Tuesday 05 November 2019, 19:34

Gabigol: I've been overwhelmed by the extraordinary Flamengo fans

  • Gabigol is threatening milestones set by Adriano and Zico

  • He discusses River Plate, Liverpool and Qatar 2022

  • The 23-year-old waxes lyrical over the Flamengo fans

‘Boom Boom’ ‘Cesaro Section’ ‘We’re goanna see a try!’ ‘Right leg hospital, left leg cemetery’ ‘We came to see the Dream Shake’ ‘Sidney, will you marry me?’ ‘Austin 3:16’

Banners with those words on them have been commonplace during the enrapturing capstones of Boris Becker, Cesaro, Greg Inglis, Mirko ‘Cro Cop’, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sidney Crosby and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Never in sporting history, however, have so many fans synchronously paraded identical individual-extolling signs at arenas as the masses are now at the Maracana.

‘Hoje tem gol do Gabigol!,’ (‘Today has a Gabigol goal!’), it reads. It’s entrancing Rio de Janeiro like samba music did in the early 20th century.

Firstly, because Gabriel Barbosa represents the planet’s best-supported club, a self-emblazoned ’40-million nation’. Secondly, because the 23-year-old Brazil striker is scoring goals as regularly as he used to eat cake (read on). Finally, because his seldom charisma – peroxide-blond hair, funky celebrations, interaction with worshippers, embracement of the fan-formulated banner – has endeared him exceedingly to the Flamenguistas since he arrived on loan from Inter Milan in January.

Gabigol’s 20 goals in 22 games have Flamengo eight points clear at the Brasileirao summit. His five goals in as many matches during the Copa Libertadores knockout phase have O Mengão back in the final for the first time in 38 years.

FIFA.com caught up with Gabigol to discuss hunting landmarks set by Zico and Adriano, the Flamengo fans' passion, River Plate, Liverpool and his hopes of going to the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™.

FIFA.com: You had an excellent campaign for Santos in 2018 and finished as the top scorer in the Brasileirao, but do you think your game has reached another level this year?

Gabriel Barbosa: I think it has. I think I’ve evolved a lot, and this makes me very happy because I’m still very young. I’ve changed a lot of things in my life since I came back from Europe, and this year I’ve been particularly focused on this. I hired a nutrition doctor. I loved cake, sweet things – I’ve cut them out. I hired a chef. I eat right. I have a physiotherapist and people who look after other things, and this has helped me a lot – I can focus on football. I’ve managed some wonderful statistics with the help of my team, but I always want to improve.

You’ve already surpassed Adriano’s return of 19 goals in 2009, you’re one shy of equalling Zico’s 21-goal record for a Flamengo player in a Brasileirao campaign, and you are close to becoming only the third player – after Dada Maravilha and Tulio Maravilha – to finish as the competition’s leading marksman in back-to-back seasons. How does all this make you feel?

It's a great honour, but I don’t deserve to be mentioned beside Adriano and Zico. They are Flamengo and Brazilian football legends, and they won titles for this club. I haven’t won anything yet and there’s a lot to do to win the Brasileirao and Libertadores titles. Besides, my statistics are the result of the whole team’s work, not my own. I’m very grateful to my team-mates and my coach. I’ll admit that my focus is not just to become a champion with Flamengo, so obviously if I can finish [as top goalscorer] again I’ll be really happy.

One of the players you link up with especially well is Bruno Henrique

I’ve known him since we were at Santos. We get on really well, and on the pitch we’re getting better and better at linking up. He’s a great player. I was really happy when he signed for Flamengo. He went through a tough time at Santos with the injury, so I’m really happy for him that he’s having a great spell and got in the Seleção.

What’s Jorge Jesus like to work under?

He’s a really special coach, maybe the best I’ve ever had. He’s brought a lot of new ideas to Flamengo and they’ve been working really well. He’s very intense, but he has affection of all the players and the supporters.

When you joined Flamengo you knew that they had 40 million supporters, that they were really passionate, but has the level of their passion surprised you?

Absolutely. It’s inexplicable. It’s something else. Every game is packed out. Wherever we go we have enormous support. We all know Flamengo’s history, that they have the biggest fan base, that they are really passionate, but you have to feel it, to be on the pitch to truly understand. It’s extraordinary, beyond anything I imagined. It’s overwhelmed me.

And the supporters absolutely love Gabigol…

It makes me really happy. I’ve only been at Flamengo a short while, and obviously the goals and the victories help, but the supporters have been behind me since the first game. The enormous affection they have shown me has really overwhelmed me. I’m so grateful. I try to repay this on the pitch.

How did it feel to help Flamengo return to the Libertadores final after 38 years in such emphatic style?

Our target was just to get there, and obviously we’re really happy to have done it with such a victory. It had been too long for a club as big as Flamengo to have gone without being in the final. But our focus now is on the Brasileirao – the next game, then the one after. We have to try and put in good performances so that when the 23rd arrives, everyone is in good form and confident.

What do you think of this River Plate team?

They’re a really strong side. They have a lot of experience. They’re the [reigning] Libertadores champions, they are used to reaching the final. They are really established, really tough, and we have to respect them. But we know our own potential and have to play our own game. It will be a great game, but right now we’re concentrating on the Brasileirao because we really want to become Brazilian champions.

Liverpool will represent Europe at the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2019™. What do you think of Jurgen Klopp’s side?

(laughs) First we have to beat River Plate, then win a semi-final to, who knows, play against Liverpool. The supporters talk about this, ’81 a lot but, as I said, our focus for now is on the Brasileirao. But Liverpool are a great side. Their [front three] is of the highest quality.

On the subject of players of the highest quality, you recently returned to the Brazil squad. How was that experience?

It was incredible. It’s great to be in the Seleção – my country, the biggest national team in the world. It was an incredible experience. I always learn things when I am there. I really enjoyed being there, pulling on the Brazil shirt, and being able to play a few minutes.

How badly do you want to play in the FIFA World Cup?

It’s a big dream. The World Cup is so special. I remember Brazil winning the World Cup in 2002, even though I was really young. And Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but it was a beautiful spectacle. Brazil has so many great players in each position. There’s a lot that needs to happen for me to realise my dream, but I try to work hard every day to keep improving and I'd love to do enough to be there in 2022.

Who have been the best forwards you’ve seen in your life?

Ronaldo, Neymar, Robinho, and my idol Cristiano Ronaldo. Firmino and Gabriel Jesus are also great players and it's a pleasure to play with them in the Seleção and watch them play.