The end of the Brazilian season brought no rest and relaxation for directors of Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo. They set off across the Atlantic in search of a new coach -- who could be any nationality, as long as he was Portuguese.
This preference is in large part the legacy of Jorge Jesus, the experienced Portuguese coach who took charge of the club in the middle of 2019 and stayed for a few magical months. He led Flamengo to triumph in the league and the Copa Libertadores. But it was much more than the trophies. It was the refreshing, swashbuckling style in which they were achieved. Jesus immediately broke with the consensus in Brazilian football, and selected a front four of strikers Bruno Henrique and Gabriel Barbosa backed up by Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta.
Before his arrival it was generally thought that this could not be done, that it would front load and disorganise the team. Instead, it was a sensation. Flamengo's directors were struck by how Jorge Jesus had managed to work outside the Brazilian box. The club's fans have been pining for him ever since he went back to Portugal soon after the pandemic struck. Three subsequent coaches have come and gone, none of them able to get out of his shadow. But Flamengo's love affair with Portuguese coaches was not limited to Jorge Jesus. They watched as Abel Ferreira took Palmeiras to the next two Libertadores titles -- beating Flamengo in the most recent final at the end of November.
Ferreira's style is very different from that of Jesus -- his Palmeiras have been a reactive, counter attacking side. But the Flamengo directors came to the conclusion that foreign coaches could offer an upgrade and, in part for reasons of language, Portuguese coaches found it easier to adapt to the Brazilian reality. And so they set off across the Atlantic with a shopping list -- with the name of Jorge Jesus at the top.
Here there was an obvious problem. Jesus had a job. He was in charge of Benfica, Portugal's biggest club. True, things were not going as well as had been expected, but -- in part as a consequence of Barcelona's post-Lionel Messi decline -- Benfica had made it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. It seemed unlikely that the club would make an immediate change. But, under pressure from the Benfica fans, the ego of Jorge Jesus was clearly stoked by the interest and ardent admiration of a Brazilian giant who count their supporters in the tens of millions. The flirt became a yuletide soap opera in Portugal, front page news every day in the local sports press. But Jorge Jesus was not free. And that, or so it seemed, was the end of the story.
Flamengo cast their net. Other names were dropped into the cauldron of speculation. Chief among them was Carlos Carvalhal, the coach of Braga. Flamengo had negotiated with him without success in 2020, but Braga were clearly unwilling to let him go. There was talk of Vitor Pereira, who was free after being sacked by Fenerbahce. Ex-AS Roma boss Paulo Fonseca was considered, along with Olympiakos boss Pedro Martins.
And then there was Paulo Sousa. Flamengo were struck by his experience both as a player and as a coach. A central midfielder with a fine range of passing, Paulo Sousa had won the Champions League with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. He had played in five countries and coached in nine, picking up experience and broadening his horizons wherever he went. And after meeting him, Flamengo were even more impressed. If they could not come home with Jorge Jesus in their Christmas stocking, they would return with Paulo Sousa. But there was a problem. He already had a job -- and one with a vital few months ahead. Paulo Sousa was in charge of Poland. There is a World Cup place at stake. On March 24, Poland will take on Russia in a play-off. This is an important football occasion, turned into an event of epic national importance in the light of the historical considerations. The winner of this game will then face whoever comes through the match between Sweden and the Czech Republic.
It seemed unthinkable that a coach would rip up his contract and walk away in the build up to such an event. But that is what Paulo Sousa has done. This is a man who is unlikely to be welcomed back to Poland in a hurry. Sousa has faced a storm of opprobrium in the country since his choice became clear. His option shows the primacy of the club game in the eyes of most coaches -- and the power of Flamengo as a genuine global giant.
But before the marriage of Flamengo and Paulo Sousa could be celebrated, there came a dramatic development back in Portugal. Jorge Jesus lost his job. Benfica lie a disappointing third in the Portuguese league, four points behind FC Porto and five behind Sporting CP. Last Thursday, with Flamengo directors in the stands, they suffered a 3-0 defeat to Porto in the Portguese Cup competition. Pressure was rising. True, they were still in the Champions League, but on Thursday they are set to meet Os Dragões again in the league. Some saw this game as a referendum on the future of Jorge Jesus. But he did not last that long. In addition to losing the support of many of the fans, it appeared that he might have lost the dressing room.
Alternatively, annoyed with the public nature of his flirt with Flamengo, Benfica may have waited until the Brazilian club offered the job to Paulo Sousa before getting rid of Jorge Jesus. So would Paulo Sousa be jilted at the altar? Would Flamengo drop everything and flee into the arms of their first love now that Jorge Jesus was free? If they considered this course of action, they did not act upon it. On Wednesday, Paulo Sousa was announced as the new Flamengo boss -- the latest man to try to get out of the shadow of Jorge Jesus.
And that shadow may well be close. Earlier this week there was the surprise resignation of Cuca, who had just taken Atletico Mineiro to the Brazilian league and cup double. There is an obvious choice to replace him -- a man who is now free to take on a fresh challenge. Jorge Jesus.