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Deadly fire hangs over success of top Brazilian soccer club

RIO DE JANEIRO – When Marília de Barros Silva heard reports that the popular Brazilian soccer club Flamengo was signing a player for almost 17 million euros ($18.6 million), she felt sadness — but also resentment.

For a year, she has been trying in vain to reach a settlement with the Rio de Janeiro club after her teenage son Arthur Vinicius died in a fire that engulfed his dormitory at the team's academy for young players.

De Barros Silva says she was incredulous over the amount being paid for the team's new star. She says it dwarfs the amount that she and the public defender's office had been trying to get Flamengo to pay in compensation for the loss of her son, a promising defender who had played for Brazil’s under-17 team.

Saturday marked one year since the fire killed 10 of Flamengo's academy players, all between 14 and 16 years old. It was “the worst tragedy” in the team's 124-year history, club president Rodolfo Landim has repeatedly said since.

Against that grim backdrop, Flamengo turned in one of its best seasons in decades. The team won the Rio state championship, its first Brazilian national league championship since 2009 and the prestigious Copa Libertadores in a nail-biting final against Argentina’s River Plate. Flamengo hadn’t won the South American crown for 38 years.

But while its 2019 success helped the club sign several million-dollar deals for players, it has reached compensation agreements with just four of the 10 victims' families. Negotiations with the others seemed stalled as the police investigation into possible homicide charges concluded Friday.

In a country where one of every five Brazilians is a Flamengo fan, de Barros Silva and other parents wonder when justice, and peace, will come.

“It's Flamengo's insensitivity, of turning that page," she said at her humble home in Rio de Janeiro state.

She and other parents were emotionally damaged by the club’s lack of empathy, she said. Some didn’t even receive a phone call from top executives.

Relatives of the victims gathered outside Flamengo's training center Saturday to light candles in memory of their lost sons, but most were forbidden to enter the facility.

Wedson Cândido de Matos, father of 14-year-old defender Pablo Henrique, had traveled 450 kilometers (280 miles) to join the commemoration and was the only one to be let in, his lawyer said. At the public hearing Friday, de Matos said: “Do you know what I have from my son? Only pain. Only a hole. Flamengo won titles, I got pain. I got a coffin full of ashes.”

Documents that emerged shortly after the fire showed that for years the club had flouted city regulations at the training facility, accumulated fines and was targeted by state prosecutors who questioned the treatment given to academy players and the container-like structure in which they were housed. Lawyers for the academy players' families and fire experts have said that the polyurethane used in the construction of the temporary dorms could have fueled the fast-moving blaze.

Flamengo executives say the conditions at the academy have been improved since the tragedy. The club also stresses that it has been making a court-ordered monthly payment of 10,000 reais ($2,300) to families.

“Flamengo is an immeasurable force. We feel like ants fighting giants,” Mariju Maciel, a lawyer representing the family of one of the victims, said during Friday's hearing at Rio’s state legislature.

In 2019, Flamengo saw gross revenues soar to 857 million reais ($200 million) — the most a Brazilian club has earned in a single year — thanks to sponsors and TV rights. It is also making big money with its players. Recent transfers of strikers Vinicius Júnior and Reinier to Spain’s Real Madrid reportedly brought the club some 75 million euros ($82 million).

Such sums allowed the most popular club in Brazil to spend big on new players.

Just days ago, the club reportedly agreed to pay Inter Milan nearly 17 million euros to sign top scorer Gabriel Barbosa, known as Gabigol, who came last year on a loan. Flamengo's most expensive signing in 2019 was Uruguayan midfielder Giorgian de Arrascaeta, who cost nearly 20 million euros (nearly $22 million).

The team’s windfall has, paradoxically, subjected victims’ families to accusations of opportunism. Some Flamengo fans have claimed the families are using the tragedy to try to cash in, staining the image of their beloved team in the process.

Flamengo, too, has been targeted. On at least three occasions, fans of rival clubs have shouted things such as “murderous team” during games. The latest incident, during a match in Rio’s historic Maracana stadium last month, triggered an investigation by Rio's sports court.

On Twitter, Flamengo's official account posted the names of the youths who died, as well as a picture showing the team and coaching staff gathered in a circle for a minute of silence.

On Thursday, police investigating the Flamengo fire sent their conclusions -- in 13 volumes -- to the state prosecutors' office for review. Prosecutors will evaluate whether to bring charges for homicide or manslaughter, local media reported.

Flamengo's president, Rodolfo Landim, says the club's financial success and compensations for the victims’ families shouldn't be conflated.

“These are two entirely distinct processes. One has to do with the damage that we caused to the families, and the other is the economic result of the club," Landim said in an interview that was organized by the club and released on its own YouTube channel.

Landim was joined by one of Flamengo's vice presidents, Rodrigo Dunshee, who said he believed the amount they offered families was satisfactory. “We have a limit,” he added.

At the state legislature, where Flamengo CEO Reinaldo Belotti appeared before with lawmakers only after they threatened him with a bench warrant, lawyers for victims’ families insisted they hadn’t managed to sit down with the club since rejecting its compensation offer months ago.

Lawyers said Friday that the parents haven't sued the club because they don't have access to the police investigation.

As Flamengo looks for another sterling season, the relatives are learning to live with their loss.

De Barros Silva misses her son most in the evenings, when she usually found time to speak with him by phone.

“My gaze goes directly to my watch at 8:50 p.m. — the time I used to catch up with him,” she said. “Interesting that, a mother’s heart.”

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Associated Press videographers Lucas Dumphreys and Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.