(Reuters) - Gabriel Barbosa, who scored two goals in the last three minutes before being sent off as Flamengo won the Copa Libertadores for the first time since 1981, is one of the most controversial footballers in Brazil.
In a nation that loves a footballing rebel, Barbosa ticks all the modern boxes, with his tattoos, media-grabbing stunts, frequent disciplinary problems and, most importantly of all, his goals.
He instantly secured legendary status among Flamengo fans on Saturday with his brace of goals in the dying seconds that gave his club an astonishing 2-1 win over defending champions River Plate in Lima.
No one could say that the goals – or the sending off, his second in two successive games and which followed confusing scenes after River Plate’s Exequiel Palacios was shown a red card in the dying seconds of the game – were entirely unexpected.
The 23-year old striker joined Flamengo in January on loan from Inter Milan and has been one of the reasons the Rio side are now just a step away from becoming only the second Brazilian team – and the first since Pele’s Santos in 1963 – to do a Libertadores and league double.
He is the top goalscorer in both tournaments and fully deserving of his nickname Gabigol – Gabi being short for Gabriel and Gol meaning Goal in Portuguese.
However, he is almost as well known for his persona, which he himself described as “marrento”, which translates as stubborn, uncompromising and cocky.
Barbosa first hit the headlines with Santos in 2014 when, as a teenager, he ended his first season as top goalscorer and then helped them win the Paulista state championship the following season.
That clinched him a transfer to Inter Milan but he was unable to win a regular place amid questions about his attitude and he was loaned to Benfica where he also failed to reproduce his Brazil form.
He subsequently returned to Santos on loan and again started grabbing the goals , so that when Flamengo offered him the chance to join their squad of expensive, highly rated recruits he did not hesitate.
He has since flourished in Rio and formed a close bond with the famously raucous Flamengo supporters.
One fan who brought a placard to a game declaring “Today we’ll get a goal from Gabigol” started a trend and the player now runs to the crowd to grab the nearest sign and hold it up for the cameras.
Barbosa’s loan period ends in December and Flamengo fans will be desperate for a man who is now a club legend to stay on. Internazionale, though, might have other ideas.
It’s a no-lose situation for the powerfully built, pristinely presented player.
He can stay in Rio where he is now revered. Or he can head back to Europe and try to prove that he really is capable of shining at the highest level.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Tony Lawrence
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