It has been a roller-coaster year for Hugo de Souza Nogueira, or Hugo Souza. The 22-year-old goalkeeper made the transition from Flamengo’s academy to the first team, suffered familial tragedy and found himself in the fringe of the manager’s plans before being thrown into the deep end amid a crisis. Souza locked down a starting spot in goal and led Flamengo to the Brasileirão title, becoming the youngest goalkeeper in Flamengo’s 125-year history to accomplish the feat.
Souza began his development at 5 years of age, taking his father’s suggestion and playing in Vasco’s futsal academy. He received a monthly sum of 600,000 reais to afford transportation to training while helping his unemployed parents to survive, but after the financial aid was cut, he decided to abandon the club and head for Fluminense, where he would briefly stay before heading back to Vasco, only to depart the club once again after his allowance was cut for the second time.
He did not give up on his dreams, however, and continued playing in an amateur club before a friend of his father managed to get him a trial with Flamengo’s academy. The goalkeeper took the opportunity by the scruff of his neck and made Gávea his home; at 10 years of age, Souza was already playing regularly for the U-14 side. His trajectory, despite the financial difficulties, would be rewarded with several trophies including the Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior, the main grassroots tournament in Brazil.
His form at club level prompted Brazilian national team manager Tite to call up the 19-year-old in a 23-man roster for friendlies against El Salvador and the United States, although he did not play a single minute in either match. Four months later, he was called up to the 2019 South American U-20 Championship in Chile, but once again did not feature as Gabriel Brazão started in goal instead of him.
2019 was one of the most successful years in Flamengo’s history both at the first-team level as well as the academy level. Hugo was a key part of the U-20 team’s victory in the Taça Guanabara, stopping two penalties in the shootout in the Final to lead them to victory, and on November 20, he grinded out a 1-1 draw against his former club in the second leg of the Campeonato Carioca de Futebol Sub-20 in São Januário.
Having won the first leg 2-0, this saw Flamengo take a 3-1 victory on aggregate and win the tournament, but the night ended on a sour note as Souza suffered racial abuse from the Vasco fanbase. “Knowing how to lose is part of football. Vasco came from inside the favela like Flamengo,” stated Souza in a video released by Flamengo after the game.
“The fans who do what they did, with this unacceptable attitude, called me a monkey more than once. I have no reason to invent this. I was playing. They are fans who need to know a little more of the history of the club they support. When I was a kid, I played for Vasco and I know a little about the history of the club. It was the first to open doors for black people in football.”
One week after the victory against Vasco, Flamengo faced off against Palmeiras in the first leg of the Campeonato Brasileiro de Futebol Sub-20 Final, taking on a Verdão side featuring the likes of Gabriel Menino, Patrick de Paula, and Danilo, all of whom would play an important part in the club’s Copa Libertadores triumph in January 2021. Palmeiras won the home leg via an early goal from Gabriel Silva, but Flamengo turned around the deficit with a 3-0 victory at the Estádio Kleber Andrade.
At the senior level, Flamengo were going from strength to strength under the reign of Jorge Jesus, having won the Brasileirão, Copa Libertadores and Campeonato Carioca whilst narrowly losing to Liverpool in the Club World Cup Final. Hugo began the season as the club’s fourth-choice goalkeeper behind Diego Alves, Gabriel Batista and César, and in March, tragedy struck as his father died of a heart attack.
Deprived of his first football teacher and his rock, Hugo considered leaving Flamengo to have a fresh start and gain the playing time that had evaded him so far in the professional level. Boavista and Nice registered an interest in bringing the youngster to Europe, but he ended up remaining in Rio de Janeiro, and on September 27, 2020, his opportunity finally arrived.
Flamengo found themselves in crisis mode, as a surge of COVID-19 had spread across the Ninho do Urubu training ground, causing 19 players to become infected. On the pitch, things weren’t going much better as a 0-2 defeat to Ceará two weeks earlier had thrown their title hopes in greater jeopardy, followed by a 0-5 thrashing against Independiente del Valle in the Copa Libertadores group stage, Flamengo’s worst ever result in the competition.
