“We know that it is not enough to win. We have to put on a show too.”
With those words veteran Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus introduced himself to Flamengo in his first press conference back in June. Five months down the line, and with his team on the verge of a stunning Serie A and Copa Libertadores double, nobody can contest that the former Benfica supremo has delivered on his promise.
Jesus' arrival in Brazil was one of the biggest surprises of the football year in South America. The nation is notoriously conservative when it comes to embracing new coaching ideas, maintaining instead an interminable merry-go-round of underwhelming tacticians that seem to come and go every four or five games.
Predecessor Abel Braga, for example, lasted barely six months in his second Flamengo spell that came to an end halfway through 2019. A Libertadores winner himself with Internacional and a man of vast national and international experience, it would be unfair to cast aspersions on the 67-year-old's credentials; but the fact that the job he subsequently took up with Cruzeiro in September is his 33rd in 34 years on the bench speaks volumes.
When Braga handed in his resignation, though, the Flamengo authorities decided to look away from the usual suspects and turn towards Jesus, renowned for his work in transforming Benfica from also-rans to Portugal's finest team. The results have been nothing less than spectacular.
Accompanied by a hugely ambitious recruitment drive over the Southern Hemisphere summer that saw the likes of Filipe Luis, ex-Bayern defender Rafinha and Manchester City youngster Pablo Mari arrive, the new coach has taken his side to 20 wins and just one defeat in 25 Serie A games to date, a run that leaves Flamengo virtually assured of their first league title since 2009. Indeed, defeat for closest challengers Palmeiras one day after Saturday's Libertadores final against River Plate in Lima would seal the crown with four games to spare.
It is the Libertadores that the Fla faithful most crave, however. Unforgivably for a team of such prestige, support and stature, the Rio side boasts just one Copa, lifted in 1981 with the wizard-like Zico directing matters on the field. Jesus was fortunate to see his fledgling side squeeze past Emelec in the last 16 after being humbled 2-0 by the Ecuadorians in the first leg but since then it has been plain sailing, with local rivals Inter and Gremio both dispatched with ease to set up a mouth-watering clash with River.
Jesus has strived to get the best out of his star-studded squad, seeking to impose discipline in the ranks as the foundation upon which he has built a fluid, dynamic attacking unit. “Now we have a rulebook. Hours in which you can and cannot do things inside and outside the club,” Jesus told reporters early in his Flamengo tenure – while admitting that he had to give way on one of his proposed restrictions, concerning the days his players could go to the beach.
“There is an idea in Europe that Brazilian players do not like to work. The Portuguese saying is that if you have more than four Brazilians in your team, what you've actually put together is a samba band. But I came to see them and it is not the case: they are very professional and know what they are doing.”
One player who has undoubtedly benefited from Jesus' stern gaze is Gabriel Barbosa. Turned out of Inter after just a single disappointing season, the striker has hit 38 goals to date in 2019, including seven in the Libertadores which almost guarantees him the top scorer award. The only person that could overtake him is fellow ex-Santos man Bruno Henrique, who with 31 across all competitions has enjoyed a sparkling debut year at the club.
In defence, too, the young pairing of Mari and Rodrigo Caio – a one-time target for Barcelona – has proved a formidable duo, supported ably by the safe hands of Diego Alves in goal. They will not find it easy in Lima against a River side looking for their third Copa crown in five years, and marshalled by the equally astute and firm disciplinarian Marcelo Gallardo, but Flamengo go into the final as narrow favourites and will be backed up in Lima's Estadio Monumental by hordes of fans desperate for victory.
For Jesus, too, glory in South America would be vindication of a coaching style that perhaps has never received the attention it deserves. A Primeira Liga winner with both Benfica and Sporting, the coach then ventured out to Saudi Arabia, where he won the local title in a brief six-month spell before leaving at the start of 2019.
His options looked sparse following that departure despite such a glittering track record, with few elite sides turning their gaze towards him. Those who have worked with Jesus, however, know that there are few brighter football minds.
Pablo Aimar, for one, ranks him alongside Marcelo Bielsa and Jose Pekerman as the coach from whom he learned the most, and despite being a former River star has nothing but respect for his old mentor at Benfica. “I admire Jorge Jesus a lot. I learned from him, I like how he works, trains his teams, which I like to watch a lot,” the current Argentina Under-17s coach told reporters when quizzed on the Millonarios' next foe during the recent World Cup.
The veteran took a huge risk in walking into one of the world's biggest and most demanding sporting institutions, and even more so with the stated goal of transforming the way Flamengo play in a country where a handful of disappointing results usually spells the end for even the most prestigious coach. But the gamble has paid off handsomely so far: now, if he can crown this spectacular 2019 with Libertadores victory, Jesus will already have written his name into Fla's illustrious history books.