The boys refused to let her play ball when she was growing up. But not only did she get a game with them, she ended up organising the teams. Eventually, she made it all the way to the Brazil team and captained her country for seven years.
When she hung up her boots, she moved into coaching and led Vitoria das Tabocas to the Pernambucano state title. Now the director of women’s football at the Sao Paulo Football Association (FPF), Aline Pellegrino is what many people would describe as a “born leader”, even if she insists that leadership is a mix of intuition and bridge-building.
For the last week, she has been representing the CONMEBOL Zone at this year’s Women in Football Leadership programme, organised in Zurich, Switzerland, by FIFA, UEFA and the IMD Business School. The five-day event featured talks, activities, group sessions and discussion between 24 participants from all over the world.
After the programme, Pellegrino spoke about the experience, revealed which leaders she takes inspiration from, and voiced her praise for the leadership of Pia Sundhage, who took over as Brazil’s national women’s team coach in July.
How did you feel about getting an invite to take part in the Women in Football Leadership Programme?
I was delighted with the invitation because not many people get an opportunity like this. Something very special happened before I attended the event, with 28,609 people turning up to watch the Sao Paulo state championship final, a record for a match between two Brazilian women’s clubs. That’s important because we’ve seen attendance records set in other countries around the world this year.
I think that a programme like this is a vital step in taking us out of our comfort zones because you come away from here thinking that you need to be watchful the whole time and improve lots of things. I felt very uncomfortable but in a good way. These women have all achieved lots of things and we feel very strong now, but we mustn’t think that we’ve made it and that we don’t need to keep on learning.
The whole question of leadership means we have to know ourselves, because how can you lead someone when you don’t know who you are? It’s very interesting and it’s something that we worked on a lot here: the kind of leader you’re going to be. There’s always a hierarchy, of course, but I really believe in building together. That’s the way I’ve been my whole life as an athlete and I think that what I’m doing off the pitch as an administrator is the same thing: trying to bring people together and get everyone believing. If it doesn’t work out, then we’ll try a different way.
Over this last week you’ve been taking part in talks, activities and group sessions. Were there any special moments that moved you or made an impact on you in particular?
It’s a mix of things: there’s a theory component, a practical component and a lot of talking. We’ve spoken about how we feel about everything, which is something we don’t do a lot in our everyday lives. The thing that’s had the biggest impact on me was a talk by Professor Ginka. She said that when you get home at the end of the day, for example, you should always speak to someone and talk about the good things that happened to you that day, because we often only speak about the things that went wrong. That’s something I want to start doing: to get home at the end of the day and say, ‘I saw a beautiful sunset on my way home’.
You captained your national team, went into coaching, and now you’re heading up the Women’s Football Department at the Sao Paulo Football Association. Does being a leader come naturally to you?
We’ve spoken about whether leadership is something you’re born with or something you have to work on. Obviously you have to work on it, though I do feel there’s something intuitive and natural about it. I often hear people talking about processes and strategies and I think, ‘But when I was 15 I just did all that without thinking’. Your mother or your father influence you and you start to think back to the things that made you the person you are, about the things that shaped you. For example, the boys didn’t let me play football and I had to fight for it. But before I knew it, I was organising the teams. So this is something we’ve always been building and you can now train to be a leader. I do think, though, that I also have something very intuitive and that helps me and makes me different.
What type of leader do you like to be and how do you like to be led?
I think my leadership style involves putting everyone on the same level and making them feel as important as each other. I might have the most responsibility, but we’re going to do everything together. People have to feel that they matter. Just because you have less responsibility doesn’t mean you’re not crucial to the outcome. But when I think about my leader, I prefer there to be some kind of hierarchy. I like to be clear about what I have to do, who I have to deliver for. It’s strange because with my team I prefer everyone to be at the same level and working side by side, but when it comes to being led I’d rather have clear instructions.
Might that have something to do with your time as a player, because when you were a captain there were 11 of you together in a team, with a coach above you giving clear instructions?
Yes, maybe. Whether you like it or not, you end up being influenced by situations, without even realising. It’s funny because I was a captain for seven years and in that time I had Cris, Marta and Formiga with me. I might have worn the armband but I wasn’t the only leader. Formiga was a great leader. So maybe that’s why when I’m a leader I want everyone to pull together, because there were quite a few leaders in that team, all with very strong personalities, and it worked out. Cris was more fearless, Dani was strong. I saw leadership in every player and I tried to make everyone understand each other. That’s the way I try to do things for my team now. I have to speak with 12 different teams at the FPF, which involves a lot of mediating.
