(Reuters) - Two of Brazil’s most storied clubs will meet in the Copa Libertadores semi-final next week but the build up to the match has been dominated by a debate over the presence of foreign coaches in the South American nation.
Gremio are at home to Flamengo in the semi-final first leg on Wednesday, with the Rio de Janeiro-based team favourites to reach the final of South America’s Champions league for the first time since the 1980s.
But Gremio coach Renato Portaluppi poured scorn on his opposite number, Jorge Jesus, the former Benfica and Sporting Lisbon manager who took over at Flamengo in June and has led them on a run of eight wins in nine games.
Portaluppi is famous for his colourful comments – the former Gremio, Flamengo and Fluminense forward once claimed he was a better player than five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He’s never trained a big European side outside Portugal and he’s never won anything and he’s 65 years old,” the Brazilian said of the Portuguese coach.
“He has the obligation to do exactly what he is doing; get Flamengo playing good football. But he has to win. Then you’ll see if he has what it takes to be a great coach.”
The comments were not just controversial – Jesus has won Portugal’s Premeira Liga three times and the Portuguese league cups on six occasions – but many considered them xenophobic, especially coming soon after Portaluppi made disparaging remarks about Santos’ Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Few foreign coaches have come to Brazil in recent years and those that have didn’t stay long. Peru boss Ricardo Gareca and Chile manager Reinaldo Rueda were among those who departed after only a few months in charge.
Outsiders are often viewed with suspicion in a nation that many Brazilians still believe is the home of the beautiful game with little to learn from foreigners.
The men’s national side – the only one to win the World Cup five times - has never had a foreign coach and the fact that very few Brazilian coaches have coached at the top level in Europe is further evidence of Brazilian football’s insularity.
Tostao, the former World Cup winner and now newspaper columnist, called Portaluppi’s comments “disrespectful and arrogant”. However, others believe the man known as Renato Gaucho was deliberately trying to rile his opponents ahead of the first leg in Porto Alegre.
“(Renato) Gaucho likes conflict and confrontation, that’s his way,” said Fox Sports analyst Mauricio Borges. “He’s doing this to try and destabilise Flamengo.”
Although he led Gremio to the Libertadores title two years ago, Portaluppi’s team will be underdogs against a Flamengo side who have splashed out on players such as Inter Milan loanee Gabriel Barbosa, Uruguay midfielder Giorgian de Arrascaeta and Brazilian international full backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis.
The spending spree has worked as they top Brazil’s Serie A and are in the semi-finals of the Libertadores for the first time since the 1980s.
Gremio, however, have their own reasons to be confident.
They have lost just three times in their last 22 games with Luan, player of the tournament in the 2017 Libertadores, finding form again alongside highly-rated winger Everton and Matheus Henrique, who last week received his first call up for Brazil.
Editing by Christian Radnedge