Tim Vickery’s Notes From South America: Flamengo Seal Copa Libertadores In Dramatic Fashion
Just how significant will one blunder from Lucas Pratto prove to be?
River Plate’s striker – the hero of last year’s Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors – was the villain of the 2019 decider. He has been struggling for form after injury, and his substitute appearance against Flamengo on Saturday was a disaster. He had already wasted some promising opportunities with hurried shots when he did far worse. Despite a warning he dwelt on the ball and lost possession with four team-mates in front of him. It was the 89th minute of a game River Plate had effectively won. Coach Marcelo Gallardo had excelled, finding a way to nullify the Brazilian threat and protect his defence while pressing Flamengo aggressively and causing them problems.
The first choice strikers had been superb as the last line of attack and the first line of defence. Inevitably they tired, and Pratto replaced Rafael Santos Borre, whose goal seemed to have decided the affair, for the final 16 minutes. Flamengo were struggling to create anything. Had River kept their shape and their discipline then the title was theirs. And then came Pratto’s blunder and a crazy three minutes, when, at last, the Brazilian firepower proved too much for the River defence.
Pratto’s mistake, then, ended up tipping the balance and deciding the destiny of South America’s premier club title. But that is just the start of it. More than a game-changer, that moment could turn out to be a sport-changer. Because it puts Flamengo on a whole new level.
Imagine that River Plate had held on to win. There is an obvious accusation that could have been levelled against the Flamengo side that has done so well under Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus – that they are nothing but a domestic phenomenon.
And it would have been a fair charge. They have rolled over Brazilian side after Brazilian side – confirmed on Sunday when, without even taking the field, they wrapped up the local league title. In the quarter and semi finals of the Libertadores they were pitched against Brazilian opposition. But their record against foreign teams is not nearly so impressive. In the group stages of the competition, before the era of Jorge Jesus, they lost at home and drew away to Penarol of Uruguay. In the first knock out round, with the Portuguese already in charge, they were well beaten away to Emelec of Ecuador and needed a nervy penalty shoot out to get through.
But now they have overcome River Plate, Flamengo have the chance to go on to a bigger stage. Next month they will represent South America in the Club World Cup in Qatar, where they are dreaming of a dream final against Liverpool.
This match holds out the prospect of something that has never happened in the 15 years of the trophy’s current format – a Copa Libertadores winner prepared to go toe to toe with the holders of the Champions League. If Flamengo can do that and give a good account of themselves, then even if they were to be beaten it would bring the club to the attention of a worldwide audience.
And as winners of the 2019 Libertadores, they have also guaranteed a place in the new, expanded Club World Cup that FIFA aim to launch in mid 2021.
Flamengo have a massive fan base in a giant, football crazed country. They have long had the potential to turn themselves into a truly global powerhouse. One mistake from Lucas Pratto could help turn that potential into reality. No wonder that Brazilian fans were joking about the River Plate striker after the game. One quip doing the rounds on social media was that Pratto had done more for Flamengo than even the great Zico had managed.
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