Having guided Sao Paulo to victory in the last three editions of the Brazilian national championship and come away with the country's last four coach of the year awards, Muricy Ramalho's credentials are beyond reproach. And though blessed with a remarkable talent for rubbing people up the wrong way, even the fans of O Tricolor Paulista's fiercest rivals are in no doubt as to his contribution to the team's recent success.
Ramalho, a perfectionist who lives and breathes the game, took his first steps on the coaching ladder as assistant to the late Tele Santana at Sao Paulo, subsequently taking over the top job as a result of his mentor's failing health. Santana's shoes were hard to fill, however, leading Ramalho to take leave of his beloved Sao Paulo and begin a journey that took in no fewer than nine different clubs in Brazil and abroad. Yet he always had one eye on a successful return to the Estadio do Morumbi, a goal he has since achieved.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Brazilian strategist looked back on some of the highlights of his career so far as well as bringing an intriguing insight into the daily routine of a top-level coach.
FIFA.com: Muricy, many of the people who admire your coaching achievements in winning three consecutive Brazilian titles know next to nothing about your playing career. What kind of a player were you?
Muricy Ramalho: I was a good player. I came up from the youth system at Sao Paulo FC, where I used to play in the hole just off the front men. At the time many people likened my style to that of Zico. Indeed, I was heavily backed to go the 1978 World Cup as his understudy but in the end I wasn't fit enough.
That was largely due to a knee injury, right?
Yes. That injury meant that I barely played in Sao Paulo FC's Brazilian title-winning campaign in 1977 and lost any opportunity I'd had of taking part in the World Cup in Argentina. That's the biggest frustration of my playing career. I look at TV footage [of that tournament] and think ‘I could have been there'. It was the saddest moment of my life.
What's the hardest thing for a recently retired player to handle when he takes on a coaching role?
A lot of players hang up their boots and think that knowing about football is all it takes to be a coach, but it's not like that. Players spend their whole careers receiving orders, and once they get home they've nothing else to worry about. And then suddenly they're the ones who have to give the orders, which means worrying about things 24 hours a day. What training session shall I put on? Is that reserve player unhappy? Which players could we sign? It's like being the director of a multinational company. Given the resources available today, there's no excuse not to know about teams from all around the world. That's why people should think twice before saying such and such a player is a leader who expresses himself really well and so he'll be an excellent coach. It's not that simple.
Did you learn a lot of those finer points from Tele Santana?
Yes. I was always at his side and, though he wasn't much of a talker, the most important thing was to observe his behaviour and learn from him. Thanks to that [experience], nowadays I find myself in certain situations that I've not been in before and yet they don't seem new to me.
You made the step up from assistant to head coach earlier than expected. Can you fill us in on what happened?
It was a difficult period because Sao Paulo FC had been putting everything into place for some time with a view to me gradually replacing Tele. He was due to stay on at the club for another two years, but I ended up having to take over at a point when the club needed to sell some key players. Then Carlos Alberto Parreira arrived and I agreed to be his assistant because I knew I'd learn a lot from him, but he couldn't bear the incredible pressure either and it fell to me once more. I told the directors that more patience was required but the same thing happened: after a series of bad results, I had to leave.
At that point did you still have the desire to return to the club where you had spent most of your life?
Very much so. I was very angry when I left because it didn't seem fair and because I couldn't accept leaving Sao Paulo FC like that, as a beaten man. I remember being completely alone when I walked out the door of the training centre. When I was leaving I thought to myself: ‘One day I'll be back, and I'm going to come back and win things.' It took a few years but finally that day arrived.
Would you like to become synonymous with the club, like Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United for example?
Our footballing culture wouldn't allow that to happen. In England they use their heads more off the pitch whereas in Brazil everything is massively skewed by people's passion [for football]. It doesn't matter what you've done in seasons gone by. You lose a friendly match and you're under pressure. It would very difficult to stay in the job for so long, even more so when you're responsible for everything at the club like Ferguson is. In any case, I don't think that having one individual controlling everything centrally, like a genuine manager, is the way forward. At least not in Brazil.
Tell us about your spell in China with Shanghai Shenhua in 1998.
So many stories! I remember working with an interpreter: a young lad who'd learnt Portuguese in Macau. I found it really tough to understand him and vice versa. Besides which, he knew nothing about football so I had to explain everything to him before he could to pass it on to the players. In the end I stopped bothering and the players learned a smattering of Portuguese, enough to realise just how annoyed I got when things went wrong!
In that particular instance, did you become one of those all-controlling managers you mentioned earlier?
You're not wrong! By the end I was even going to the supermarket with my assistant to buy noodles and tomato sauce to prepare the players' meals. We must have done something right though, because we won the Chinese Cup that year without losing a game.
Having never coached a national team, do you think it would be very different from working at club level?
Yes, it must be different. With the exception of the World Cup or another major competition, you never get more than a day or two with the players. Most of the time you're relying on the players' quality rather than what you do in training.
Would you think twice about accepting a national team job in that case?
No, turning down the Brazilian national side would be laughable. You just can't. Just as every player dreams of playing for the Seleção, the same thing happens to coaches. If one day things fall into place and the opportunity presents itself to me in a normal way then I'd want to be ready for it. But it's not something that drives me crazy or is an obsession of mine.
What about another national team that wasn't Brazil?
What Fabio Capello is doing in England isn't easy, and it's even harder to do what Felipão (Luiz Felipe Scolari), a South American, did in Portugal. It deserves credit. The cultures are different and not everyone has what it takes to get their message taken on board.