Rigorous restructuring and zealous transfer policy put Palmeiras in good shape for 2015 after centenary disaster
This is the second piece in a series of previews of the forthcoming Brazilian football season. The first in the sequence, focusing on chronic calendar problems and the fortunes of the two big Minas Gerais clubs, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here.
Last season, I dedicated an above-average amount of space on this blog to discussing Palmeiras. Justifiably so, as their political meltdown and anencephalic management has been one of modern Brazilian football’s major tragedies. Once regarded among the biggest and toughest clubs in the country, two relegations in the space of a decade and perennial battles against the drop have, for the time being, wounded Palmeiras’ reputation. Were they to be involved in another survival scrap in 2015, the club’s stature could suffer irreparable damage.
Early signs for this year, however, are promising. Firstly (and crucially), after the annus horribilis of 2014 where Palmeiras ricocheted head-first from one disaster to another and very nearly found themselves relegated amid muted centennial celebrations, club president Paulo Nobre has recognised that major changes must be made. This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation, but is a welcoming change from previous regimes who have played down such disasters, such as that of Mustafá Contursi who, after Palmeiras were relegated in 2002, stated that football would become “third priority” at the club, promising to instead focus on improving facilities at their exclusive social club in the leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Perdizes in São Paulo’s expanded centre. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, which Nobre, with his zealous attitude towards restructuring Palmeiras’ department of football, appears to have done.
Before dealing with the playing squad, the first changes made at Palmeiras for 2015 came off the pitch. Head coach Dorival Junior, director of football José Carlos Brunoro and his right-hand man Omar Feitosa were all dismissed, with Oswaldo de Oliveira, Alexandre Mattos and Cícero Souza brought in as their respective replacements. Oddly enough, it was Mattos, Palmeiras’ new director of football, whose appointment grabbed the most headlines.
The excitement around Alexandre Mattos – not a 20 goal-a-season centre-forward capped by the Brazilian national team but an executive with an MBA in Sports Management – stems from the fact he was Cruzeiro’s director of football during their two consecutive national championship-winning seasons. The off-the-pitch administration of the Belo Horizonte club, as I discussed earlier this week, is widely regarded to have been a crucial part in their success, and Mattos was responsible for the majority of Cruzeiro’s intelligent transfer dealings over the last three years.
Upon arrival, Mattos received the full VIP treatment. He was unveiled at the club’s training ground, handed a replica shirt and gave a press conference which was packed to the rafters with journalists. The entire affair is worrying for the future of the Brazilian game, where a director of football is treated as a marquee transfer. Mattos will undoubtedly help things run smoother at Palmeiras, while his intelligence, work ethic and connections should allow them to build a stronger playing squad. The supporters should not get carried away, however. Directors don’t win football matches.
The new coach, Oswaldo de Oliveira, appears to be a smart appointment but, like his director of football, he cannot be expected to transform the club’s fortunes on his own. Oswaldo has been around the block in Brazilian football, with his move to Palmeiras making him the first coach in history to coach all eight major clubs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. More importantly, he has evolved over the course of his coaching career, particularly in his four years spent in Japanese football with Kashima Antlers, where he won every trophy available to him. His strategic nous and man management abilities will be important if Palmeiras are to have a good year in 2015.
After cleaning up behind-the-scenes, Nobre, Mattos & co. could turn their attentions to the playing squad. The clear-out of deadwood, promised for years at the club, appears to have finally happened. Twenty-one players have been let go or told under no uncertain terms that they should look for another club, while several others should also leave Palmeiras before the start of the national championship in May.
Oswaldo de Oliveira has made it clear to the Palmeiras directors that he would like to work with a squad of 34: four goalkeepers and three players for each position in his preferred 4-2-3-1 tactical system, preferably with the third-string option being from the youth system. Consequently, the club have wasted no time in signing several players for the new season. At the time of writing, 15 incoming transfers have been announced in the last eight days.
After Palmeiras confirmed the arrival of four new recruits this Monday alone, leading sports news portal Globoesporte.com ran a sarcastic headline the following day, registering their shock that the club had “not announced any new signings in over 12 hours”, before reporting that Alan Patrick of Shakhtar Donetsk had joined on a one-year deal.
However, while old regimes at Palmeiras have adopted a cheap and cheerful approach to the transfer market, recruitment for 2015 has been primarily concerned with quality and necessity.
