More than well qualified to discuss the world of football, he speaks his mind on a number of thorny issues, among them racial discrimination, which he himself has been a victim of and which provided one of the topics for discussion in an exclusive interview he gave to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You’re known as someone who’s always made a stand against racism. Has that determination to fight it always been in you or was it triggered by an incident you experienced as a player?
Roque Junior: Well, basically I think it’s all to do with my own background. I come from a family where everyone’s black, on both sides, and which has long suffered racism. When my grandfather, who died this February at the age of 97, arrived in my home town (Santa Rita do Sapucai, in the state of Minas Gerais) way back when, black people were only allowed to walk around the outside of the main square, while whites could walk in the middle. He was the first person from outside to break with all that, in a small rural town where racism was rife. So I’ve always had that awareness because of my family. I was born into a family that spoke about it, a family that was making a statement: that black people could achieve things, that there were no differences and that we could enjoy being who we are, end of story. I had that very clear in my mind because I experienced prejudice from an early age and I always knew how to handle it.
During your career you had several team-mates who suffered racial prejudice. Did you ever come together and try to raise awareness?
The whole process of talking about racism is difficult. People might say that they understand, but it’s another thing entirely to actually experience it. To know what it’s like you have to go through it. Deep down, not everyone understands and believes what happens. And even in today’s game it’s often the case that when you’re black you’re going to find more acceptance, just because you’re famous. It’s awful but it happens. As soon as I started to become famous things began to change for me. At the end of the day, though, football just reflects society. Racism exists, and in the places where it’s most prevalent it’s visible in all areas of society, including sport.
What do you think is the most effective way of combating discrimination in football?
It’s not easy, but these days you can identify the culprits and force the club to take certain steps. You have to share the responsibility. Both the governing body and these people have to be held responsible in some way.
While Brazilian football has produced many great black players over the years, the vast majority of its coaches tend to be white. As someone who is now in the process of becoming a coach, why do you think that is?
Once again I think it’s a reflection of the world we live in. In the last census over half of the Brazilian population said they were non-white. But look at the number of black university rectors in the country, for example. How many black people do you see holding important positions? That’s why I agree with the fight to introduce quotas at public universities because it’s a way of combating many, many years of discrimination as a result of slavery and everything that followed.
It’s a deep-rooted, historical problem. People just tend to think that a black ex-player doesn’t have what it takes to be in a management position or be a coach. It’s all to do with our history. People sometimes try to attach less importance to it and play down the impact it has, but it’s a slow process that has to take place in the home, with the whole idea of equality being passed from generation to generation. Governments also have to pursue educational policies that give opportunities not just to members of the black community but to people on low incomes too, a section of society that blacks are commonly linked with for that same historical reason.
Education is also an important factor in your move into coaching, isn’t it?
Yes it is, because I think I knew how to do things as a player. These days you have to be understanding and try to get your ideas across. I did an MBA in sports management and then a coaching course when I was in charge at Primeira Camisa FC (a youth team in Sao Jose). I grew to enjoy it, did some on-the-job training with Felipão [Luiz Felipe Scolari] at Palmeiras, and then I went to Europe.
And who did you learn from there?
I went to Porto and spoke to someone called Vitor Frade, who’s the man behind a football coaching methodology I’d been reading a lot about. Then I spent time with Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao and Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. I was away for nearly two weeks. When I came back I said: “I’m going to carry on”. And in May I completed the first UEFA coaching level in Italy.
Was there anything in particular that struck you when you watched these teams training?
We usually say in Brazil that training is training and games are games, but in actual fact things aren’t like that at all. Generally speaking, if you put the work in on the training ground, then things happen for you in games. You know how well Borussia Dortmund switch from defence to attack? Well, that’s all down to training. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that training turns you into a robot, but that’s not the case. It’s organised freedom. Tactics are something that your team have to execute as a unit in the four different phases of a match: defending, attacking, the transition from attack to defence and from defence to attack. But in Brazil no one had ever spoken to me about there being four phases in a match.
You played in Italy, Germany and England, three of the biggest leagues in the world. What was different about them?
In Italy they take tactics and movement to an extreme. German football involves more in the way of physical strength. There are tactics but you also have the freedom to create. They like that. Let me give you an example. You’re in Italy and you’re on the ball in your own area. Someone closes you down, so you swerve past them and keep bringing the ball out. In Brazil the coach says: ‘Very good’. In Germany it’s ‘OK’. But in Italy the guy says: ‘No. Not there. You got it right that time but you might have got it wrong.’ When you win a match there it’s more a case of feeling relieved than feeling happy. They’re just the things that make each country different. It’s not a case of one type of football being better than another. They’re just different. And it says a lot about how each country sees the game of football.