Around the world with Ze Maria


Zé Maria has some stories to tell. So many, in fact, that it takes three video calls over two days (and a lot of patience on his part) to even scratch the surface. Over the last 30 years, he has been from the bottom of world football to the top and back again, stopping on every step in between and at quite a few places around the edges.

There are tales from his playing days: memories of Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram at Parma; recollections of Roberto Mancini, Adriano and Luís Figo at Inter; stories of Mário Zagallo, Ronaldo and Romário Romario with Brazil. Then there are the times spent as a manager in Kenya, in a remote Romanian ski resort and the Albanian second tier. There are thoughts on the current state of football and on the barriers he faces as a black coach trying to take his career to the next level.

As our conversation jumps from country to country, subject to subject and through different eras, he goes back to the same themes of relationships, trust and the power of persuasion. More than once, he brings up his favourite quote from Bernardinho, a Brazilian volleyball coach so successful his house contains more precious metal than most central banks: “A great coach is one who can make a player willingly do that which he normally would not.”

For Zé Maria, that coach was Ancelotti, who he calls his “biggest influence” and “one of the three best managers in the world”. Ancelotti was the promising young Parma boss when Zé Maria moved there from Flamengo in 1996. “I was approached by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but I turned them down,” he says. “My dream was to play at a big club in Italy. In Brazil, we only saw the Italian league.”

It was not without its challenges. “Serie A is the most difficult league in the world. You leave Brazil, you have zero tactical knowledge and you go to a country where it’s all tactics? It’s complicated. As a full-back I liked to attack and attack. I had to learn how to defend, to cover the centre-backs.”

Ancelotti helped him adapt, by demanding hard work but also being warm and encouraging. “He treats you as a person first, then as a player. All managers should do that. The group at Parma was terribly strong. The defensive line was me, Buffon, Cannavaro, Thuram and Benarrivo. In front of us Sensini, Dino Baggio and then Chiesa and Crespo up front. There were players on the bench who had won the World Cup in 1990 and finished as runners-up in 1994. [Ancelotti] knew how to manage that. That’s the difference with great coaches.”

Ancelotti led Parma to second place in Serie A that season after being in the relegation zone at Christmas and, Zé Maria says, the relationship they built – “a bond of friendship but always respecting the limits between manager and player” – survives now. He spent a week watching Ancelotti work at Napoli in 2019 and follows his progress at Everton.

After finishing as a runner-up in 1997, Zé Maria had to wait nine years before he finally won a Scudetto while playing for Inter. In another stellar squad, with another young, ambitious Italian manager in the shape of Mancini, Inter also won the Coppa Italia twice in both of his two years in Milan.

Mancini also knew how to tread that line between disciplinarian and ally, says Zé Maria, especially when it came to that team’s great talent, Adriano. “There are players that you know haven’t slept [before training], but you need them. The coach walks past and sees the guy lying there, but he turns his head the other way. You can’t let it go all the time. With players of that quality [on the bench], it could create problems. That’s what Mancini knew how to do. He knew when to turn his head. The players think: ‘Fine. Leave him. On Sunday he’ll score, we’ll win the game, we’ll win a cup or the league.’ It happens at all big clubs. The coach needs to be intelligent.”

Just how good was Adriano? “I had to mark him when he was at Inter and I was at Perugia. I remember a game when our centre-back tried to haul him down by the neck and Adriano dragged the guy along for 10 metres, broke away and scored. He was intelligent too, so he was unmarkable. Unfortunately, when his father died, he had a lot of problems in his head. Even when you’re close friends, it’s difficult for you to hold back a guy who is 1.90m tall, weighs 90kg, who wants to go out and live his life. Unfortunately, he ended up losing a little of what he could have given.”

In Brazil, the media coverage of Adriano’s personal life is intense and often sneering, even a decade after he last played for the national team. “There is a passage in the bible; ‘A prophet is not without honour, except in his own land.’” Zé Maria says. “In their own country people are intensely criticised. Adriano’s problem, if it is a problem, is that he is a fantastic boy with a huge heart. People criticise him for that. People want him to be something else.”

As well as that silverware in Italy, Zé Maria won a Confederations Cup and Copa América with Brazil in 1997, in a squad he describes as “one of the greatest in the history of the Seleção.” It is a bold claim, but one that bears up to scrutiny. Brazil played 24 times in 1997 and scored 71 goals – three per game. A front two of Ronaldo and Romário cut through defences like woodchipper through candy floss and they were more than ably supported.

“There were 23 of us and anyone could play,” says Zé Maria. “Sometimes it would be me and Zé Roberto [at full-back], other times it was Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Up top you had Rivaldo, Romário, Bebeto, Sávio, Ronaldo, Djalminha, Juninho.” Managing the group was not without its issues. “It was as difficult to mark those guys off the pitch as it was to mark them on it. There were the devils and the angels. It was mostly the guys from Rio who liked to go out. Romário, Paulo Nunes, Djalminha, Ronaldo, Edmundo. Then there was a group that was a bit calmer, the ones who played in São Paulo.

“Everyone had their own temperament, but there were never any clashes. Zagallo knew how to control it, giving a bit of freedom at the right time, controlling things at other times. Even with Romário, there are times that you can go out, and times you can’t. They ended up having a few arguments. But up until 1997, Romário was always in the squad. He only didn’t go to the World Cup because he was injured.”

The same fate befell Zé Maria. He picked up a knee injury at the Gold Cup in February 1998 – not helped by the fact that Zagallo played him while unfit. There had been talk that he, not Cafu, would be the first-choice right back in France – “I was one of the few players who really pushed him for that position,” he says – but it was not to be.

