By Samindra Kunti in Lima
November 25 – Late heroics from Gabriel Barbosa ‘Gabigol’ crowned a resilient Flamengo Copa Libertadores champions on Saturday against River Plate with a 2-1 victory and within 24 hours the Rio giants won the Brazilian league after Palmeiras failed to collect any points at Gremio, becoming the first Brazilian club to complete the double since Pele’s Santos in the 60s.
Much had been written and said about Conmebol’s belated decision to switch the reformatted Copa Libertadores final from Santiago to Lima, but South America’s governing body Conmebol couldn’t have wished for a better scenario to cement the concept of a single-match final with an exuberant Peruvian capital building up to a match that delivered on all counts. On the eve of the final, Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez had claimed that a 90-minute final was “sporting justice” because in the home-and-away format the team who played the return leg at home enjoyed the upper hand in 70% of the finals.
Flamengo fans had hiked and slogged their way across the continent to Lima via every route imaginable at exorbitant cost and took over the city centre in the days leading up to the game with the club returning to the Copa Libertadores final for the first time since 1981, when Zico led Flamengo to victory over Chile’s Cobreloa.
Diego Alves, Rafinha, Rodrigo Caio, Pablo Marí, Filipe Luis, Willian Arão, Gerson, Everton Ribeiro, Goirgian De Arrascaeta, Bruno Henrique and Gabigol, Flamengo’s new generation, had not been born back then, but they wanted to repeat Zico’s feat playing the swashbuckling football that they have been delivering at home ever since the appointment of Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus.
The Rio giants were however impotent against a River Plate that wielded all the mastery and cunning of the defending champions, and, arguably, the best side in South America in the last decade. River coach Marcelo Gallardo excelled by deploying two strikers, who, as a first line of defense, nullified Flamengo. A superlative River Plate pressed across the field and bamboozled the Brazilians with their aggression and dynamic attack.
River striker Rafael Santos Borre’s 14th-minute strike rattled Flamengo and the Argentinean club seemed like they’d never relinquish their one-goal advantage until Gabriel Barbosa – moniker Gabigol – struck twicd three minutes to turn the compelling match on its head in a stirring finale. In a classic, madcap ending to the game that encapsulated the richness and unpredictability of South America’s premier club competition, Gabigol was sent off, alongside River’s Exequiel Palacios, but that was to be a mere footnote as Flamengo celebrated its second Copa Libertadores conquest amid wild scenes at the imposing Monumental Stadium and back home in Rio de Janeiro.
In his news conference after the final Flamengo coach Jesus argued that Flamengo vs River Plate had been better than the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham, saying the game had “more technique and more tactics”. The Portuguese went on to say that Conmebol have a great product.
On Sunday morning, the Flamengo delegation returned to the Carioca Capital to be greeted by an euphoric city as hundred of thousands of fans lined the Avenida Presidente Vargas, one of Rio de Janeiro’s main boulevards, during a four-hour bus tour. The party didn’t end there: within hours Flamengo won the double when Gremio defeated nearest league rivals Palmeiras 2-1, who with four matches left in the competition can no longer bridge the 13-point gap with Flamengo.
In 1962 and 1963 Flamengo won the double twice before going on to win the International Cup twice consecutively as well, defeating Benfica and AC Milan respectively. In December, Flamengo will represent South America in the Club World Cup in Qatar. This weekend Asian champions Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia completed the tournament’s line-up, defeating Japan’s Urawa Reds.
In Doha, the Brazilians will be hoping for a rematch with Liverpool to repeat the club’s 1981 feat and follow in the footsteps of Santos and Pele. While the Brazilians have always taken the Club World Cup seriously, Liverpool are less enamoured with it having domestic and European priorities well ahead of an unwanted trip to Qatar within 24 hours of a cup game against Aston Villa – a game that is certainly worth more financially as it is progression towards a potential Wembley final. With that fixture in mind Liverpool have said they will split their squad – though who will be sent where is unclear. They will go to Doha to win but are unlikely to be overly concerned about the outcome. Flamengo on the other hand are fired up and ready to go.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1576284203labto1576284203ofdlr1576284203owedi1576284203sni@o1576284203fni1576284203