rules. There is one code of conduct for the big stars and another for the rest. The stars not only get much higher salaries, they also get more time off and other perks.
In most countries it would led to revolt or outright battles but most Brazilian football players are too submissive to complain. The stars can always threaten to leave if their perks are withdrawn.
There are spoiled football players at most clubs. They get so much money these days that they consider themselves above the rest of humanity – especially fans.
But in condoning such behaviour clubs like Flamengo are sending the wrong message to players who often don’t have the education or savvy to cope with the demands and rules of the real world.
It is not easy for players like Adriano and Love, who grew up in favelas, to avoid knowing the gang figures who control what goes on there. But clubs need to be firmer and let them know what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t.
As long as they don’t, they risk sending players like Bruno the message they can get away with murder. They can’t.