For Japan and Korea four years later, he says he “did not expect to be called up”. He had played for Luiz Felipe Scolari at Palmeiras and the pair had fallen out over what Zé Maria saw as dishonesty from the coach. “He wanted me on loan. I didn’t want to sit on the bench, so I asked him to guarantee that I would dispute the position fairly with [Francisco] Arce. But when I got to Palmeiras, I was a substitute. Even when I played well, I’d be on the bench the next game. We ended up having problems. Because of that I always say in my teams the player in the best form will play. Nobody has a fixed place in my teams.”

His teams? We’re off in another direction now. In 2010, Zé Maria completed his Uefa Pro Licence at Coverciano, the revered Italian managerial finishing school that trained his mentors Ancelotti and Mancini. “You study various subjects – English, sports medicine, physical training, technique and tactics – and two that really caught my attention: psychology and communication.”

As part of that process, he shadowed José Mourinho during Inter’s treble-winning season. “He’s like a Brazilian coach in that he talks to the players a lot. You had Eto’o, Sneijder and Milito, who weren’t used to defending. You go back to Bernadinho’s comments. Because Mourinho is a great leader, they would do anything for him. Materazzi is not an easy person to work with, but if Mourinho told him to jump off the 30th floor, he’d jump. [Mourinho] would tell Balotelli to shut his mouth, that if Balotelli didn’t do what he was told, he could go home. It’s another way of managing.”

Zé Maria has subsequently taken charge of six clubs in five countries, moving from Italy to Romania, Kenya and Albania before returning to Brazil. “I’ve worked in some exotic places,” he chuckles. In Romania, he lived in the Carpathian Mountains, managing a club called Ceahlaul. “Prince Charles has a house up there, where he goes skiing from time to time,” Zé Maria smiles. “In the winter it was -16℃. When you’re giving a training session, first your fingers and toes start to freeze, then the whole of the rest of your body. There was a ski lift in the middle of the town, but there was nothing else. My office overlooked the cemetery.”

Kenya was a jarring contrast. “I arrived in Nairobi and, when I got off the plane, I almost caught fire. The sun burns on your skin. I walked down the road and there were zebras on the other side. I was having lunch next to Lake Victoria and a guy came over and said: ‘Careful if you see any waves here, because it might be a hippopotamus.’ People wondered what I was doing there. ‘Zé Maria who played for Brazil and Inter?’ They wanted to touch me. People wanted to hear my stories. It was the biggest club in Kenya, so every game was like managing Flamengo or Corinthians in Brazil. The stadium was packed.

“There were difficulties. Sometimes you go to a stadium where the players don’t all fit in the changing room, so you have to change on the bus. But the passion is absurd. African players are technically similar to Brazilians, but they lack opportunities to move to bigger leagues. Because of the pitches, when you dribbled the ball would bounce a metre up in the air, but the quality with which they controlled and conducted it, not even a Brazilian would do that.

“I worked in Albania at KF Tirana, the biggest club in the country that had been relegated to the second division. They had never been relegated before and had real problems. But we won the second division and the Supercup.” Most recently, he spent time coaching Portuguesa in São Paulo.

Zé Maria sits back and ponders what will come next. He would consider taking a job in Brazil but, after spent 23 years outside the country, he is viewed with suspicion. In Brazil, there is a small circle of managers who always get the big jobs. In Europe, meanwhile, there is little space in the dugouts for Brazilians. “There are no Brazilian coaches in the top four leagues in the world. There are two reasons. Firstly, they [lack] desire to go to Europe and get up to the [tactical] level of the European coach. Secondly, it’s difficult to leave Brazil. It’s winter here and it’s 30℃.

“I’ve heard Muricy Ramalho, a great coach, saying: ‘I’m Brazilian, we have to dribble, we can’t lose that.’ But you’re not going to lose that. You can dribble, but with organisation behind it. Those are the things Brazilians don’t want to do, to get out of that comfort zone, to grow. That’s what we have to learn. The Argentinians do that. Pochettino, Simeone. It’s arrogant to think that you don’t need to improve.”

Race is also an issue. In Brazil, where people of colour make up more than half the population, just one of the 20 managers in the top flight is black. The situation is just as bad in Europe. “Look at the big teams in the world; there are no black coaches. What’s happening [with the Black Lives Matter movement] is good, but it’s unlikely there will be a radical change. The storm will pass and everything will go back to how it was. People aren’t going to stop being racist.

His race also held him back as a player. “I was going to move to Verona but I didn’t go because the fans thought there should not be a black player in their team. I’ve been to cities where I was booed, along with other players of colour, like Thuram. When it happened, I responded by dedicating myself even more. That was my way of showing up their stupidity. They harmed their own clubs. They lost on the pitch and were fined off it. But in the following game the same thing happened again. That’s why I say it’s unlikely that it’ll change. It’s sad that people don’t learn.”

“We need a 180-degree turn and that requires courage. It requires courage from club presidents and the people in charge. When a coach of colour takes over at a big club, he has to be the best, otherwise he will be fired quickly. We’re not asking for much. I just want the same amount of time a white manager would have. If the opportunity comes for me to coach a big club in Brazil or Europe, I am qualified to do it well.”

He dreams of coaching in England, where he spent a week towards the end of his career, training under Bryan Robson at Sheffield United. A deal did not go through but it left an impression. “English people like beer but, even if they have a few beers after training, during training they dedicate themselves 100%. That’s the mentality I like. On the pitch, I want to give my maximum, I want to get better, I want to win. I saw a guy go in head-first into a tackle in training.

“It would be easier for me in Italy, because of the language. But, thinking about how I want to work, with intensity from morning until evening, England is the place. I demanded a lot from myself as a player – I stayed after training to practice crossing, passing and shooting – and that’s what I demand from my players: dedication and desire to win.”

By Joshua Law for Yellow & Green Football / Published on The Guardian 

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