Fluminense, after 121 years since its founding, is the champion of the Copa Libertadores of America.
The Tricolor of the Laranjeiras defeated Boca Juniors 2-1 at Maracanã in extra time.
Fluminense’s Journey to the Final
It wasn’t easy to reach the final. We’re talking about the most technically challenging football competition outside of Europe. When it comes to facing traditional opponents, passionate fans, and weak officiating, this is undoubtedly the toughest tournament in the world.
Fluminense’s journey, in addition to its inherent difficulties, also had highly capable opponents along the way. In Group D, alongside River Plate, Sporting Cristal, and The Strongest, Diniz’s team knew they wouldn’t have an easy ride.
The team made its debut away from home, against Sporting Cristal in Peru. The well-coached team by Thiago Nunes took the lead, but couldn’t withstand the pressure from the Cariocas. Fluminense turned the game around with two goals from Cano and one from Vitor Mendes, concluding the match with a 3-1 score.
In the next round, it was time to greet the fans at their home, Maracanã. The opponent was The Strongest. While in the past, the Bolivians were only challenging at high altitudes, today was different. They put up a good fight, but Nino, the goal-scoring defender, secured a 1-0 victory for Flu.
It was in the clash between the two traditional teams in the group that Fluminense showed its potential. They handed River Plate a resounding and historic 5-1 defeat at Maracanã. The team delivered one of the greatest performances in its history. Cano scored a hat-trick, supported by two goals from Arias. The duo was spectacular.
Image: Marcelo Gonçalves/FFC
In the fourth round, there was a scare. The Strongest returned the favor from Maracanã, winning 1-0 at the Bolivian altitude. With the defeat, the group started to get congested.
The situation became even more complicated when River Plate defeated Fluminense 2-0 at Monumental de Nunez.
As a result, the teams from Group D went into the final round with a chance of qualifying. Fluminense only managed a 1-1 draw with Sporting Cristal at home, while River Plate defeated The Strongest in Buenos Aires.
Both results were enough to secure their spots in the knockout stage.
Fluminense finished first in the group with 10 points, the same as River but with a superior goal difference.
In the round of 16, the Tricolor Carioca faced Argentino Juniors, a good team at the time, coached by Gabriel Milito.
In the first leg, it ended in a 1-1 draw. However, the most memorable moment of the match was the injury to player Luciano Sanchez, who suffered a severe fracture after Marcelo accidentally stepped on his leg.
At Maracanã, the Argentinians gave it their all, but Fluzão won the match 2-0 and advanced to the quarter-finals.
The next opponent was Olímpia, which had heroically eliminated Flamengo, Fluminense’s biggest rival, in the round of 16.
Despite this, Diniz’s Tricolor was clinical. They won the first leg at home 2-0. In Paraguay, at the packed Defensores del Chaco stadium, they won 3-1, with outstanding performances from Cano and John Kennedy. No chance for the three-time champion Olímpia.
In the semifinals, it was a Brazilian showdown. Undoubtedly, the most thrilling clash of the entire 2023 Copa Libertadores. Internacional and Fluminense played two spectacular games, with a show of support from the fans and players on the field.
In the first leg at Maracanã, the game started fiercely, with chances for both sides, but Fluminense opened the scoring.
At the end of the first half, Samuel Xavier was sent off, changing the course of the game. Inter knew how to exploit the extra man and turned the game around. However, Cano was in one of those unstoppable forms, scoring two goals to secure the draw.
In the second leg at Beira-Rio, everything seemed lost. Inter took an early lead and had chances to extend their advantage and seal the game, especially through Enner Valencia.
Despite having dangerous attempts, Internacional failed to secure the game, leaving it open.
Thus, ten minutes before the end of the match, the duo Cano and Kennedy decided the match and took Fluminense to the final.
Image: MAURO PIMENTEL / AFP
The Final Between Fluminense and Boca Juniors
On one side, the opportunity to equal Independiente as the most successful team in the history of the Libertadores. On the other, a team with a strong national tradition but not the same international pedigree as some Brazilian teams.
When it came to tradition in the competition, everything indicated an easy victory for the Argentines.
But when it came to technical quality, tactics, and understanding of the game, the Brazilians seemed to have the upper hand.
Which of these virtues would prevail? We already know the answer.
The first half wasn’t filled with excitement, to be honest.
As expected, Boca Juniors used tight marking, seeking to close spaces and press the ball, switching between high, low, and medium pressure. The solution found by Fernando Diniz was to implement quick passing, through triangles and overlapping runs, especially down the flanks.
These tactical arrangements became evident around the 35th minute. Diniz went against the conventional, which would have been Keno on one wing and Arias on the other.
