Almost a year ago to the day Botafogo ran out at Rio de Janeiro's Engenhao stadium to take on Vitoria on matchday 26 of the Brazilian championship. Following a run of nine games without a win, which had left them in a parlous 18th position, it was a match Estevam Soares’s side could barely afford to lose. Yet lose it they did, sliding to a 3-1 reverse that earned them the displeasure of their disgusted fans and condemned them to a bitter fight against relegation, one they would only win on the very last day of the season.

How things have changed in the 12 months since that tortuous defeat. Though far from being the most consistent side in the land, O Fogão have been a feature of the top five for the last few weeks now and have every reason to be pleased with their recent progress.

The Rio de Janeiro club owe their place on the fringes of the title race in large part to their happy-go-lucky coach Joel Santana, an old acquaintance of Alvinegro fans. Since returning to the club in January this year the former South Africa boss has worked hard to raise the morale of a beleaguered squad, and brought about an instant turnaround in their fortunes by helping them snatch the Rio state title from local foes Flamengo.

“Sometimes things just don’t fit together,” said Santana, explaining his personal theory on coaching, one based on finding the perfect blend. “You do everything right and the team looks good, but things don’t work out the way you want. I went through that at Corinthians and Internacional. Both teams were going through rough patches when I took over and though I did my job, it didn’t work out and I had to leave. I must have planted a seed or two, though, because they both became world champions within two years of me leaving.”

“I got a very warm welcome here at Botafogo,” he continued. “The whole team pulled together and we managed to turn the situation around. I certainly didn’t do it on my own. If I had, I’d be a legend, and I’m not. I’m just a wise old head.”

Since gaining the confidence of the players and building a “united squad” - a term his charges have been using a lot lately - Santana has been working with the club’s team of psychologists to sort out the occasional internal dispute, the most recent of them a flare-up between the coach and fans’ favourite Sebastian Abreu. Fortunately for everyone concerned, both parties have put their disagreement behind them to focus on the fight for a place in next year’s Copa Libertadores.

“It’s not just a question of having a good team. You need a lot of different areas to work well,” he added. “Monitoring the psychological side of things is an important aspect and I don’t have any problem at all in sharing that job with the club’s psychologists. When something happens in an area I’m responsible for and I see that I’m the one that has to deal with it, then that’s exactly what I try to do. If it doesn’t work, then we tackle the problem as a team. They’re professionals who’ve been trained for this and they’re able to detect symptoms and signs much more easily then me.”

After briefly climbing into third in the Brazilian championship before the break for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the men in black and white then went into freefall, dropping down to 17th place with 11 games gone, a slump that seemed to have consigned them to another relegation struggle.

Mentally tougher after last season’s travails, O Fogão have been top-ten material ever since, however, moving up to fourth after a 2-0 win at Atletico Goianense in the middle of August and following up with 1-0 defeats of both Avai and Ceara to go third.

With his side still lodged in the top five, Santana sees the next few games, which include crunch meetings with current leaders Corinthians and sixth-placed Atletico-PR, as being crucial to their fate this season. “I think Botafogo can even dream of the title,” he said, ruling out nothing in the season’s final 14 matches. “We’re in the hunt if you ask me, and it just remains to be seen if we have the ace cards we need to overcome the challenges a championship like this presents. I feel any one of the top ten could yet win the league.”

“We have some big games coming up, games that gave us a lot of problems last year,” he added. “It’s up to us to get the points that could make all the difference at the top of the table. And the time to go and do that has come.”

Immune to criticism
It is rare to see Santana without a smile on his face. Even when surrounded by reporters firing uncomfortable questions at him, the 61-year-old still manages to crack a joke or two, although he does adopt a more serious tone when the topic of conversation turns to criticism of his career record.

Seen by many as a coach who has struggled to adapt to life outside his native Rio and as a specialist in reviving teams that are down on their luck, Santana maintains that he cares little for the opinions of outsiders and is quick to reject the labels that people have given him over the years.

“People like to say I’ve never won anything in Brazil, for example, but I have. The only thing is it had a different name,” he said in reference to Vasco da Gama’s league triumph in 2000, for which they were awarded the Taca Joao Havelange. “I have a title to my name and I’m a very decisive person. And I don’t pay any attention to the negative things people say about me either. I might like to make jokes but I’m definitely not here to fool around.”