Well-known in the Brazilian game for his extreme politeness, measured words and composure under pressure, Oswaldo de Oliveira seemed an ideal candidate to adapt to Japanese football when he was appointed head coach of Kashima Antlers in 2007.
Yet the respected supremo, who before heading to Japan had bagged Brazilian league and FIFA Club World Cup winners’ medals with Corinthians and a Copa Mercosul title at Vasco da Gama, was sent to the stands twice in quick succession shortly after arriving in his new country. Though one of the undisputed gentlemen of Brazilian football, De Oliveira clearly had a lot still to learn.
Now back working in his homeland, the coach is aiming to successfully blend the lessons he picked up in the Far East with his customary composure in order to lift silverware with Rio de Janeiro outfit Botafogo. “I learned a lot. It’s only natural to have changed after living in a country with that degree of discipline, obedience and solidarity,” he told FIFA.com.
“Over there, being well-mannered is the norm. So much so that I was one of the more hot-headed guys! To the point where I got sent off, something that didn’t happen to me here,” continued De Oliveira, a man whose politeness was so unusual in the fiery Brazilian game that doubters initially questioned his ability to wield authority. “The people who thought that were soon won over by the results I got. Nobody who’s weak and not a leader can be successful.”
Early brushes with match officials aside, results were nothing short of spectacular in Japan, with De Oliveira leading Kashima to three consecutive J-League titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009. After earning hero status with the club’s faithful, as well as the respect and admiration of the board, the Brazilian was told that, barring his own resignation, he was in no danger of losing his post.
“The Kashima directors were brave enough to tell me that. We had a terrific relationship, which was a result of the culture over there. Here in Brazil they’d be scared to say that to a coach, in case he got complacent,” continued De Oliveira, before outlining why he chose to end his Japanese adventure late last year and accept an offer from O Fogão. “I just really felt it was time for me to come back home, both for family reasons and my desire to return to Brazilian football. I wanted to be here to see the World Cup in Brazil.”
Steady hand required
Having already attended several Botafogo games last year, when his friend Caio Junior was at the helm, the positive impression the team made on him undoubtedly helped De Oliveira decide to accept the Alvinegra job. And though, as he stated earlier, he felt the time was right to come back to Brazil, before signing on the dotted line the respected manager asked for money to be made available to improve the squad’s strength in depth.
Said reinforcements have so far yet to arrive, however, meaning the coach will need to work his magic and lift the morale of players such as Marcio Azevedo and Elkeson – currently struggling for form and confidence – and lean on the experience of veteran performers such as Renato and 35-year-old Uruguayan Sebastian Abreu.
He has an ability to astutely handle big personalities such as El Loco Abreu, who De Oliveira has described as “a man who loves a joke and helps build team spirit but not, as has been suggested before, someone who answers back.” The strategist has in the past successfully juggled the egos of controversial stars like Romario, Marcelinho Carioca and Edilson. And though he is known for his quiet, calm approach, he did not win the respect of these infamous rebels by letting them walk all over him.
“I’ve always got on very well with players others considered problematic. I must confess that early on I was a bit nervous around them, because if you show weakness you’re done for. Ironically though, they ended up not calling my bluff and were always very effective. I think that Romario, for example, when I had him in 2000 played his best football since his return to Brazil,” recalled De Oliveira, on the year Vasco won the Copa Mercosul and subsequently the Copa Joao Havelange, the latter with Joel Santana at the helm.
“They always understood that I never wanted to steal their thunder. I knew that the field of play wasn’t my territory, I wasn’t going to be the one scoring with overhead kicks or superb free-kicks.”
Teamwork to the fore
Going back to the lessons from Japan, De Oliveira has devoted significant time in training with Botafogo to an area he considers the most important aspect of modern football: ensuring every players’ full involvement in the team’s play. “What struck me most about what I learned over there was that we really need to improve our level of discipline and obedience,” said the 61-year-old Rio native.
“There’s still a place in football for creativity, for individualism and for star players, but the game is getting ever more tactical and competitive. And those aspects are based around discipline and following instructions, about the team moving all together as a unit. If you leave space it allows your opponents to play, but if you don’t then they can’t. Whoever’s out on the pitch, be they a forward or a defender, needs to be involved whether the team’s attacking or defending. [When we don’t have the ball] we need to form a barrier to shut out the opposition.”
The first challenge for his new team is the Campeonato Carioca, in which victory would give De Oliveira his first silverware on Brazilian soil since 2002. Moreover, that year’s Supercampeonato Paulista win when in charge of Sao Paulo could have been complimented with the national title, had the current round-robin league format been in place. However, in the competition’s then format, regular-season winners O Tricolor Paulista were caught out in the play-offs by a Santos side that found their form late before storming to the title.
Having spent time in the hotseat at Rio’s other three heavyweight clubs (Fluminense, Flamengo and Vasco), De Oliveira certainly has the experience and the know-how to get fans of O Glorioso onside and behind the team.
“It’s the same as when I was with Cruzeiro, Corinthians, Vasco, Flamengo and Kashima: we have to score goals, win games and lift trophies. There’s no other way,” said the coach, before summing up what his ‘Mr Nice Guy’ reputation really means to him. “If you’re not winning, being a good guy doesn’t help.”