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Paulo Sousa, Jorge Jesus and the Portuguese coach merry-go-round that's captivated Brazilian football

12:00 EAT 01/01/2022
Paulo Sousa
Recent upheaval on the benches of Poland and Benfica can be attributed to Brazilian football's newfound obsession with Portuguese tacticians

For years one of the most insular football nations on the planet when it came to accepting coaches from overseas, suddenly Brazil cannot get enough of them – particularly if they happen to possess a Portuguese passport.

Jorge Jesus' 2019 Copa Libertadores victory with Flamengo and two consecutive wins in the competition for Abel Ferreira and Palmeiras mean that natives of Brazil's Lusophone cousin across the Atlantic Ocean are very much in vogue among Serie A's top clubs.

So much so, in fact, that Flamengo and reigning national champions Atletico Mineiro have found themselves in the midst of a complex web of shifting allegiances which has left a Champions League last-16 participant and a potential World Cup nation fuming.

The calls for Jesus to cut short his time at Benfica and return to Rio de Janeiro were as rapid as they were inevitable. The winner of no fewer than five trophies during his year at Flamengo, including the first Serie A/Libertadores double since Pele's Santos in the 1960s, the veteran saw his name linked with the job almost as soon as Renato Gaucho was sacked after falling short in November's Libertadores final against Palmeiras.

For several weeks the coach hesitated over whether to stay or go, to the fury of Benfica fans already on edge due to a poor start to the 2021-22 season, the Aguila's Champions League elimination of Barcelona notwithstanding. By the time Jesus finally severed ties with Benfica over the Christmas period, however, he found that he was too late, with Flamengo turning to another of his compatriots.

Paulo Sousa, therefore, will be the man charged with leading the Mengao's quest to regain the Libertadores in 2022. And the ex-Portugal midfielder's arrival at the Estadio Maracana proved just as controversial and unpopular with his current employers, if not even more so.

“This is extremely irresponsible behaviour, inconsistent with regards to what the trainer had been saying publicly,” Poland FA president Cezary Kulesza fired upon learning of Sousa's request to leave for Rio.

Kulesza's outrage, which led him to initially reject out of hand any notion of letting the coach out of his contract, is at least partly justified. Sousa took over Robert Lewandowski's side at the start of 2021 and oversaw in the last 12 months both a first-round exit from Euro 2020 and a second-placed finish in their World Cup qualifying group, leaving them at the mercy of the play-offs.

Jumping ship barely three months before Poland are first obliged to play Russia and then Sweden or the Czech Republic for the chance to make Qatar, then, has won him few friends, even if despite the FA's initial refusal Sousa managed to rescind his deal with a payment reportedly worth €300,000.

From January onwards, then, the former Juventus, Dortmund and Inter star will swap one free-scoring ace in Lewandowski for Flamengo's own hero Gabigol, top scorer of both the Libertadores and Serie A last year.

He will additionally go head-to-head with newly-crowned South American Coach of the Year Ferreira – and might even have the chance to lock horns with the man whom he beat out for his new job.

Just like Flamengo, Serie A and Copa do Brasil double winners Atletico Mineiro immediately turned their attentions Jesus' way once Cuca resigned from his post following a memorable season for the Belo Horizonte side.

Now definitively a free agent, Jesus' availability will not pose Mineiro the same headaches as Flamengo faced during their month-long courtship, although neither the club nor trainer have publicly addressed reports of an upcoming union as of yet.

Just to complete the circle, moreover, further rumours have suggested that Benfica are looking at none other than Abel Ferreira to fill the vacancy left so recently by Jesus.

The 43-year-old's impeccable cup pedigree must make him an attractive choice for the Champions League challengers, but he appears set to start the new season this month still at the helm of Palmeiras.

The backdrop to this managerial merry-go-round is a football context of gaping contrasts.

Flamengo, Mineiro, Palmeiras and a handful of others are enjoying a spectacular spell of prosperity which has allowed them to turn not just to top coaching options in Europe but players as well.

The former repatriated David Luiz, Andreas Pereira and Kenedy last season and are said to be pushing for an even more ambitious move now, a loan deal for Barcelona misfit Philippe Coutinho – although such a transfer may prove too expensive even for Rio's minted sporting aristocrats.

Mineiro did not lag behind, recruiting both Hulk and Costa to great effect, while Red Bull Bragantino's own corporate-backed, generously-funded model came close to yielding its first trophy with an appearance in the Copa Sudamericana final in November.

The last three Libertadores titles have all been won by Brazilian sides, with the nation supplying both finalists in 2020 and three of the four semi-finalists in 2021.

In Argentina, not to mention the rest of the continent, the fear is that such is the difference in financial strength that even the likes of Boca Juniors and River Plate will fall behind, leaving both competitions as essentially a closed shop to South America's largest, most populous nation.

At the other end of the scale, even fellow Brazilian giants such as Fluminense, Santos and Sao Paulo are feeling the financial pinch after two years of the pandemic, selling off their best players to keep afloat.

That disparity is in turn reflected in the league table, with fourth-placed Fortaleza trailing Mineiro by 26 points and eight behind Palmeiras, in spite of the clubs' exhausting commitments in other competitions.

Other traditional heavyweights, like Cruzeiro, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo, have sunk even lower, to the obscurity of Serie B, although the latter will at least return to the promised land this year.

The others will be joined by another fallen titan, Gremio, whose relegation just four years after winning the Libertadores is a pointed warning of how fleeting success can be in one of the world's most demanding leagues.

The fate of those stragglers will be just one of the side-stories worth paying attention to over the next hectic year in Brazilian football.

Sousa will have to prove he can live up to the hefty reputation left behind by Jesus, having already seen Spaniard Dom Torrent fail to replicate his triumphs at the Maracana and leave in ignominy.

Jesus in turn, should he take the Mineiro job, will be under huge pressure to deliver similar success in Belo Horizonte as he managed with Flamengo, a daunting task for any coach.

Ferreira, meanwhile, faces his own unique challenge. Another Libertadores win with Palmeiras in 2022 would make him the first coach to lift the trophy three times in a row since Estudiantes' Osvaldo Zubeldia in the 1960s and 70s.

The club will also be desperate to redeem themselves in this year's Club World Cup after their humbling exit at the semi-final stage last time round.

There is all to play for, then, while the overarching question remains: can this 'golden age' for Brazil's select Serie A few last long enough to establish the league back among the world's most prestigious divisions, or will it ultimately collapse upon itself with disastrous consequences, as has proved the case on several occasions in the past?