Is there a leader that you admire?
That’s always a tough question but I think I’d have to say my mother. She ran everything at home and looked after everyone. She kept us all in line: me, my brother, my father and our four dogs. She was a good leader. She was observant and had a positive influence in all kinds of situations. So outside of sport she was my leader.
In terms of football, my leader was Rene Simoes. He took on the national team job in 2004, at the same time as I arrived. It was his first job in the women’s game and it was a tough one for him because there were a few things that needed straightening out. So what he achieved in the space of four or five months in taking us to an Olympic medal and giving us a real chance of winning gold was pretty impressive.
There were a lot of players and we had to drop a few. He put us all under pressure so he could get the most out of us. He wanted to take 18 players who were ready for anything. He made us think about the effort we’d put in to get that far, how deserved it was, how strong we were and how good a job we did. People don’t always see the big picture but I remember everything, and what he achieved in such a short space of time was incredible. He’s a role model for me and I still keep in touch with him. These days I’ve also got Mauro Silva, who’s my line manager. I do everything at 100 miles an hour. I’m always on edge and wanting to do things, and Mauro is very calm. He calls me and asks me if I’ve thought about this or that. He’s helped me a lot.
How do you think Brazil coach Pia Sundhage is doing as a leader?
She’s amazing. You feel like going up to her and asking, “That’s great, coach. What do you want me to do? Put my boots back on? Come back and play?” It’s unreal. I met her last year, when I spoke after her at a round table. She talked about different moments in her career and one of them was the quarter-final between USA and Brazil at the 2011 World Cup. I started my talk by saying that what was one of the high points of her career was the lowest of mine (laughs). But there we were that day, talking about it at the same round table, which shows the power of football. And regardless of the result, it made me want to be a better player.
Pia seems to be very happy in Brazil. The fans were chanting her name at the first tournament we had at home, which I don’t think has happened before. She’s a pop star. Everyone loves her and really believes in the work she’s doing. I hope she sticks around for a long time. Obviously she doesn’t have the solution to all our problems, but I think she can do a great job, and I think the girls have got that really positive feeling too.
She knows everything about everyone. She’s the black box of football. She knows what USA’s strengths are, but she also knows their weak point. The same goes for Sweden. She’s studied all these teams, and Brazil too. She knows our weaknesses. And we can already see the changes she’s made. Sometimes it’s hard because you might start playing better but you don’t necessarily see the results, like the China tournament, for example, where we lost on penalties. We can’t put everything on her shoulders though. We’re going to be in much better shape at the Olympics next year, no matter how the results go, and she’s going to give the players a lot of confidence in this transition period. If you didn’t have a big name like Pia, especially at a time when the likes of Formiga, Marta and Cris will be retiring at some point, then they’d all be pretty lost. But Pia’s going to be there to say: ‘Gather round people, because I’m going to lead you.’”
What is the Guerreiras (Warriors) Project all about?
O Guerreiras is like a child of mine. It’s something very dear to me. It’s a project with incredible women in it, all over the world, but all of them dedicated to gender equality and the task of making our society better. At least we’re talking about the problem now because that wasn’t the case before. I always felt that something wasn’t right when they used to tell me that I couldn’t play football. I used to think: ‘Well, why can’t I play football?’ It’s a project led by people who want to make that change, and we link up through football, which can be a great platform for contributing to the debate and giving people a voice.
Our approach is all about watching, thinking and talking. We have workshops with children, young people and adults. We show them photos of match officials, for example, and they’re all men. ‘But can women referee?’ they say. ‘They can,’ we say. We show them more photos, but this time of women’s football. ‘But it’s only here you can do that?’ they say. So we make people think, build things, and it’s great. This is a project that I’m certain will grow and bring a lot of benefits in the future.
Apart from Swiss chocolate, what are you taking home with you to Brazil?
(Laughs) A lot of hope. I look back and think of my childhood in Brazil, when they said I wasn’t allowed to play football and I thought things wouldn’t work out. And I think about the journey I’ve had to get here. So I ask myself how many women can we help and create opportunities for? I really want to keep working and showing that women’s football is a great product, that there’s a place for it and that people need to understand and watch it. I feel we’re on the right track. There are so many things happening today that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. I think we’re making a lot of progress and that gives me real belief. People said I was crazy, but things have really changed and will continue to change. ‘That’s impossible,’ they said. ‘No, it isn’t.’ I really want to get that message out there and help spread these ideas around.