RIO DE JANEIRO — Two years ago, Brazilian striker Gabriel Barbosa had become a bit of laughing stock in Europe.
The forward wasn’t exactly living up to his nickname of “Gabigol,” scoring just one league goal for Inter Milan in 2016-17 and then none for Benfica during a loan spell the next year.
On Saturday, though, Gabriel can cap a remarkable turnaround by giving Brazilian club Flamengo it’s first Copa Libertadores trophy in 38 years.
Gabriel is seen as Flamengo’s main threat in the final against defending champion River Plate of Argentina, having scored 22 goals in 26 domestic league matches this season.
He also has another seven goals in 11 Copa Libertadores games for the Rio de Janeiro club and has returned to Brazil’s national team, which he helped win the 2016 Olympic gold medal.
Fans of all ages, even those that do not support Flamengo, has started copying his latest blonde hairstyle. Some carry banners to the Maracanã stadium that read: “Today Gabigol will score.”
He often does.
“Now I feel ready to play in Brazil, England, Germany, Spain,” a confident Gabriel told Spanish newspaper AS ahead of the final in Lima. “I can play anywhere.”
That didn’t prove to be the case during his stint in Europe, leading to Inter sending him back on loan to his boyhood team Santos in 2018.
A quick recovery led Flamengo to take him on loan next, reportedly paying Gabriel $250,000 per month, a very high sum by Brazilian soccer standards. The club was hoping he would help end its major trophy drought, dating back to 2009.
The investment paid off to the extent that the Rio giants could win both the South American crown and its national championship this weekend. The latter would happen with four matches to spare if rival Palmeiras fails to beat Gremio on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of Flamengo fans followed their team’s bus to Rio’s international airport on Wednesday, and all are expecting Gabriel to score in Saturday’s final at the Monumental Universitário stadium in Lima.
But Flamengo coach Jorge Jesus still has doubts about the striker.
“I still haven’t managed to make him a great player emotionally, as he is technically and tactically,” Jorge Jesus said after Gabriel was sent off in Flamengo’s 1-0 win at Gremio last week.
“I haven’t managed to put some balance in,” the Portuguese coach added. “But he is young, he has time to change. The best players in the world do not have these issues that ‘Gabigol’ has.”
The striker was carded 21 times in the Brazilian championship, with 19 yellows and two reds.
In better financial shape than in recent years, Flamengo could reportedly pay Inter Milan 16 million euros ($17.7 million) to keep ‘Gabigol.’ But the striker also hinted he wants to return to Europe.
“Flamengo and Gabriel still have a lot of (big games) ahead,” Gabriel said this week.
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