After winning his third Primeira Liga title in 2015, Benfica manager Jorge Jesus was asked by a journalist whether he believed he was the best Portuguese manager at that moment in time.
“No,” he replied, “I’m the best in the world.”
He is not a man to mince his words. Whatever the message, Jesus is always ready to send it loud and clear (in that case one imagines he was after a pay rise), and he understands the importance of the media in communicating with his players, club directors and fans.
So, when his current club, the 2019 Brazilian champions and Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo, announced they were open to selling 18-year-old attacking midfielder Reinier Jesus to Real Madrid for €30m, he was quick to show his displeasure publicly. It was an obvious attempt to pressure the club president into driving a harder bargain or perhaps even hanging onto the player for another year.
“Flamengo doesn’t know how to value its brand. A player like that can’t be sold for €30m,” he said on Portuguese TV channel CMTV, before immediately drawing a comparison to his old club. “Benfica is spectacular in this [regard],” he continued, “because they even sell above the [market] value.”
A lot can be read into this snippet of conversation, both about Jesus’ genuinely high opinion of Reinier and the reasons Real Madrid are increasingly turning to the South American market to look for exciting additions to their squad.
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When referring to Benfica, Jorge Jesus was specifically thinking of Joao Felix, the 20-year-old Portuguese star who moved to Real’s city rivals Atletico Madrid for around €120m just last summer.
The Flamengo manager believes the two players are alike: “With Reinier, I asked him if he knew of João Félix. I told him that they have a similar style but that he is better than Joao at some things, like, for example, his finishing ability.”
Given the promise Felix showed at Benfica last year, those are weighty words. But Reinier has already performed in the Flamengo first team in a way that suggest there is a lot to come.
A goal against CSA in the Rubro-Negro’s last game of the 2019 season was perhaps the best illustration.
Reinier dispossessed an opponent on the edge of the box and immediately played a one-two with Diego Ribas. The return pass was a little behind him, but he flicked it back to Diego with his right heel and ran into the area. Receiving it once again, Reinier took one touch with his right before poking it into the far corner with the toe of his left boot.
His team were already 4-1 when he came on and CSA are a weak side, but the skillset he showed in those few seconds was impressively well-rounded for someone still too young to vote.
It was not a one-off, either. In just 711 minutes of top-flight football last year, the now-18-year-old scored a total of six goals, three with his right foot and two with his head to go with that one with his left. He is tall, elegant and plays with a composure beyond his years.
He is, though, a very different kind of player to the other two young Brazilians Real have signed over the past 18 months, wingers Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo. Jorge Jesus, in another interview with Marca, aimed a warning Zidane: play Reinier out wide and you will “suffocate” him.
Jose Mourinho has spoken of his perfect No.10 being a No.9-and-a-half in possession (breaking into the box, getting on the end of crosses and through balls) and a No.8-and-a-half out of possession (getting back to help out his fellow midfielders). Reinier has all the technical and physical qualities to develop into that sort of player.
The only thing that Jorge Jesus picked out as an area where Reinier could improve, at least the only one he picked out in public, was his dribbling.
Why, then, can Flamengo not get the sort of money that Benfica did for Felix?
It is in part to do with Reinier’s contract, which did not have as long to run as Felix’s. There is also the age – Reinier is two years younger – and experience.
Check out his highlights below:
But that cannot explain a difference of €90m for two players with similar ability levels in a market that puts a high premium on youthful talent.
The disparity is instead explained by where Reinier has played his football. Performances in Brazil, and South America more generally, are still seen as lesser currency, as inconclusive evidence that a player can thrive at the top level.
Felix had already done it in a (albeit lesser) European country and had led his team’s charge to the semi-final of the Europa League.
There is always the question of how a young South American will adapt to a new environment and a quicker, more intense style of football. That, despite his talent, remains the case with Reinier.
Compared to Rodrygo and Vinicius, Reinier also has the added issue of coming into the crowded central area in La Liga.
This element of doubt brings the reduction in price and that explains, at least in part, Real Madrid’s eagerness to sign this slew of teenage Brazilians.
Each of the youngsters they have signed represents a gamble and the chances that any of them will fulfil their potential. But any signing comes with some element of uncertainty and they have clearly decided the reduced prices in South America make the extra risk worth taking.