Among the new faces are Zé Roberto (of Bayern Munich fame), Coritiba playmaker Robinho, explosive Porto forward Kelvin, Internacional centre-back Jackson and Goiás captain Amaral. Oswaldo de Oliveira has also brought in some of his favourites from his strong Botafogo team of 2013, with right-back Lucas, centre-forward Rafael Marques and promising young defensive midfielder Gabriel all wearing the famous green jersey in 2015.
The club are still hoping to finalise the transfer of Santos’ defensive midfielder Arouca, who has taken his current club to court over months of unpaid wages. Were he to succeed in his legal case, he will be free to sign for Palmeiras, where the number 5 shirt has already been reserved for him.
Perhaps the transfer that created most commotion, however, was that of speedy Dynamo Kiev winger Dudu. The 22-year-old, who spent the 2014 season on loan at Grêmio, became the subject of interest for a number of Brazilian clubs in this preseason. His Ukrainian owners were unwilling to allow Dudu to go out on loan again, instead wanting to cash in on the player. Flamengo and Internacional had offers rejected, before Corinthians appeared to reach an agreement to bring the winger to Itaquera.
Dudu seemed set for Corinthians, in an interview with news portal Terra he spoke as if the deal had already been completed. However, rivals São Paulo hijacked the deal, prompting a drawn-out transfer novela which took up many column inches in Brazil’s sports dailies. It was your classic tug-of-war: one day Dudu was a Corinthians player, the next he was ready to be announced by São Paulo, then Corinthians, São Paulo, Corinthians, São Paulo…
Corinthians, struggling financially, appeared to drop out of the race, leaving Dudu free to sign for their rivals. Final contract discussions were scheduled and the club appeared to finally have their man. Then, out of the blue, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, Dudu was announced as having signed not for São Paulo, not for Corinthians, but for Palmeiras.
As it turned out, Alexandre Mattos had been holding surreptitious contact with Dudu’s agents and was able to agree terms to bring the player to Allianz Parque. Reportedly, the winger went into the final contract talks with São Paulo already aware of the agreement made with Palmeiras.
For a club surrounded by rivals and with dangerously low self-esteem, gazumping both Corinthians and São Paulo to sign a player is huge for the ego of many long-suffering Palmeiras supporters. “If anyone didn’t respect Palmeiras before (…), from now on, they will have to,” boasted Mattos.
This transfer saga was the latest in a long line of disputes between Palmeiras and São Paulo, whose deep-seated rivalry dates back to the 1940s, when the latter club attempted to seize Palmeiras’ stadium, claiming they (who had just been forced to change their name from Palestra Italia) were connected to the Axis powers of the Second World War. This perceived betrayal was made all the worse by the fact that a decade earlier, Palmeiras had organised a charity tournament to save a nascent São Paulo from bankruptcy.
The current presidents of both clubs, Paulo Nobre and São Paulo’s Carlos Miguel Aidar, are not on speaking terms and have used their platforms of influence to enact their petty squabbles. This behaviour can only hurt all elements involved: in the case of Dudu, the commotion created by his transfer will increase expectations upon him to insane levels, so much so that it will be almost impossible for the player to adequately live up to the hype surrounding him. In financial terms, Palmeiras are probably overpaying for Dudu (only time will tell) and São Paulo were very nearly drawn into paying the player R$400,000 (around £100,000) per month in wages, at the same time the board are about to announce a deficit of R$71 million for 2014.
The disagreement has no end in sight, as only yesterday São Paulo managed to hijack Palmeiras’ impending transfer for Ponte Preta attacker Jonathan Cafu. Although Nobre’s club are in a healthier financial position, neither can afford to enter into a pissing contest.
Though almost every piece of news coming out of Palmeiras this preseason has been positive, all involved with the club must keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Palmeiras fans have become conditioned to hoping for the best and expecting the worst, and though they may yet have plenty to celebrate come December with their remarkably competitive squad, it is important to be realistic and recognise the club’s sole objective in 2015 is not to win trophies or qualify for the Copa Libertadores, but to win back their self-respect and avoid being involved in another relegation fight.
Next time, Santos in trouble: coastal club set to take Palmeiras’ place in the danger zone amid financial chaos.
Cover image: Fernando Dantas / Gazeta Press