Apart from Pedro, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, and Gerson, manager Domènec Torrent was forced to field a team composed of youngsters and firing players at the Allianz Parque, with other teenagers such as Guilherme Bala and Otávio making their debut against Palmeiras. What could have been a heavy defeat ended a 1-1 draw thanks in large part to an array of high-quality saves from Souza, who received the Man of the Match award for his performance between the sticks.
“I haven’t played in nine months. The last match was with the under-20s. The difference between this game is that in the last one my father was in the stands watching and today I don’t have him anymore. I haven’t had him in six months, a guy who gave me everything. Today the first time I went on the field without my father. He’s not here physically, he did not watch the game at home, but he’s up there better than us. He was my great supporter.”
The following match, Hugo made his Copa Libertadores debut — his only appearance in the competition thus far. Facing off against Independiente del Valle at the Maracanã, he kept a clean sheet as the Rubro-Negro won 4-0. Flamengo would go on to finish top of their group after beating Atlético Junior at home on October 22, moving onto the Round of 16 where they would face Racing Club de Avellaneda.
Taking advantage of the long-term absences of Diego Alves and César, Hugo would string together 6 starts in 20 days, leading Flamengo to 5 victories and a draw against Red Bull Bragantino. César came back into the team for the Libertadores match against Junior, but the veteran was forced to make way as they took on title favorites Internacional in Porto Alegre, with Éverton Ribeiro’s last-minute goal giving Flamengo a 2-2 draw.
After the draw in Beira-Rio, Flamengo played Athletico Paranaense in the first leg of the Copa do Brasil Round of 16. They took the lead early on in Curitiba via Bruno Henrique and withstood an onslaught of attacks, with Hugo saving a penalty in the second half from Walter to preserve a 1-0 victory, and they would go on to withstand a resurgent performance from an Athletico-PR side that worked diligently to overturn the result, grinding out a 3-2 victory to progress to the quarterfinals.
However, Hugo’s fairytale rise seemed to have reached a standstill on November 1 when Flamengo threw away an early lead to lose 1-4 at home to São Paulo. The following week, they suffered another humiliating 0-4 defeat to Jorge Sampaoli’s Atlético Mineiro, resulting in Torrent’s dismissal. Flamengo acted quickly and brought in legendary São Paulo goalkeeper Rogério Ceni as manager.
Ceni’s first test came in the quarterfinals of the Copa do Brasil, where he would face off against his former club at the Maracanã. Diego Alves replaced Hugo in goal after the ex Valencia man made his long-awaited return from injury, and while the Rubro-Negro had the bulk of chances, they were unable to break the deadlock in the first half. Brenner gave São Paulo the opening goal after the break, but Flamengo quickly equalized via Gabigol, who latched onto Bruno Henrique’s pass and dinked it over Tiago Volpi.
Shortly after, Alves was forced to come off due to an apparent injury, prompting Ceni to replace him in goal with Hugo. Flamengo continued to apply pressure in search of a winner, but their hearts were broken in the 88th minute. After receiving a back pass from Léo Pereira, Hugo attempted to dribble past Brenner, only to gift the ball to the now-FC Cincinnati forward, who tucked home the second goal into an empty net, as Hugo covered his eyes in horror.
Whilst Hugo would return to the starting line-up in the following match, a 1-1 draw against Atlético Clube Goianiense, he dropped back to the bench following Alves’ return from injury. Flamengo strung together an impressive run of form in the league, with four consecutive victories, although that form did not extend to cup competitions, as São Paulo eliminated them with a 3-0 victory in the second leg. The cherry on top came on December 2, as the defending champions were eliminated from the Copa Libertadores at home as Racing won 6-4 on penalties.
His luck picked up on Christmas when the club announced that Alves had suffered a muscular injury in his right thigh, prompting Hugo to start the following match on Boxing Day, a stalemate against Fortaleza, where Ceni had previously managed for a year before joining Flamengo. They began 2021 by hosting crosstown rivals Fluminense, with De Arrascaeta breaking the deadlock for the hosts, but they suffered a major blow as Luccas Claro headed a free kick from Danilo Barcelos into the back of the net. Fluminense completed the comeback in the 93rd minute as Yago Felipe capitalized on Filipe Luís’ errant back pass and tapped home the winner.
