Antonio Ferreira Franco de Oliveira, otherwise known as Nenem Prancha, never made it as a footballer, running out for unfashionable Rio de Janeiro club Carioca in the 1920s before dedicating the rest of his life to the game he loved.
In the years that followed he became something of a jack of all trades at Botafogo, working as a kitman, scout and youth-team coach. And when he wasn’t fulfilling his various duties at the club, he was on Copacabana beach, coaching boys’ teams in the ultra-competitive amateur leagues.
Cutting a distinctive figure in his trademark beret and large flip-flops, hence his adopted surname Prancha (Portuguese for “surfboard”), it was there on the beach that he unearthed stars of the calibre of Heleno de Freitas and the left-back-cum-midfielder Junior, one of the leading lights of the Brazil team that illuminated Spain 1982.
Nenem had a gift for spotting talent and a unique take on the game. One of his maxims was that his players should always be able “to read the game” and to carry out their jobs with a minimum of fuss. He also had a way with words, producing a string of quotable quips that would earn him fame and the nickname of “The Philosopher of Football”, this in a country known as the spiritual home of the game.
Some say that many of the quotes attributed to him were figments of the imaginations of the journalists who revered him and always sought to pay tribute to him. That selfsame charge was also laid at the feet of Botafogo coach Joao Saldanha, who took on the Seleção job in the late 1960s and laid the foundations for the great Brazil side of the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™.
Whatever the case may be, if people did invent pithy quotes and attribute them to Nenem Prancha, it was because there was good reason for them to do so. The inescapable fact is that he was a mysterious and charismatic figure who still occupies a prominent place in Brazilian footballing folklore long after his death in 1976 at the age of 69.
FIFA.com recalls some of his most memorable observations on the game.
“Penalties are so important that only club presidents should be allowed to take them.”
On what he saw as the most dramatic aspect of a football match.
“The ball should stay on the ground, because leather comes from cows and cows like grass.”
On advising his players to play a passing game.
“There’s no need for defenders to dribble in their own area. Their job is to hoof the ball up in the air. As long as it’s up there, there’s no danger of the opposition scoring.”
In other words, defenders cannot be ball-players. In Nenem’s view they had to keep it simple, which was why he was always critical of one of the great Brazilian players, Domingos da Guia, who would steal possession from forwards and then dribble round them.
“Goalkeepers need to carry a ball around with them all the time, even when they go to bed. Keepers with wives should sleep with their arms round both of them.”
On the players who wear a different coloured jersey to everyone else.
“Goalkeepers are cursed: the grass doesn’t grow where they walk.”
Which is why they need to carry the ball with them.
“If your studies are getting in the way of your football, then you’re studying too much.”
His advice to Botafogo central-defender Ronald Alzurguir, who once missed a training session because of a school exam.
“A footballer should approach the ball like he would a plate of food: with hunger, ready to gobble it up.”
All he asked of his players was to keep it simple and be determined. He was wary of players he called “indisplicentes”, a term he made up by combining the words “indisciplina” and “displicência”, Portuguese for “indiscipline” and “carelessness”.
“If concentration alone won you matches, the prison team would be unbeaten champions.”
Football’s a serious game, but not that serious.
“If superstitions won you games, the Bahia state championship would always end in a tie.”
On the gods’ lack of influence on football scorelines.
“A good player is like an ice-cream shop: he’s got a lot of qualities.”
Ice-cream is always welcome in a place as hot as Rio de Janeiro.
“Didi played football like someone sucking an orange, with a lot of care.”
On the fabled Brazilian midfielder, a two-time FIFA World Cup™ winner in 1958 and 1962 and known for his elegance on the ball.
“He who asks has preference, he who moves receives.”
Football is all about movement.
“Modern football is like a kid’s kickabout: everyone just runs around and no one knows where they’re going.”
But you also have to know where you’re moving to.
“Football is very simple: if you’ve got the ball you attack, and if you don’t you defend.”
The final word.