Sao Paulo vs. Flamengo: Stage is set for Brazil’s biggest cup final in decades


Any English fan of a certain age will remember when the FA Cup final was the football event of the year, the only domestic game live on TV, with a build-up that began many hours before the kick-off. Over recent times, the FA Cup has lost much of its prestige, along with most domestic knockout competitions in Europe. But on the other side of the Atlantic, the opposite dynamic has taken place.

The Copa do Brasil is a relatively new tournament, played since 1989. Over the past 20 years it has grown enormously in prestige, so much so that Sunday’s second leg of the final is one of the biggest events of the year.

There are a number of explanations for this rise in importance. One is that for more than 20 years the Brazilian championship has been played on a pure league basis, replacing the previous playoff format. The cup, then, is a chance for Brazil to indulge its taste in big knockout matches, which are so important in the history and tradition of the Brazilian game. And this importance is reflected in the prize money. Winning the cup is now more lucrative that winning the league; a powerful incentive for the big clubs to give full priority to their cup campaign.

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This year’s cup has boiled down to a clash of the titans, a giant team from each of the country’s two main cities and footballing centres: Sao Paulo are up against Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro.

Neither club has any chance of winning anything else this year. Their 2023 campaigns will stand or fall by the outcome of this cup final. The stakes, then, are high and turned higher still by the intriguing background to the match. The backdrop to this contest is all about one of the most contentious issues in the contemporary Brazilian game — the invasion of foreign coaches.

Coaches from Uruguay, Argentina and Hungary made a huge contribution to the development of Brazilian football. But once the national team started winning World Cups, an air of self-sufficiency took over. Foreign coaches were few and far between, until recently.

The tipping point came in 2019, when Flamengo enjoyed a magical year under Portuguese boss Jorge Jesus. Subsequently, his compatriot Abel Ferreira has performed wonders with Palmeiras, while the work of Argentina’s Juan Pablo Vojvoda with unfashionable Fortaleza completes the trio of the best coaching spells in the last five years. This has opened the doors to more foreigners. For much of this season, around half the first-division clubs have been coached by non-Brazilians.

Understandably, the locals have not reacted well to the development. Brazilian coaches are not being given high-profile jobs abroad and are losing space at home. Some of them feel that they are not getting a fair crack of the whip.

This time last year, Flamengo were coached by a Brazilian, Dorival Junior. He had been brought in on a short-term contract to hold the fort after a disappointing spell under the former Portugal international Paulo Sousa. Seen as a calming influence, Dorival united the dressing room and took the club to two major titles, the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of the UEFA Champions League. His reward? Come the end of the year his contract was not renewed. He lost his job, and Flamengo looked to Portugal once more, replacing him with Vitor Pereira. This, of course, turned Dorival into a victim and a hero in the eyes of those who are unhappy with the foreign invasion.

True, Flamengo had not been playing especially well. They were fortunate to win the domestic cup in a penalty shootout, and they were unimpressive against inferior opposition in the Libertadores final. Club directors were almost certainly thinking of a meeting with Real Madrid in the Club World Cup, and anxious to bring in some international know-how.

The problem is that their option did not work out. Flamengo did not even meet Real Madrid as they lost their Club World Cup semifinal to Al Hilal. And, following further disappointments, Pereira was on his way — replaced by yet another foreigner, the controversial high-profile Argentine Jorge Sampaoli.

A dynamic figure who spends the game — when he is not sent off — pacing furiously up and down his technical area, Sampaoli has over the course of his career accumulated astonishing bold victories and spectacular failures. So far, his time with Flamengo has been closer to the latter. His team crashed out of the Libertadores in humiliating fashion to Olimpia of Paraguay, and the lack of dressing-room harmony was highlighted when Sampaoli’s physical preparation specialist was forced to resign after punching international centre-forward Pedro. And all the time Sampaoli paces restlessly on, changing his starting XI and again and again as he searches — so far in vain — for some kind of blend.

Should Flamengo have stuck with Dorival? Perhaps. He is now in charge of their cup final opponents, Sao Paulo. His supporters have argued that, quite apart from Flamengo, he should have been a candidate for the Brazil job. Their problem is that they are planting their flag in unsteady ground. Apart from the cup run, Dorival’s time in charge of Sao Paulo has not been especially impressive. His team was eliminated from the Copa Sudamericana (South America’s UEFA Europa League equivalent) by Liga de Quito of Ecuador after a display of astonishing mediocrity. In the league they lag 13th, seven places below Flamengo and only four points clear of the relegation zone.

The cup final, then, is a case of winner takes all. Second place is nowhere.

Sao Paulo have the advantage. Last Sunday they went to Rio and won the first leg 1-0. But maybe that was a missed opportunity. On a boiling afternoon they wilted in the second half and were unable to turn their early superiority into a bigger lead. Flamengo will surely be better in the second leg, but can they find enough to win the day? There is plenty riding on the result.


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