The 42-year-old has enjoyed a brilliant start to life in Sao Paulo and could emulate Jorge Jesus in taking the Libertadores crown in his first season
“How did a little guy like Napoleon manage to beat people? With strategy. With trickery.”
Abel Ferreira is most likely not the first person to treat his Football Manager campaigns with rather undue seriousness or perhaps even the only individual to find parallels between the game and the infamous French general, as he confided to The Coaches’ Voice.
However, at just 42, the ex-Sporting player is on the verge of fulfilling his dreams in real life too. On Tuesday, his in-form Palmeiras team travels to Avellaneda in order to face River Plate in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-finals.
Going on to lift the trophy would be a huge achievement for the Portuguese, who was something of an unknown quantity when he replaced the venerable Vanderlei Luxemburgo at the Sao Paulo club last year.
But Ferreira’s success also signals the continuation and growth of a wider trend: the deepening influence of European coaches and ideas on the famously chaotic, unstable world of South American football.
Just over 12 months ago, a unique double occurred.
Shortly before Flamengo’s Jorge Jesus became the first non-South American since Croat Mirko Jozic in 1991 to clinch the Libertadores at the end of 2019, Spaniard Miguel Angel Ramirez took Independiente del Valle to Sudamericana glory with a 3-1 victory over Colon.
Both major continental titles were, thus, claimed by Europeans, an unprecedented and, to many, not entirely welcome development on a continent where national pride means everything among its football teams.
Now, Ferreira is on the cusp of emulating his countryman, with Palmeiras still unbeaten over the entire course of the competition and one of the favourites to prevail in January’s final in the Maracana.
Palmeiras – in common with an increasing number of Brazilian teams – went looking for someone precisely of his profile when 68-year-old Luxemburgo was sacked in October: young, ambitious, full of fresh ideas and with experience in the European game.
Ramirez, who subsequently took up the vacant post at Internacional, was the first man contacted, while Gabriel Heinze was also a candidate prior to his arrival at Atlanta United.
But upon being rejected by both men, as well as Racing Club coach Sebastian Beccacece, the Verdao reached out to PAOK boss Ferreira, who came to prominence with his work at unheralded Braga in his native Portugal.
Early results were spectacular: nine wins and just one defeat in 13 games to clinch berths in the Libertadores semis and the Copa do Brasil final, as Ferreira made an even better start than Jesus had at Flamengo.
Not that the coach – who was an early mentor to Tottenham star Eric Dier among others during his previous spell in charge of Sporting’s B team – sees himself in the same vein as the expansive, risk-taking veteran.
His football has far more in common with another Portuguese tactician, Jose Mourinho, as Ferreira believes that the ends justifies the means.
“In football, it is kill or be killed,” he told reporters in his first Palmeiras press conference. “We live in the jungle. The rules of the game are clear: you win, or you win.”
While still at Braga, Ferreira told The Coaches’ Voice: “If your opponent is at the same level as you, then fine – I can attack you. But if you attack a mountain, you have to do it differently.
“In other games, you want to be the protagonist: to dominate the ball. But sometimes you have to accept your opponent is stronger than you. And, in this case, you have to be balanced.”
The Portuguese’s Palmeiras side are suitably formidable at the back, conceding more than once on just two occasions to date – both Serie A games where several first-teamers had been rested due to Libertadores obligations.
But there is also no lack of attacking firepower, in the guise of young gems Gabriel Veron and Danilo and veteran ex-Milan and Brazil striker Luiz Adriano.
Ferreira, who threw himself into coaching barely into his 30s after serious injury cut short his playing career, will nevertheless have to be at his best to take down a Libertadores specialist and another man who has benefited from a broader perspective: River’s Marcelo Gallardo, who has put into practice the lessons learned both at home and during his time at PSG and Monaco to become the highest-rated coach in the whole of South America.
Even the continent’s biggest clubs have long taken a conservative approach to coaching appointments, preferring short-term hires who know the lay of the land and will not spring any surprises – Luxemburgo, who was in his fifth stint as Palmeiras boss, is the perfect example.
But that outlook is changing. Gallardo was almost a novice when he took the River job back in 2014 and has gone on to reap huge success, including two Copa titles.
And while in the other semi tie both Boca Juniors and Santos boast trainers firmly from the ‘old school’ – Miguel Angel Russo and Cuca respectively – much of Santos’ success was built by Jorge Sampaoli, the unorthodox ex-Argentinaand Chile coach.
Boca, meanwhile, were pushed hard in the quarters by Racing, who have benefited hugely from the ‘European’ ideas introduced by Diego Milito as technical secretary and whose coach, Beccacece, came into the game with no professional playing background prior to working in Sampaoli’s backroom team and later striking out on his own.
“My mother always told me three magic words: discipline, hard work and talent,” Ferreira told his players, as caught on tape by Palmeiras TV, amid dressing-room celebrations following Copa do Brasil victory.
Before him, Jesus also placed special emphasis on reining in his Flamengo stars off the pitch, a gambit which paid dividends with the most successful season in club history.
Staunch defenders of the South America game, packed as it is with raw talent, passion and the world’s most ardent fanbase, may only admit it through gritted teeth, but training methods and attention to off-field areas such as nutrition and players’ conduct tend to lag far behind their European counterparts.
There are also deep structural and economic disadvantages with which to contend: even the biggest clubs run on comparatively tiny budgets, meaning that squads must be constantly renewed to stay competitive when the best players leave.
Therefore, the best coaches, the Gallardos of the world, remain flexible in their approach, tempering their philosophy with the ability to adapt should the situation suddenly change i.e. seeing three starters sold to Europe two weeks before season’s beginning.
It is no easy task, no matter where one hails from. Domenec Torrent, who waltzed into Flamengo with promises of reproducing the football of mentor Pep Guardiola, was sent packing after barely three months in charge amid accusations that the Mengao squad loathed his approach and were driven to distraction by the number of training drills undertaken without the ball.
To those who do succeed, though, the experience can be extremely rewarding. Xabier Azkargorta, the Basque coach who was one of the trailblazers for Europeans in the 1990s when he took over the Bolivia national team, recalled to FIFA the confusion caused when he told his mother of the venture: “She asked me, ‘Are you going as a missionary?'”
Azkargorta went on to take Bolivia to their first (and to date only) World Cup finals in 1994, and also took charge of several of the Andean nation’s biggest clubs. “I really don’t regret anything,” he added.
“What is more, I would advise, I would recommend, European coaches to come to South America to train at least a year here, because right here is the genesis, the roots, the cradle, the breeding ground [of football], and you’ll learn many things here that you cannot learn in Europe.”
One of those lessons, of course, is that there is simply no room for failure, which is gauged almost on a game-by-game basis. Ferreira’s exploits thus far will mean little should Palmeiras fall short against River and, as Torrent discovered, the colour of one’s passport is no defence when things go wrong.
But the Portuguese’s adventure in Sao Paulo, added to that of Jesus before him, and the success found by the still-emerging new generation of coaches such as Gallardo and Heinze, demonstrates how a European education married to an understanding of South America’s unique football culture can produce spectacular results.
The world of football is smaller than ever before, and it would be no surprise if, alongside the constant exodus of top talents looking to prove themselves, more and more ambitious young coaches choose to travel the opposite direction and test their wits against the continent’s finest.