Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the home league debut of Portugal’s Jorge Jesus as coach of Brazilian giants Flamengo. The game, a 6-1 rout of Goias, set the tone for a magical few months. Playing an exhilarating brand of collective attacking football, Flamengo charged their way to the domestic and continental titles, and gave the best South American performance in years in the final of the Club World Cup before going down to Liverpool.
It was a special time, with the Maracana stadium in permanent party mode — it had been years since a Brazilian audience had enjoyed football of this boldness and quality, and now it might all be over.
On Wednesday, Flamengo take on Fluminense with the Rio state title at stake. It is the second leg of the final: Flamengo won Sunday’s first match 2-1 and a draw will be enough to get them over the line. But maybe more important than the game will be the press conference that comes afterwards. Speculation is rife on both sides of the Atlantic that Jorge Jesus is about to leave Flamengo and return home to take charge of Benfica. So far there has been no official word. Once the final whistle has blown, everyone will be waiting for the coach to declare whether he will stay or go.
On the one hand, it might seem strange that Jorge Jesus is even considering a change of scenery. He is loved at Flamengo. Before the coronavirus struck, no match was complete without the fans chanting “Mister, Mister” in his honour — mister is the name given to coaches in Portugal.
Flamengo have the wind in their sails, too. They have money and ambition. If there is one club outside Europe with the capacity to become a genuine global player, it is Flamengo.
Moreover, staying in Brazil might offer Jorge Jesus another route into the history books. The Brazil national team have never genuinely had a foreign coach. His approach last year contrasted very favourably with the caution of the other domestic coaches and the national team job will certainly become vacant after the next World Cup. If results are poor, there is always a chance that it could be available before. At this point, Jorge Jesus would be a popular candidate.
Why, then, is there even a possibility that he could be tempted back across the Atlantic?
Three explanations might tentatively be put forward.
One is the fear that his best times with Flamengo might already be behind him. The magic of 2019 was based on a tactical approach which is common in Europe: defending with a high line. This allows the team to camp itself in the opponent’s half of the field. They can maintain pressure to win the ball, and have the players close enough together to construct quick passing moves.
Brazilian teams, in contrast, tend to sit deep. Most of the centre-backs are slow, sheriffs of the penalty area, proficient at heading the ball away but lacking the pace and the habit of defending high. With his European contacts, Jorge Jesus snapped up a defender from the Spanish second division: Pablo Mari, who supplied an instant solution. Mari was far from the most eye catching player in the 2019 side, but he may have been the most important. His knowledge of how to play and organize a high line gave the team the platform to work its collective attacking tricks.
Arsenal, with their Brazilian scouts and football director, were paying attention. They carried Mari off to the Premier League and Flamengo have not been able to replace him.
The club brought in Leo Pereira from Athletico Paranaense and Gustavo Henrique from Santos. But Jorge Jesus saw the difference, complaining of the tendency for Brazilian centre-backs to retreat towards goal rather than snuffing out the danger. And with the team less compact, the passing moves have not been flowing with the ease of 2019. The coach could be forgiven for thinking that it might be best to quit while he is still ahead.
Some in the Brazilian press have been indignantly arguing that Benfica are a much smaller club than Flamengo. They clearly have a point. Both are national institutions, but Brazil is a far bigger nation. But, were he to go with Benfica, the ambitions of Jorge Jesus would extend well beyond Portugal. Flamengo can offer him a bigger club, but Benfica can offer him bigger opponents. With the exception of the Club World Cup — which will not be played this year — Flamengo only face teams from South America, who are continually forced to sell their best players. In Europe’s Champions League, Jorge Jesus can pit his wits against these players and the genuine contemporary giants of the global game. And, for someone who turns 66 next week, such a chance may not come again.
And his age is a factor in the third possible explanation for his departure. Jorge Jesus is old enough to be considered at special risk from the coronavirus. When Brazilian football shut down in mid March he spent some time in Portugal, where the local media have shown a mixture of incredulity, criticism and ridicule at Brazil’s response to the health crisis. Portugal has suffered under 1,700 deaths from COVID-19. In Brazil the total is over 74,000 and rising alarmingly. If Jorge Jesus has a good job offer back home, then why take his chances at the epicenter of the worst pandemic in over a century?
There are, then, some good reasons to stay put, and some strong arguments to head for home. Jorge Jesus will have been weighing up both sides — we should soon find out which one he finds most persuasive.