Both players, with extreme technical quality, speed, and physical strength, crowded the right side of the Tricolor attack. With a quick exchange of passes between them and Samuel Xavier, who made strong supporting runs, Keno delivered a beautiful assist to the goal-scoring machine, Germán Cano.
The Argentine, with his trademark goal-scoring instinct, took a first-time shot to open the scoring.
In the second half, Boca Juniors switched roles. They sought to have more possession and pressure Fluminense.
The Tricolor, on the other hand, spent much of the second half on the defensive, which allowed Boca to grow into the game. The most concerning issue was that, despite having a very deep defensive line and players available to mark the Argentines, the Brazilian team had loose marking.
That’s how Advincula received the ball wide, calmly carried it to the center, and struck it with his left foot, finding the corner of the net. The Xeneize leveled the game at 72 minutes.
The match remained tense until the end of regular time, except for a beautiful strike from Boca that narrowly missed the post.
At the end of the match, Fernando Diniz introduced John Kennedy, which would change the course of the competition.
In the 99th minute, the destined one, John Kennedy, received a header from Keno. The ball fell cleanly to the 21-year-old to unleash a powerful shot and score the title-winning goal.
In the celebration, emotions overflowed. Kennedy crossed the entire field to embrace Fluminense’s supporters, but referee Wilmar Roldán issued a second yellow card and sent the young player off.
Could Fluminense hold onto the result with one player less?
The Tricolor of the Laranjeiras would receive help from a Boca Juniors player. Fabra, who had, on multiple occasions, engaged in unsportsmanlike conduct, to put it mildly, did so once again.
In the 2020 Libertadores, when Boca Juniors was being outplayed by Santos in the semifinals, Fabra stepped on Marinho’s belly in a shocking incident.
Once again, the full-back couldn’t handle defeat, as usual, and slapped Nino in the face.
The referee, Wilmar Roldán, apparently saw the incident but only showed a yellow card, which would have been absurd. Fortunately, VAR intervened and indicated that the player should be sent off.
As a result, both teams were reduced to 10 players for the second half of extra time.
After that, Boca Juniors struggled to threaten Fluminense’s goal.
With the final whistle, the Maracanã reached its climax. Fluminense secured its first-ever Copa Libertadores title.
Image: Esporte News Mundo
Cano, Diniz and Kennedy
Clearly, each of the players, staff, and coaching team of Fluminense played a crucial role in winning the club’s most important title. However, these three names mentioned above can be considered the pillars of the victory. Let’s understand why.
Image: Lucas Merçon/FFC
The most Brazilian Argentine. Germán Cano is a strong contender for the 2023 King of America.
He was simply unstoppable in the competition, finishing the tournament with more goals than games played. He scored 13 goals in 12 matches, becoming the top scorer by a wide margin.
He scored in crucial moments, recorded a hat-trick, and, above all, was a beast in defense.
A selfless player, he gave his all for the team in every situation. Even as a center forward, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cano deep in Fluminense’s defensive half, covering spaces and defending with strength.
He was simply essential in every sense.
Diniz and Kennedy
Image: REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
The destinies of these two were intertwined.
Diniz represents courage, and more than that, it’s courage combined with a revolutionary style of playing football.
In a world where positional play is the norm, he defies convention and manages to play excellent football with frequent position swaps and intuitive movements in spaces, bringing out the players’ creative sides.
However, his role as a coach goes beyond the four lines. Trained as a psychologist, he can see beyond the athlete and into the human being. He seeks to understand the players’ backgrounds and histories, which, in a country like Brazil, often involve adversity.
With John Kennedy, it was no different. In 2022, his car was seized with two pounds of marijuana in it.
Kennedy wasn’t even present at the time of the seizure, but this story was enough for Fluminense’s management to label him as a “problem child.”
In 2023, he was loaned to Ferroviária, where he had a successful Campeonato Paulista, making him eligible to return to the club.
Fernando Diniz, on the other hand, always showed strong support for Kennedy and said in an interview back in 2022 that the young man would overcome his troubles, touching on some very interesting social and psychological aspects.
The fact is that John Kennedy scored goals in every stage of the Libertadores knockout rounds, playing a crucial role in winning the title.
The most memorable moment of the final was before extra time. Fernando Diniz called John Kennedy and, in his usual passionate style, shouted the following words:
“You can make history for America. There’s only one who takes the title, and you’re going to score the title-winning goal!”
Image: CARL DE SOUZA / AFP
As if that wasn’t enough, audio recordings have circulated on the internet in which John Kennedy responds to his friends about whether he’s nervous about the final.
He reportedly said he was sure he would score the title-winning goal.
The outcome unfolded just as predicted by Diniz and Kennedy. Today, Fluminense can proudly say they are the champions of the Copa Libertadores of America!
Written by Vitor F L Miller.