Did Flamengo's CWC performance provide a sign of things to come?
The Club World final loss last week to Liverpool was Flamengo's last game of the year. And, unlike Europe, the competition is seen as one of the highlights of the South American calendar. So much that the loss to the English side is still being debated and re-debated in the Brazilian media.
Could Flamengo have won? Did they deserve better? And what does it all mean? Such issues are being endlessly discussed, with a key fault line forming around one question; was this year's clash of European and South American champions a meeting of equals?
The answer would seem clear enough. Flamengo shaded things in terms of possession. But it was hard to see where a goal was going to come from. There was one clear chance right at the end, when substitute centre-forward Lincoln blazed over the Liverpool bar. That aside, the obvious opportunities belonged to Liverpool. Indeed, there had more clear chances in the first five minutes than Flamengo had in the match.
This is not to criticize the performance of the South Americans. Not at all. They gave a fine account of themselves. If this was not exactly a meeting of equals, it was a brave attempt to try and make it so. With their high defensive line and their compact and fluid play in possession, Flamengo played a full part in the best Club World Cup final seen since the current format as adopted in 2005. And they could indeed have won. Had Lincoln kept his calm and forced a shoot out, Flamengo could count on Diego Alves, a penalty saving specialist, in their goal.
One of the great charms of football is that the best side does not always win. And it would be too much to expect Flamengo to be the best side -- as their coach Jorge Jesus pointed out, they could count on the best players in Brazil (including a Portuguese coach, a Spanish centre-back and a Uruguayan playmaker). Liverpool, though, could count on the best players in the world, with the best Africans and some of the best Brazilians, such as keeper Alisson Becker and striker Roberto Firmino, whose goal won the game.
For the foreseeable future, the financial advantage tips the balance massively in the favour of the Europeans. But have Flamengo supplied South America with a Christmas message of hope?
There is a financial question here, too. Flamengo are a giant club, who can count their fans in the tens of millions. In recent years they have learned how to monetarise this. They have hauled themselves up to a financial level which is way beyond the reach of the vast majority of South American clubs. Few other teams on the continent could have signed so many players from European club football.
But this is not just a debate about money. It is also a question of ideas. Flamengo have cleaned up domestically. They have yet to look anywhere near as convincing against the foreign opponents they have faced. This is because club football in Brazil, the country with the resources to put up some kind of challenge to Europe, had become a desert of ideas. Almost all the clubs have become obsessed with cautious deep defending mixed with sporadic counter-attacks. It is a model of play that is not attractive and which, in recent years has not even been successful. In the previous five years Brazil supplied only one finalist of the Copa Libertadores- a dismal performance for which the big clubs deserve a collective certificate of incompetence.
Under Jesus, Flamengo have shown that is it possible to be braver -- and there is also a South American coach who has shown that it can be done on a budget. Argentina's Jorge Sampaoli had a fine season in charge of Santos, who came second in the Brazilian Championship despite taking charge of a side that had sold its best players. Wherever the game was played, whoever were the opponents, Santos sought to take the initiative. Back in 2011 Sampaoli made his name with a Universidad de Chile side that claimed the Copa Sudamericana. On the way they won 4-0 away to Flamengo, at the time coached by former Brazil and Real Madrid boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo and with Ronaldinho still in contention for a place in the national team. Flamengo had the financial advantage. But it was never visible on the pitch. Sampaoli's men came at them with such controlled fury that the Chileans controlled the game from start to finish, and were unlucky only to win by four goals.
So it is not just the Flamengo of Jorge Jesus who have sent out a message. The Jesus/Sampaoli show in Brazil is already leading to a flurry of foreign coaches coming to Brazil. It would be nice to think that it might also lead to more patience and opportunities for braver coaches, wherever they come from.
There is an obvious problem. There are plenty of risks in taking the field with a bold approach. These are minimized if the team can count on centre-backs quick enough to play in a high line - and this, in recent times, is not a South American speciality. Many of the centre-backs are sheriffs of the penalty area, proficient at lying deep and heading the ball away, not so good when forced to defend in open spaces. It might take time to develop defenders who are well suited to operating higher up the field.
But that did not prove a problem for Flamengo in the second half of 2019. And much of the talk about their defeat to Liverpool focuses on a desire for revenge. The final of the 2020 Libertadores will take place in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, their home ground. And that will quickly be followed by the last version of the Club World Cup in its current format. Flamengo aim to be there.