Could a second Brazilian title earn Gabigol another shot in Europe?
Last weekend, an hour into Flamengo’s Brasileirao game with Corinthians, Gabriel Barbosa stood on the halfway line, hands on hips.
He had put the ball in the net a couple of minutes prior, but, as the VAR checked for a possible offside, he waited, hoping for confirmation of a 69th Flamengo goal in his 100th game for the club.
When the referee finally put his finger to his ear, blew his whistle and pointed to the centre spot, the coaching staff, players and club directors present at the Maracana erupted in celebration. Gabigol had scored the most important goal of the season so far.
The 24-year-old turned and ran towards the bench, jumping straight into the embrace of coach Rogerio Ceni. The happiness was genuine, but there was a little theatre too, a show of unity between two men who the Brazilian sports press were reporting as at loggerheads.
Flamengo had taken a 2-1 lead at the Maracana, an advantage they would not relinquish. As a result, things are set up perfectly for this weekend.
Flamengo are currently one point behind league leaders Internacional, who they host on Sunday in the penultimate game of the season at the very same Maracana. As title deciders go, they don’t get much more decisive.
For many of Flamengo’s players, the match is an opportunity to take a big step towards their second successive league crown. For Gabigol personally, it is a chance to reassert himself as Brazilian domestic football’s pre-eminent player – and perhaps earn a second shot at Europe’s top tier.
It has been an undulating road to get to where he now is.
As a teenager, Gabigol was the next superstar-in-waiting, the man to follow Neymar off Santos’ wunderkind production line.
He scored countless goals in the youth teams, forging himself a reputation long before he was given his debut in 2013, symbolically substituted on in place of Neymar in the Barcelona-bound star’s last game for the club.
From there, Gabigol’s star only rose. After a year establishing himself, he started scoring and assisting for fun, winning back-to-back Sao Paulo state titles, earning himself a call-up to the senior national team and a securing a place in the 2016 Olympic side that won a hugely significant gold medal in Rio.
The question was not if he would move to a top European club, but when, where and how much he would cost. Internazionale were decisive, handing Santos €30million for his signature.
But things quickly unravelled. Unable to adapt to life in Italy, Gabigol became an outcast at Inter. He made just nine appearances, all from the bench, and his play was criticised by coach Stefano Pioli for being overly flamboyant.
A loan spell at Benfica was equally poor, and from being the boy-wonder, Gabigol suddenly found himself a figure of fun, condemned to the scrapheap as an overhyped flop.
It is, though, never quite so simple; narratives never as clear cut as we would like. Gabigol hadn’t suddenly become a perna de pau – or ‘wooden leg’ – as they would say in Brazil. His attitude had perhaps not been correct, but there was still a player in there.
Gabigol returned to Brazil on loan in January 2018, welcomed home by his former club Santos, and strived to make a fresh start.
Though Santos did not win anything, it was a bumper year for Gabigol individually. He was the top scorer in both the Brazilian league and cup and reasserted his potential away from the frustration he had found on the other side of the Atlantic.
After that season, many expected him to be back in Europe for another shot immediately. Instead, he took another loan to Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo.
It proved an inspired call. After Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus came in mid-season, the whole team flew, playing wonderful, flowing football. Gabigol and the gangly speed merchant Bruno Henrique formed an unstoppable strike partnership, setting each other up for goal after beautiful goal.
O gol mais bonito de Gabigol pelo Flamengo. pic.twitter.com/llLZlzFUYb
— Sala12 (@OficialSala12) November 8, 2020
Gabigol was the darling of the fanbase, who attended every game with a placard that read: “Today, Gabigol will score.” Usually, they were right.
By the end of 2019, they were champions of Brazil and of South America, winning Serie A and the Copa Libertadores on one heady weekend in November, with Gabigol scoring two late goals to seal the Libertadores crown.
After Flamengo made his signing permanent in January 2020 for €18million, the expectation was that they would repeat the domestic and continental double. Yet it has not been straightforward.
Pablo Mari left for Arsenal, destabilising Flamengo defensively. Then, after the pandemic had interrupted their season, Jesus followed Mari out the door, joining back up with his old club Benfica.
In came former Pep Guardiola assistant Domenec Torrent, who attempted to change too much too soon, further upsetting the balance and getting himself the sack within three months of taking the job.
Torrent was replaced by legendary Sao Paulo goalkeeper turned manager Rogerio Ceni, who had been doing a fine job at Fortaleza in the north-eastern state of Ceara.
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Things would not get easier though, for Flamengo or Gabigol. Their star striker was struggling to recover from an ankle injury and Flamengo crashed out of the Libertadores and the Brazilian cup.
Pressure was mounting and fans were furious. “They smashed up a player’s car,” Gabigol revealed a month ago. And after a loss in the league on January 25, reports suggested Flamengo directors were conversing about whether to sack Ceni.
Yet in the five games since, Gabigol has scored five, including the winner against Corinthians, and got two assists. Now Flamengo are back, two games away from the end of the season with their destiny in their hands.
Ceni has changed the team, bringing midfielder Willian Arao back to the centre of defence and dropping ex-Atletico Madrid man Diego Ribas into a Pirlo-esque sitting midfield role.
Yet in the big game with Internacional on Sunday, eyes will be fixed on Gabigol.
He recently admitted he has been playing with that ankle injury, gritting his teeth through the pain, and there were some reports that he would miss out on this game. But his coach confirmed his fitness this week.
In the same press conference, Ceni said that his team would go gung-ho in search of the win: “Our team has the characteristic of playing in search of the victory. I don’t know how to play to draw, Flamengo don’t know, that’s the character of the club.”
🇧🇷📈 Gabigol keeps Flamengo’s hopes of defending their Brasileirão title alive.
They sit one point behind Internacional, who they play next in the penultimate round of the season.
— FotMob (@FotMob) February 15, 2021
So, on Sunday we should see a game suited to Gabigol’s attacking talents. What, though, might come later in the year?
The summer transfer window is not too far away, and Gabigol has expressed a desire to move back to Europe.
Among Europe’s best, though, there has so far been some reticence to take another punt. At the end of 2019, then-Flamengo boss Jorge Jesus perhaps unwittingly explained why.
“[Gabigol] is loved because he is a complete extrovert,” said Jesus. “[But he] has to have a little more responsibility. There is group discipline, tactical discipline and it is that last thing that he still hasn’t managed [to add]… but I realise that if he was more responsible he would not be the player he is.
“In [the Libertadores final] he played like he was having a kickabout… All the football [quality] he has is related to not be a rational player.”
Yet Gabriel is trying to prove that lack of discipline is in the past. In an interview with AS last year, he said: “Today I feel much more prepared to confront the personal and professional challenges of moving country.”
According to his current coach Ceni, he is managing it. At the end of January, Ceni told a press conference: “[Gabigol] has grown in the last few games, he has been combative in his marking and more intense every time he plays.”
If Gabigol can maintain that intensity on Sunday and score for the sixth consecutive match, he will put Flamengo on course for another title. And if another season ends in success, it surely will not be long before another European giant comes calling.
By Joshua Law