When, in February 2011, Michel Huff left Brazil to become the new fitness coach at Ukrainian club Metalist Kharkiv, he was unsure as to how long he would be staying.
“I packed a suitcase for two or three months, and though I went with the intention of staying there, I wasn’t certain about it,” he told FIFA.com a little sheepishly. “Let’s face it, it’s hard to have things clear in your mind when your life changes so much from one day to the next.”
A new country and an unfamiliar climate were not the only challenges facing Huff, who found himself the solitary Brazilian in a coaching team made up entirely of Ukrainians.
Yet, nearly three years on from making the move, Huff is still in Kharkiv, having since taken on the duties of assistant coach, tourist guide, translator, cultural attaché and barbeque cook, not to mention half a dozen other posts, all of which he happily spoke about in an interview with FIFA.com.
That radical transformation in his job description is one that has taken by Michel and his club by surprise. When he arrived in Ukraine no one could have foreseen he would become one of the most vital cogs in the northeastern club’s carefully planned and ambitious project.
Seeking to emulate Shakhtar Donetsk’s recent success, Metalist decided to invest in South American players in a bid to increase their standing on the domestic scene. And when they began drafting new players in, the club decided that it made sense to have Huff take charge of training sessions, given his ability to switch between Portuguese and English and mix in a little bit of Spanish, albeit on an interim basis only.
“As well as Ukrainian, there’s a lot of Russian spoken here in Kharkiv,” he explained. “I started taking classes in it almost as soon as I got here and now I can take training in Russian too. Obviously that’s helped the club and the coach (Myron Markevych) to have more confidence in me.”
Adding to Huff’s increasing sense of security is the fact that Metalist were league runners-up last season, becoming the first side other than Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Kiev to finish in the top two in the last 16 years.
“Obviously it’s the end result that counts,” he continued. “But people know that it’s not easy to adapt. They know that. On top of all that I’m on my own here because my wife is doing her doctorate in Brazil. It’s not easy, I can tell you. Me becoming a host for the South Americans is not just good for them, it’s good for me too.”
Brothers in arms
To begin with, Metalist’s had just three Brazilians on their books: Cleiton Xavier, Taison, who joined the club from Shakhtar in 2002, and Edmar, a naturalised Ukrainian playmaker born in Mogi das Cruzes and resident in the country since that same year.
While only Cleiton Xavier remains of that trio, the current Ukrainian league leaders now have four more Brazilians in their ranks: central defender Rodrigo Moledo, left-back Marcio Azevedo, midfielder Diego Souza and the forward Marlos. Lining up with them is a five-strong Argentinian contingent formed by Cristian Villagra, Jose Ernesto Sosa, Alejandro Gomez, Juan Manuel Torres and Sebastian Blanco.
“As I’ve been here longer and I speak Russian, I show them round the city, take them shopping, and show them what’s good about the place and where they can find good meat,” said the 37-year-old Huff before jokingly adding: “The last time the Argentinians did a barbeque it didn’t work out that well, so I got appointed the official barbeque chef too.”
Popping up beside Huff as he walks out to the training ground, Moledo confirms he is the right man for that particular job too.
“People aren’t used to it,” continued Huff. “Usually when you finish training everyone goes home and that’s that. But here that’s just another part of my job. It’s up to me to adapt and set the limits: training has to start at the time it has to start. Off the pitch, though, I’m a bit like an older brother to them.”
Apart from having to adapt to everything else, foreigners living in Ukraine also have the intense cold to contend with. A factor that make everyday life a little less comfortable, it also presents an obstacle at work. After all, it is one thing to train players when the thermometer reads 17 degrees, and quite another when temperatures fall to as low as -17, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
“I had to study the effects, obviously,” explained the multi-talented Brazilian. “Players have to warm up for longer and you focus more on stretching. I also set great store by strength training, which requires rest periods, and that’s a problem when it’s freezing cold. I’ve had to adapt even in that respect.”
Detailing yet more effects of the harsh Ukrainian winter, he said: “It’s no surprise that clubs here always bring South American players over in the summer. Then, when the midwinter break comes around, teams head off to southern Europe or the Middle East to train.”
It was on one such training getaway that Huff won himself an unexpected admirer. Having decamped to Dubai, Metalist found themselves sharing training facilities with Russian side Zenit St Petersburg. As Huff led a session one day, a bystander leant on the fence by the side of the pitch to watch, astounded by the Brazilian’s mix of Russian, English, Spanish and pure Portuguese.
The interested spectator was none other than the Portugal centre-half Bruno Alves, who was with Zenit at the time. When the training session was over he approached Huff and said to him: “It’s amazing that you’ve overcome so many hurdles. Congratulations. We could do with someone like you to help us in Russia.”
Michel thanked him and smiled, perhaps reflecting on the fact that he had not done too badly for someone who was supposed to be a fitness coach and nothing more.