Parreira's African pride

Parreira’s African pride

Just how far can the family man from Brazil with a simple footballing philosophy take our boys? Niren Tolsi reports

As the Bafana Bafana team bus emerged from the bowels of Peter Mokaba stadium in Polokwane last week, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira cut a mournful figure in his customary seat upfront.

As he stared out of the window, his was not the demeanour of a man who had just led South Africa to its biggest victory on the football pitch: a 5-0 rout of Guatemala.

Rather, he appeared shrouded in a mob tragedy: a Made Guy contemplating an order to lace up the cement boots of some Wise Guy friends.

In Johannesburg the next morning a clearly tired and emotional Parreira announced the trimming of five players from his World Cup squad. The names included those in which he had, previously, invested much patience and trust, like dilettante striker Benni McCarthy.

The 67-year-old coach said the culling had been “difficult” and after being in camp with most of the squad for almost six months, compared it with “tearing up a family”.

Family is important to Parreira; he talks often—and lovingly—of his grandchildren. In April 2008 he prematurely ended his first stint as Bafana coach to be at the side of his wife, Leila, who was battling cancer.
It was just as Bafana had turned the corner under the Brazilian, with a 3-0 victory over Paraguay.
The resignation was to usher in the incomprehensible—in both the linguistic and tactical departments—reign of Parreira’s compatriot, Joel Santana.

At the time Parreira told a press conference: “My family, they need me, especially my wife; they need me near her, together with her. After 36 years of marriage I cannot say no, so I regret very much that I have to come to this decision.”

Yet there was a sense, too, that, despite the dysfunction of the South African Football Association (Safa) and our contradictory national psyche, Parreira had found family here. And the nation has found Parreira too.

Gone are the grumblings about his R1,8-million-a-month salary. Rather, the country appears consumed by an unprecedented yellow fever—due in no small part to the Brazilian affecting a turnaround of Bafana Bafana, currently undefeated in 12 matches.

‘I’m going back home’
After South Africa’s 1-0 win over Denmark at Pretoria’s Atteridgeville stadium last Saturday, the Mail & Guardian asked the Rio de Janeiro-born coach whether he felt South African.

He spoke with enthusiasm of meeting many “ordinary people” at the beginning of his second stint in charge of the national team in October last year. Of feeling duty-bound to meet their exhortations to “make us proud”.

“Yes, of course, when [Safa] invited me for a second time to coach [Bafana] I thought, ‘I’m going back home’. That’s the reason I came back,” he said.

With his relaxed stroll and perpetually bemused air, it is hard not to imagine Parreira as some sort of (grand) daddy cool. But that would be a mistake. Managing his home country in three different stints (1983-84, 1991-94, 2003-06), he ended Brazil’s 24-year wait for the World Cup with victory in the United States in 1994. Success at international level does not come to the soft touches.

This success is partly why Parreira has been able to glide through the Machiavellian corridors of Safa House, where lesser-known predecessors like Stuart Baxter and Carlos Queiroz had previously stumbled on the inherent backstabbing and infighting.

The Bafana players say he is tough, but fair. Laid-back, yet inspiring in his approach to the game.
Kaizer Chiefs midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala told the M&G the players have responded to Parreira because “he understands us as players and as people—that’s important — What he has done is teach us the importance of playing in a World Cup on home soil and believing in ourselves.”

Iconic defender Matthew Booth said Parreira “steadied the ship” after Santana’s calamitous tenure, when the team lost eight of their last nine matches under the mumbling, bumbling Brazilian.

Parreira has the human connection the Bafana players never found in Santana, but that does not make him any less determined, or ruthlessly focused. He may have spared a thought for those he dropped from his final World Cup squad, but he was quick to move on to the next challenge, telling the press at the announcement that his “heart was filled with happiness” at the progress of the squad and the huge challenge just days away.

Said Tshabalala: “[Parreira’s] best methods are just to get us to keep it simple and do the basics right, and that’s improved our game. Personally, he has helped me: He’s always been shouting at me in training and now he’s getting the best out of me.”

Simplicity has been the defining philosophy of Parreira’s second tenure. It started when he gathered 29 local based players for a 12-day camp in Durban in January this year.

There the emphasis was on the team keeping organisational shape and fitness. Training camps in Brazil and Germany followed in March and April respectively, with Parreira suggesting that Bafana Bafana “had no football identity” and that these journeys would help them discover one.

Recently, he was confident that “this team has an identity, it has a face — Our identity is to keep the ball on the ground, use our technique—we have stressed that a lot.”

At the announcement of the final World Cup squad last week the Brazilian recounted a metaphor he used to inspire the team at the very beginning of the year: “I drew a big bottle on the blackboard and told the boys it was 30% full and they had to make it full. Drop by drop.”

He then commissioned an artist working at the team hotel to make a replica of the bottle and filled it “drop by drop” after every friendly match success.

“It’s just a metaphor, but the boys understand it,” he said.

With organisation and a vision, Parreira has also brought physical conditioning to the team with the aid of fitness coach Francisco Gonzalez. The Bafana Bafana formula for this World Cup is hard running for 90 minutes or longer and a well-drilled ­organisational telepathy.

Instinctively a pragmatic coach reliant on trusted lieutenants—a trait that drew criticism in the 2006 World Cup in Germany when he refused to replace non-performing old blood like Cafu and Roberto Carlos with younger fullbacks like Dani Alves and Cicinho—Parreira’s emphasis is on not conceding goals.

But, he says, he is neither defensive nor attack-minded, rather seeking “balance” and optimising transitions from defence into attack and vice versa: “If you cover your head [with a blanket], you uncover your feet. If you cover your feet, you uncover your head. I love this phrase,” he said, describing his team’s approach to matches.

Fitness coach
Parreira started off his professional football career not as a player, but as a fitness coach with Brazilian side São Cristóvão in 1967 and then Vasco da Gama in 1969.

In 1970 he was fitness coach to the Brazilian World Cup-winning team that included Pele and Jairzinho - considered the best.

At club level he has mentored his hometown side, Fluminense, and Turkish side Fenerbahce, among others. His journey in Africa started in 1968 with Ghanaian club side Asante Kotoko, before he managed that country’s national team from 1968 to 1975.

Parreira’s participation in South Africa will draw him level with Bora Milutinovic for the record number of national teams to be coached by a single person at the World Cup finals—five.

Worryingly, Parreira has never won a World Cup finals match with any team other than Brazil. In the 1982 World Cup his Kuwait team lost their three group matches, while in 1990 he managed the United Arab Emirates to three losses, including a 1-5 thrashing by West Germany.

In 1998, after Saudi Arabia lost to France and Denmark, he was fired before they could take on South Africa.

Bafana Bafana fans will be hoping that the record changes this Friday at Soccer City, when South Africa take on Mexico in the 2010 World Cup opening match.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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