Tim Vickery Column: The importance of coaches
Great players are usually natural talents, who work on an instinctive level. Many never get beyond that. Some, though, dominate the technical part of the game with such ease that they then become curious about the collective side – the obvious example is the Dutch master, Johann Cruyff.
Perhaps Zizinho is a Brazilian equivalent. The idol of the young Pele, he was an extraordinary player, chosen as the best of the 1950 World Cup. European journalists sent over to cover the tournament could hardly believe what they were seeing. The Gazetta dello Sport said that watching Zizinho was like observing Leonardo da Vinci painting a masterpiece. Willy Meisl, an influential journalist of the times, wrote that he “possesses all the qualities that can be identified for a professional to get close to perfection.”
Zizinho belies the idiotic myth of Brazilian football being some kind of Carnaval in boots, a disorganised ballet with everyone only interested in expressing themselves. He was obsessed with tactics. I visited him in the late 90s, and spent a happy couple of hours chatting and debating the tactical diagrams that he loved to keep of teams from past and present.
He was well aware of the importance of such things because he played in a time when Brazilian football made massive strides in tactical terms. The groundwork for Brazil’s domination – the world titles of 1958, 62 and 70 – was laid in the 1940s and 50s, the span of his playing career. A key part of the explanation for the defeat of his 1950 side was its defensive frailty. In the old WM system of the time, football was a succession of one against one duels. If Uruguay’s winger Ghiggia beats Bigode, Brazil’s full back, the consequences can be fatal – as they were in the decisive game of that year’s World Cup, when Ghiggia set up the first goal for Schiaffino and scored the second himself.
Eight years later, when Brazil won their first world title, they did not concede a goal until the semi final. By then the national team were comfortable playing with a back four, with its key concept of defensive cover. This did not come from nowhere. In domestic football clubs were experimenting with this new formation and its variations – 4-2-4 and 4-3-3 – in the preceding decade.
“These modifications could only be carried out,” wrote Zizinho in his 1985 autobiography, “because, at the time, there was a great respect for the figure of the coach, who had the security of being able to put into practice his work without the fear of losing his job and being deemed incompetent if the team suffered two defeats,”
These are highly significant words. One of the very finest players Brazilian football has ever produced is giving lie to the myth. The coach is not necessarily the enemy of talent, the killjoy who spoils the spectacle by placing chains on his players. If he does his job well, then the coach is talent’s greatest friend, for he finds the balance between attack and defence and the collective context in which the great player can shine.
It is can now no longer be denied, even by the most blinkered nationalist, that the Brazilian club game is operating massively below its potential. The signs have been there in the Copa Libertadores and the World Club Cup. The Brazilian clubs now have a vast financial advantage over their rivals elsewhere in the continent. But we are not seeing this advantage out on the pitch, even in the last four years when Brazil’s clubs have won the continental title. All of them, bar Tite’s Corinthians, have then been brutally exposed when they have gone on to dispute the world crown. This year, with some cost cutting going on, the Brazilian clubs looked a little bit more vulnerable going into the Libertadores. And do it has proved. All six have been eliminated before the semi final stage. Only Gremio can bemoan their luck. The others got what they deserved. Bearing in mind the size of their wage bill relative to their opponents, this is one of the biggest disappointments in the history of the Brazilian club game.
Meanwhile, after five rounds of the Brazilian Championship, seven clubs have already parted company with their coach.
There is surely a link between the content of the last two paragraphs. To make it explicit, I shall quote the closing words of Zizinho’s book. In Brazil, he lamented, “they have given the central midfielder, the man who controls 70% of the team’s possession, the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play.”
Here we have one of the great problems of the Brazilian game in recent times, and an explanation for how and why it has been overtaken by other schools in the fight to be considered the most attractive in the world. And the reason for the change in emphasis, as so many local coaches have told me, is simple – fear of losing their job. So they play safe, filling central midfield with markers. The quality of the spectacle suffers.
Zizinho’s remedy, back in 1985; “changes in our football will only be possible when the coaches gain the respect of the directors, players and the fans.” His views will come as a huge shock to many, but his conclusion looks wiser by the minute – if the position of the coach is weak, then so too will be the quality of the football.