(Reuters) - The relegation of Botafogo and Vasco da Gama to Brazil’s Serie B has served a hammer blow to two of Rio de Janeiro’s most storied clubs and focused attention on what appears to be a chasm growing between the city’s footballing have and have-nots.
Rio has long been a city marked by inequality, with stunning beaches, topography and culture, as well as grinding poverty and violence.
It is also famous for its football; home to the renowned Maracana stadium and the place where players such as Ronaldo, Romario and Zico first kicked a ball.
But while city rivals Flamengo won their second consecutive league title on Thursday, and Fluminense finished fifth to secure a place in next year’s Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the relegation of Botafogo and Vasco points to a widening gap.
Flamengo are unquestionably the dominant team in the city, finishing higher than their rivals every year since 2014, and Fluminense are on a solid footing.
Recent performances aside, Vasco and Botafogo remain two of the biggest names in world football.
Studies show Vasco are Rio’s second best-supported club behind Flamengo and with a proud history as one of the first clubs in Brazil to include Black players in their team.
Botafogo has fewer major titles but as a former home to greats such as Garrincha, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho it is perhaps better known outside Brazil.
However, neither club has won the first division since Vasco in 2000 and since then both have suffered repeated relegations. This is Vasco's fourth descent in 13 years and Botafogo's third since 2002.
Both teams face severe financial difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and poor planning.
Botafogo last year signed two expensive but ageing foreign players in Japan's Keisuke Honda and Salomon Kalou of the Ivory Coast. Neither hit the heights expected of them, with Honda abandoning the city after less than a year.
"He was fed up," Kalou told the BBC, adding that the club paid wages late and had a project that "wasn't well thought through."
Botafogo have hired five coaches since June, one of whom, Argentine Ramon Diaz, never even managed a game before he was sacked.
Vasco, meanwhile, have used three different coaches this season.
Adding to their troubles, the debt-laden clubs had tumultuous elections for club president recently that led to instability behind the scenes.
"Botafogo are living through one of the saddest moments in its history," said Botafogo's new president Durcesio Mello. "Lots of mistakes were made on and off the field."
The challenge for them now will be getting out of Brazil’s second tier.
Both teams bounced straight back up again after past relegations. But a change in financing that stopped relegated clubs from receiving a golden parachute now makes an immediate return much harder.
That was evident to Cruzeiro, one of the two big sides in Belo Horizonte. Cruzeiro were relegated in 2019 and stripped of a financial cushion, they finished 11th in the Serie B this season.
Next year all three big clubs, along with 17 other ambitious ones, will be battling for the four promotion places in what promises to be a real dog-fight.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie in London; Editing by Christian Radnedge)