The Saturday Profile
Off the Field, a Woman Tames Brazil’s Soccer Fans
Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Published: February 25, 2011RIO DE JANEIRO
AS the gregarious Ronaldinho, one of the world’s best soccer players, emerged this month from the locker room in his black-and-red Flamengo club jersey and pulling at his trademark ponytail, fans erupted in applause. But a group of shirtless men in the seats below had their sights on someone else, turning toward a private box above and chanting.
“Pa-tri-cia! Pa-tri-cia!” they shouted. “We love you!”
Patricia Amorim, the president of Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular sports club, blushed and acknowledged them with a small wave.
It was a hopeful moment for Ms. Amorim, a former Olympic swimmer, after a year to forget as the first woman to run the 115-year-old club.
Last year, the police charged Flamengo’s soccer goalie and captain, Bruno Fernandes das Dores de Souza, with murder in the disappearance of a former lover who claimed to have had his child. Another star player, Adriano Leite Ribeiro, struggled with alcoholism and was questioned about possible ties to drug traffickers.
The series of events, seemingly outside of Ms. Amorim’s control, painted a picture of a club that lacked discipline, and it fueled sexist notions that a woman could not manage a Brazilian soccer team, especially one as beloved as Flamengo to its estimated 35 million fans.
“She had all the bad luck she could think of,” said Ruy Castro, who has written a book about Flamengo.
Rumors that some club members wanted to impeach Ms. Amorim began circulating in the media once the beleaguered Flamengo soccer team — which had won the Brazilian championship in 2009 — began losing games and had trouble filling the stands.
A seasoned competitor, Ms. Amorim, 42, tried not to curse her misfortune.
“Sometimes we think something is just so horrible that there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “But you might have been lucky to go through all that because you can turn it around even faster.”
In soccer-obsessed Brazil, there is no team more popular or with more history than Flamengo, which is based in Rio. What began as a team that was followed by the elite grew into the club of the masses, rising in popularity during the early days of national radio broadcasts in the 1930s, when Rio was still the capital of Brazil.
Ms. Amorim spent her life trying to scale the conservative, male-dominated culture of Flamengo, which started as a rowing club and branched out into other sports, including Olympic events like swimming, water polo, basketball and volleyball. She reached the summit in December 2009 when club members, in a surprise, elected her as president.
Ms. Amorim grew up just a few blocks from the sprawling but aging Flamengo headquarters, nestled on a congested corner in Rio’s trendy South Zone. Her father is a jazz and bossa nova bassist. Her mother was a primary-school teacher.
Swimming became her obsession early on. When she was 3, a doctor recommended that her mother enroll her older sister Paula in swimming classes to help with her asthma; Patricia tagged along.
Just two years later, accompanied by an instructor and a rescue boat, Patricia was swimming across Guanabara Bay in Rio, a distance of more than a mile. “She wasn’t even a little scared,” said her mother, Tania Amorim.
A framed photo from that day now sits in Patricia Amorim’s Flamengo office; it shows her in a bathing suit among swimmers almost twice her size.
Deborah Frochtengarten, a lifelong friend of Ms. Amorim’s and a fellow swimmer, remembered her as having something to prove. “She wasn’t that tall; she wasn’t that strong,” Ms. Frochtengarten said. “But she was the first to arrive to the pool and the last to leave.”
MS. Amorim was still in her teens when she qualified for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, finishing 11th in the four-by-100 relay. She won 28 titles in Brazil before retiring in 1991.
While working and training at Flamengo, Ms. Amorim developed a taste for politics and was elected to Rio’s city council in 2000; she is now in her third term. She and her husband, Fernando Sihman, an economist and former Brazilian volleyball player whom she met at a competition in Israel, have four children and lean on their families to help out.
Despite her political career, the sporting world and Flamengo had always been her first loves. And in 2009, she was supported by Helio Ferraz, a former Flamengo president, in her bid to lead the club.
“Her time had come,” said Mr. Ferraz, now Flamengo’s vice president. “She is a Flamengo icon, has youth and warmth, and she brought with her a new generation of professional executives.”
But because she came from an Olympics background — and was a woman — some Flamengo followers were skeptical about her soccer acumen.
“As I told her, the problem in Brazil is that everybody understands soccer, they really get it, so everybody has an opinion,” Mr. Ferraz said.
Those doubts and prejudices became magnified in June when Mr. de Souza, the former goalie, was taken into custody in the disappearance of his former lover, Eliza Samudio, 25, a case that riveted the nation. In December, a court convicted Mr. de Souza of kidnapping and torturing Ms. Samudio, whose body has not been found. He remains jailed and faces a separate charge of murder.
“This affected the team and the fans,” Ms. Amorim said. “People did not really go to the stadiums. It was a sad time for Flamengo.”
The murder investigation compounded fans’ despair over the behavior of Mr. Ribeiro, a Rio native who had returned from Italy to play for Flamengo but then moved into the dangerous slum where he had grown up. He was questioned by prosecutors about possible connections to the slum’s top drug trafficker. In July, he returned to Italy.
Ms. Amorim said she tried to “get the house in order,” turning to the writings of other leaders, like President Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope,” for inspiration. When she held hands with members of the club’s junior boys’ team before their championship game in January, she talked about the difference between “dreaming and reality.”
That distance, she said, “is called confidence.”
In the end, nothing came of the impeachment rumors. The junior team ended up winning the championship, and Ms. Amorim excited many fans by signing Ronaldinho, who, at age 30, was interested in returning to his homeland from Italy.
SHE approached the negotiations in a hands-on way, meeting with him three times, keeping the talks out of the newspapers and wooing his brother, who acts as Ronaldinho’s manager.
Some wonder if Ronaldinho’s best playing days are behind him. But his arrival “brought back the spirit of joy” to the embattled team even before he took the field, Ms. Amorim said.
She said he could help transform Flamengo into another Barcelona, the powerful Spanish team where Ronaldinho once found glory. The deal that Ronaldinho signed requires Flamengo to pay only 25 percent of his salary. A sports marketing company, Traffic, will pay the rest and expects a rush of marketing opportunities, Ms. Amorim said.
To become more like Barcelona, she added, Flamengo needs to develop better players at home — and keep them from leaving to play abroad. Brazil’s booming economy is helping the country’s clubs close the payroll gap with foreign teams, and Flamengo’s revenues have more than quadrupled since 2003, Mr. Ferraz said.
“If Flamengo wins two or three major titles this year, she’s liable to be considered one of our greatest presidents,” said Mr. Castro, the author.
As Ronaldinho took the field this month, there were no fans urging Ms. Amorim to “go back to the kitchen” or to “go take care of the house and kids,” as she said they did last year.
“People underestimate you,” she said. “Now, I think they are no longer underestimating me.”