Will Brazilian football keep faith in its managerial youth?

Words By Robbie Blakeley Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 8, 2018

The mention of Brazilian football conjures up memories of World Cup triumphs and an affiliation with o jogo bonito. Images of daring pioneers of a fearless, attack-minded mentality which has seen the seleção lift a record five World Cup crowns.

Naturally, the reality is always a little different. Brazil’s first two World Cup wins, in 1958 and 1962, saw the back-line expertly marshalled by Vasco idol Bellini, whilst arguably the finest left-back in the history of the international game, Nilton “The Enyclopedia” Santos, also made up part of a stringent back four.

And in Brazil’s most recent title win, in 2002, Lúcio was the solid present in a back three which kept clean sheets in both the semi-final and the final, conceding a solitary goal in the knock-out stages. Going on to feature in two further World Cup competitions as well as Inter Milan’s 2010 Champions League win, Lúcio boasted the kind of physique and carried the demeanour of a man who would not look out of place on a nightclub door in Romford.

Yet a brief look at coaches at the top of the pyramid in Brazilian football in recent years points to a drastically different story from the kind of inventiveness and innovation we have come to expect from this corner of the world. Coaches – the pinnacle of those at the top of their field, anyway – are seen as great thinkers, not only capable of changing teams and their fortunes, but at the elite level changing the way we consider and approach the game.

In Brazil, nothing could be further from the truth over recent seasons. Such is the short-term attitude of club directors that reigns of club managers can be as short as a few weeks – number of games can be measured in single figures before one man is hustled through the exit in the morning while his replacement is ushered through the entrance in time for a hastily arranged afternoon press conference.

The previous season in the Brasileirão, however, brought much needed respite and indeed hope for the future from what was becoming a depressing and farcical norm. For the first time since the 2010 campaign, the average age of managers in Brazil’s top flight fell below the age of 50, coming in at 49 years and six months.

The current national league campaign, which kicked off last month, has continued that positive downward trend. The 20 coaches who started the Série A season have an average age of 48 years and seven months.

Furthermore, over half the managers in the division – 11 of the 20 – are under 50. It may be slightly too early to call this the dawning of a new era, but it is an enormously encouraging step after years of a managerial merry-go-round which saw a white-haired group swap jobs like Top Trump cards.

Oswaldo de Oliviera, Cuca, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Joel Santana, Muricy Ramalho. Names such as these have been trading positions and tracksuits for the best part of the last 15 years in much the same way the British press has highlighted the fortunes of the likes of Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and Alan Pardew.

It links back to that previously mentioned conservatism of those overseeing Brazil’s top clubs, but there is another explanation. Presidents in Brazil are elected to their posts and are desperate to cling on to that power.

For that reason, they are desperate to keep fans onside, particularly the toricda organizada, those who turn supporting a football team almost into a full-time job. Lose the organizada and your days can be numbered; more often than not that can mean acquiescing to the demands of a group who want to see a tried and tested name, a man with a decorated CV and trophies in the CV, no matter how long ago they were won.

Yet last year saw the league crown won by Corithians with former assistant Fábio Carille at the helm of the ship and the current in the water appears to be changing direction. Roger Machado, who has previously been in charge at Grêmio and Atlético-MG, has been given the responsibility of guiding Palmeiras through their latest galactico efforts as the paulista club look to win both the Brasileirão and the Copa Libertadores.

Jair Ventura, son of 1970 World Cup winner Jairzinho and arguably the finest of this batch of emerging coaches, is now at Santos having worked miracles at Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo. He has since made the move from Rio to Santos, meaning three of the Paulistão’s “big four” are in new and exciting hands. A similar situation can be seen to be unveiling itself in Rio as well, with Botafogo and Vasco hiring Alberto Valentim and Zé Ricardo respectively.

It is a recurring theme throughout the south-east. In Belo Horizonte, veteran boss Oswaldo de Oliviera was relieved of his duties in February following a disappointing start to the Minas Gerais state championship. In his place came 37-year-old former assistant Thiago Larghi, initially given the job as an “intern”.

The irony being that, in stark reality, all Brazilian coaches are considered interns. There is very little grace period, with a time span for a new coach to be able to bed himself in virtually non-existent.

But with a new wave of young managers should reasonably come a new attitude, a fresh approach to how these apprentices are treated, both by club directors as well as fans. Mistakes will be made – football management is, after all, a learning process and there will be false steps along the way to any potential success.

Such is the case with Internacional’s boss Odair Hellmann, a man stepping into the dugout of one of Brazil’s biggest clubs for the first time. The 41-year-old is widely considered to have a bright future in management, yet just a few months into the job already looks to be under pressure from the club’s infamously impatient support.

Inter were eliminated from the state championship by great rivals Grêmio and have since made an average start in the Brasileirão. Their opening three games have seen the southern side pick up a win, a draw and a defeat, and they have not scored in their last two league outings.

But fresh minds, in any walk of life, are needed for fresh ideas. Brazilian domestic football is at one of its lowest ebbs in terms of technical quality, with top-rate players moving to Europe early.

Vinicius Junior, not yet 18, has already been sold by Flamengo to Real Madrid, and suitors already appear to be circling over the heads of his teammate Lincoln and Santos’ latest promising youngster, Rodrygo.

That makes innovation and invention on the training ground all the more crucial, and the same tired names recycling the same rehearsed routines has led to a monotonous, lethargic league with few games of real interest. That could well be set to change over the coming years.

Arguably the biggest innovation seen to date, and one we may well see a lot more of in the near future, was brought about by 44-year-old Fernando Diniz, in charge at Atlético Paranaense. Diniz as good as sacrificed the state championship, largely playing an under-23 side throughout the campaign, thus ensuring his first-team squad was properly fit and rested for the marathon Brasileirão campaign.

It is still early in the campaign but as we near the business end of the season, Diniz’s charges are far more likely to be able to go that extra mile, when fatigue and niggling injuries begin to bring a side to its knees. The bravery to veer away from the norm, going all out to win the dreaded state championships being a fine example, is the exciting indication of a new dawn approaching.

When push comes to shove, will Brazilian football and those overseeing the clubs grab this chance to usher in a wave of new thinkers? Will they have the patience and the bravery to stick, rather than twist, when dangerous winds begin to blow? We can but hope.

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