Ceni elected to bench Hugo in the following match and test César in goal, but he fared even worse as Flamengo lost 0-2 to Ceará at home, suffering a lethal blow to their title hopes. With Hugo back between the sticks, Flamengo defeated Goiás Esporte Clube, Palmeiras and Grêmio whilst losing to Athletico Paranaense. He would return to the bench on February 1 following Alves’ return from injury, but once again, the 35-year-old failed to last the full 90 and was hauled off in the 62nd minute after suffering a recurrence of his thigh injury.
From that point on, Hugo retained his place in the starting line-up until the end of the Brasileirão campaign, with Flamengo defeating Vasco da Gama, drawing to Red Bull Bragantino, and beating Corinthians. It set up an all-important fixture against their main title rivals Internacional on the penultimate matchday, with Flamengo overturning an early deficit and defeating a 10-man Inter side thanks to second-half goals from De Arrascaeta and Gabigol.
Flamengo’s final league match came against São Paulo, who had already thrown away their title chances after a horrendous run of performances in January, sacked Diniz, and sold top scorer Brenner to FC Cincinnati. Nevertheless, the Tricolor would go on to take a 2-1 victory at the Estádio do Morumbi, whilst simultaneously, Corinthians goalkeeper Cássio saved Flamengo’s blushes with a monstrous display to grind out a stalemate, assuring that Flamengo won their second straight league title.
Luciano da Rocha Neves opened the scoring for São Paulo shortly before halftime, beating Hugo with an expertly placed free-kick, but Bruno Henrique quickly equalized from close range to pull Flamengo back into the fight. Seven minutes later, Hugo’s meager pass fell to the chest of Dani Alves who played it towards Pablo, who converted the go-ahead-goal. Despite his blunder, Hugo became the youngest starting goalkeeper to win the Brasileirão at 22 years and 25 days old.
From a technical point of view, Souza stands out due to his quick reflexes and his ability to stop medium and long-distance shots. However, he needs to improve in dead-ball situations; we saw in the last league match against São Paulo how he sometimes struggles to position his wall in the right place and can leave himself vulnerable in free-kicks. Many of his errors typically come from crosses, where Hugo is either too slow or too quick in coming off his lane and stopping potential goalscoring scenarios.
Nevertheless, it is clear that his Achilles heel is his ability in possession. Hugo struggles in the distribution of the ball, often leaving his team exposed with poor decision-making, overconfident dribbling and inaccurate passing. “[Hugo] has potential, he has size, wingspan, high reaction speed due to his size … But…he still has to evolve in working with the feet,” said Ceni. “The goalkeeper must be a libero, he must play advanced. With all of this, we will try to make him evolve, in a job together with the goalkeeper coach.”
He hasn’t even played 30 games at the professional level, but Souza is already attracting interest from the likes of Milan and Ajax. The Dutch giants will likely be without first-choice goalkeeper André Onana for the rest of the year after he tested positive for the banned substance Furosemide, whilst Maarten Stekelenburg’s contract expires this summer. Kjell Scherpen was given the start in Thursday’s UEFA Europa League fixture against Roma, but the 21-year-old failed to convince after letting Lorenzo Pellegrini’s free-kick slip through his hands.
Whether he’s playing at Flamengo or Ajax next season, Hugo Souza has persevered and succeeded in his mission to become a professional footballer. In a country with one of the worst rates of social inequality in the world, he has helped lead his family out of poverty and make a name for himself at one of the biggest clubs in South America, combining his divine talent and never-say-die mentality to become a champion of Brazil. At 22 years of age, he could be the next goalkeeper after Dida, Júlio César, and Cláudio Taffarel to take the leap from Brazil to Europe and establish himself on the world stage.
By: Caio Batatinha
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alexandre Vidal / Flamengo