The Brazilian forward’s move to Inter proved a disaster but he has regained his reputation by firing Flamengo to a historic double
Say what you will about Gabriel Barbosa but he is no slave to superstition.
Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final in Lima against River Plate had not even kicked off when the Flamengo committed a supposedly cardinal sin.
Upon taking the field at the Estadio Monumental, the Inter-owned forward caressed the famous old trophy, breaking one of cup football’s many taboos: that whether it be the Combined Home Counties Sunday League Invitational or the World Cup itself, the prize may be looked at before the game but never touched.
Such reckless iconoclasm and disregard for tradition could have seen Barbosa dubbed for life as the man who torpedoed Flamengo’s quest for their first Libertadores in 38 years, since the heyday of Zico.
But then, they do not call him ‘Gabigol’ for nothing.
Two last-gasp strikes sank River’s own hopes of retaining the Copa and prompted wild celebrations in Rio de Janeiro that only intensified the following day when Palmeiras’ defeat sealed the Serie A title for Flamengo.
No Brazilian team had recorded national/Libertadores double since Pele’s Santos in 1963.
As second-top scorer in Serie A, top scorer in the Copa and the author of no less than 40 goals this year, Gabigol has additionally boosted a career that was in danger of stagnating when he made a premature exit from Europe just over 12 months ago.
“I have always dreamed of making history and helping the team. I always said I wanted to play at Flamengo, it was always a dream of mine, I didn’t expect to come here so soon,” the attacker told Globo after the game.
“It is amazing, a big thing to play at Flamengo. I am not bigger than Flamengo… Today this team entered history. I am part of that history.”
There was little sign of such a happy ending as Saturday’s decider entered its final five minutes.
Having shown so eloquently throughout 2019 why Inter may have acted hastily in sending him back to Brazil after just one season of sporadic playing time, Gabigol spent most of the final demonstrating why they were right to let him go.
Erratic and seemingly over-awed by the occasion, the 23-year-old was effectively shackled by veteran warhorse Javier Pinola as River came steaming out of the blocks, scoring early through Rafael Borre and coming close in several instances to extending their lead.
On the rare occasions that he did receive the ball, Barbosa invariably made the wrong decisions, failing to link up with fellow attackers Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Bruno Henrique, and running up all the blind alleys shown him by the ever-wily Pinola.
Any scouts who left the Monumental early would have left thinking Gabigol was still not good enough for Europe.
Barbosa, however, had the last laugh.
With the clock rapidly running down, Flamengo pounced on a wayward pass from Lucas Pratto and caught the River defence off-guard. De Arrascaeta’s cross found Gabigol in solitude at the back post and he had the simplest of finishes to level the game.
A matter of seconds later, the Brazilians’ incredible comeback was complete.
Finally getting the better of Pinola, Gabigol forced his nemesis into losing possession on the edge of the River area and volleyed with power and precision past the despairing Franco Armani.
Not even a late red card in rather mysterious circumstances – it later emerged that the striker had gestured at River fans to earn a second yellow, having been earlier booked for removing his shirt during the goal celebration – could dampen the festivities in the Monumental, as Barbosa and Flamengo found redemption on an afternoon that had looked set to end in disappointment.
He may have played better games over the course of 2019, and those two late, opportunistic goals should not be allowed to overshadow a display that verged on the catastrophic.
But what Gabigol proved was that he has the killer instinct and the nerve to come through when the stakes are highest, an attribute that was still under question prior to last Saturday.
Not everyone is convinced that Barbosa has what it takes to excel in Europe.
“When he arrived, I didn’t know much about him, but I was told he was a fantastic player,” former Inter coach Frank de Boer told Fox Sports during the final.
“I remember he turned up with two people. One took care of his social media and a nutritionist to look after his body, but he did nothing with us.
“They call him Gabigol, but we used to call him Gabi-no-gol in Italy.”
Despite his recent heroics, Barbosa is unlikely to be welcomed back through the front door at San Siro.
Young Argentina international Lautaro Martinez has flourished where Gabigol floundered, proving himself as a prolific goalscorer both in Serie A and the Champions League, where he has notched five in five, and an excellent foil for summer signing Romelu Lukaku.
Consequently, while Inter were enthused by his two-goal salvo in the Copa final, that was only because they will now find it easier to offload Gabigol in January.
Indeed, the Nerazzurri have reportedly already doubled their asking price to €40 million (£34m/$44m), far beyond what Flamengo are capable of paying to keep him in Rio beyond the end of his loan in December.
However, Ronaldo’s Valladolid and Crystal Palace are two clubs believed to be interested in a winter transfer.
The king of South America and the toast of Rio, he is now set for another chance to conquer Europe – and should he return, he will be coming back bigger, better and more mature than before.