"Victory for Portugal"
Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo produced a sensational late comeback to win the South American Copa Libertadores for the first time in 38 years, with a dramatic 2-1 victory over River Plate in Lima.
Flamengo striker Gabriel Barbosa struck twice in the closing stages to turn defeat into victory and crown the Rio de Janeiro side champions of the continent. For vastly experienced Portuguese boss Jesus, the result secures him idol status at the club just five months after arriving in Brazil.
Having won the Copa Libertadores, and on the cusp of winning the Brazilian championship, Jorge Jesus will be eyeing a brilliant treble by lifting the World Club Cup in December. Punters who have already come up trumps wagering on the Rio team will no doubt be visiting the PowerPlay website to bet on Flamengo overcoming Liverpool in the tournament hosted in Qatar.
The Estadio Monumental was the setting for the clash between two of South America’s best supported teams, with an 80,000 capacity crowd reflecting the scale of the showdown as fans of both clubs made the long journey to the Peruvian capital. Flamengo arrived as favourites in the eyes of many, despite defending champions River’s success in the competition in recent years.
River’s greater experience appeared to have been underestimated for much of the match, particularly after the Argentines took a 14th minute lead through Rafael Santos Borre following hesitant defending in the Flamengo ranks. The Brazilians struggled to respond, and River’s intense and organised pressure prevented Jesus’ men from playing through the lines and establishing any real rhythm to their now famous attacking style.
Having failed to put River under any real pressure, signs of hope started to appear for Fla during the second half. Gabriel Barbosa and Everton Ribeiro both missed golden chances to level, after which the introduction of former Porto playmaker Diego (65’) added experience and poise, while River’s inability to sustain their press allowed for more space for Flamengo to pick passes and establish some pressure.
In a game of few chances, River dropped deeper as the clock ran down, seemingly in control despite their opponents enjoying more freedom in the final third. Fla’s big moment arrived in the 89th minute when Bruno Henrique drove infield and fed Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta, who picked out the familiar figure of Gabriel Barbosa at the back post for the simple task of tapping in.
Euphoria for the travelling Brazilian fans, but with the match headed for extra time Gabigol wrote his name into Flamengo folklore with his second just a few minutes later. River’s defence appeared to still be in a daze when a long ball dropped between the centre-halves and Gabigol was sharp enough to lash his finish past Franco Armani in the 92nd minute.
“My most important title”
Match-winner Gabigol was sent off soon after for a second bookable offence, as was River’s Exequiel Palacios for kicking out at a floored Bruno Henrique, but with both sides reduced to ten the final whistle sounded to send Jesus and his companions into rapture. Having been in management for almost 30 years, the veteran Portuguese coach admitted becoming South American champions is his biggest achievement
“Yes, it is the most important title of my career to date,” Jesus told reporters. “Libertadores is to this continent as the Champions League is to Europe. This final was watched in 176 countries and millions of people. Two great teams, either could have won. These fans are amazing.
"We needed to win titles, because we aren’t so big on this. One is won, the championship is so important to me but for the fans this was the most important and fortunately we reversed the score. For 40 years they dreamed of this trophy. I’m so happy.”
The story of Jesus with Flamengo has captured the attention of the Portuguese public in unprecedented fashion, with intense coverage and interest in Jesus’ home country. The former Braga, Benfica and Sporting boss has repeatedly expressed his pride at such attention, and dedicated the win to his homeland.
“A word for Portugal. I know that Flamengo has been a great passion, that many millions of Portuguese were pushing for Flamengo to win. This is for all my friends and to the Portuguese people who appreciated me. Not only was Flamengo the winner, for me the victory goes to Portugal. A big kiss for all Portuguese and I'm very proud to be Portuguese.”
Despite his remarkable success, there remains a caution in the way Jesus responds to the floods of questions from local media. When told that he was now an idol of the Flamengo fans, the 65-year-old responded: “I have had a long career. I know that football is cruel. When you win, everything is beautiful. When you won’t win there are doubts, it is irrational. Today I am an idol because I am winning.
“I have many years in football and have been through many situations. I was even annoyed with my assistant, João de Deus, 20 seconds from the end, because he was shouting 'It's over, it's over'. I've lost titles ten seconds from time and football is cruel. The game ends only when the referee blows his whistle and I did not want anyone to party until the game is over.”
Jesus the key
Reaction to the triumph has been vast, as expected, leading with Flamengo vice-chairman Marcos Braz who attributed the comeback to Jesus’ influence. "I think we won the game at half time. Those inside the dressing room saw what happened. Everyone was calm, but very concerned. However, Jorge Jesus always insisted that we play with the ball. With calm, we would turn the game around. Now we celebrate, it was almost 40 years without winning a Libertadores title. I hope that from now on it won’t be so long between winning,” said Braz.
Focus for Flamengo soon switches back to confirming themselves as Brazilian champions, which could happen as soon as Sunday evening should Palmeiras fail to beat Gremio. If the defending champions make Flamengo wait, Jorge Jesus’ men can seal the title at the Maracanã against Ceara on Wednesday evening.
If, as expected, Flamengo complete their remarkable double, Jesus’ future will soon become the hottest topic in the city. The Portuguese has not yet signed an extension on his contract, which runs out in June, with speculation ranging from his continuation until the summer to perhaps leaving for a return to Europe in January.
“There is the clause for being able to leave in January, it is true,” Jesus said. “This is good for both parties, but I feel good in Rio, I feel safe in Barra da Tijuca.
“The people of Flamengo are already part of my family.”
By Sean Gillen