He may resemble Bill Cosby’s long-lost twin, but Augusto Palacios is not a comedian. The Peruvian’s tough and canny stewardship of the Orlando Pirates title challenge since March has surprised many, not least this correspondent.
When Palacios was appointed as caretaker in place of Julio Leal, it seemed he had spent too many years paddling the quiet waters of youth development to handle the rough seas of a modern Premier Soccer League title race. In his first outing, Pirates were given a 3-0 bollocking by Santos. It seemed Palacios was yesterday’s man.
But tomorrow afternoon in Durban, Palacios could make history by taking the Buccaneers to their ninth top-flight championship since the formation of the National Premier Soccer League in 1971. It will take a considerable effort from mid-table Golden Arrows to spike Pirates’ dream of a second successive treble and present the title to Moroka Swallows. The champions are looking irresistibly confident and united.
Whatever happens at Moses Mabhida Stadium, the players want Palacios to remain in charge next season. Keeper Moeneeb Josephs describes him as a “player’s coach” who creates a fun, jocular atmosphere at training. The troops have responded with a series of impressively resilient comeback wins in recent weeks.
But one of Palacios’s oldest friends and rivals from the mists of the Eighties, Ted Dumitru, said he was a far harder taskmaster than his genial personality suggested.
“He’s very demanding,” said the Romanian veteran. “You can’t hide in his training sessions, or tell him you’re tired. And he has a very imposing voice. If he wants to say something, you better listen to him. The players get so scared they forget about his funny accent.”
Dumitru said that Palacios had known several of his players since their academy days, and knew how to harness their strengths and bypass their weaknesses.
“Augusto has adjusted his template to what the players can achieve. There is a general national crisis in our football, because none of our players is fully developed, but he has managed to lift Pirates above the mediocre level of the league.
“Pirates don’t have a style,” Dumitru said. “They play a mixture of long passing and short passing, and sometimes they will lose the ball six or seven times in a minute. Even Augusto has given up on trying to adopt a style. But what he has done is ensure that the basics are done better than before. There is now some good co-ordination between defence, midfield and attack.”
Dumitru said it took decades for a foreign coach to understand the psychology of the South African game, and Palacios had served his time. The Peruvian first set foot in South Africa in 1983, a former World Cup striker nearing the end of a peripatetic career that had already taken him to Costa Rica, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Finland and Germany.
His destination was Witbank Aces, then a potent force in the league, who hired him as player-coach on a one-year deal.
Because the Group Areas Act was still in force, Palacios and his white wife Zoila were forbidden by the authorities to live in the suburban Witbank house that Aces had rented for him.
But the absurdities of high apartheid did not deter Palacios – he saw enough defiant sanity and eccentric football talent in South Africa to return to Aces four years later.
He quickly made his name with Aces, and by 1992 he was given a brief, unsuccessful tenure as national coach after solid stints in charge of both Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns.
In 1996 Palacios took charge of Orlando Pirates for the first time, and has remained with the club as head of development ever since, with periodic interludes as caretaker head coach.
During the past 16 years, Palacios has developed a clutch of Bafana internationals, among them Benedict Vilakazi, Joseph Makhanya and Tlou Segolela. His two most gifted protégés, Lesley Manyathela and Gift Leremi, died in car accidents before reaching their potential.
According to Dumitru, Palacios received his trainees too late (in their mid-teens) to develop their skills fully, but had the insight to get the best out of youngsters who were essentially self-taught.
“The typical South African player is very moody and doesn’t show too much emotion from outside,” Dumitru said. “Sometimes your instructions won’t change anything. On the other side, their creativity is sometimes amazing; they can create tactical answers from nothing. They can be weak physically, but on the other hand they can run all day. Palacios knows how to manage this kind of player.”
The Peruvian has also excelled in his management of Benni McCarthy, who continues to give Pirates structure and nous in attack, although he has not scored recently. “We should be a bit embarrassed that players like Benni and Siyabonga Nomvethe can’t find a place in Europe, come home and do so well,” Dumitru said. “There is no competition for them. There’s nobody close to the playing intelligence of Benni, and that counts even though he is 10kg overweight. And Nomvethe is a very instinctive player, but that’s what you need from a striker. There’s nobody close to these guys. It’s a bit sad.”
Palacios and the Ghost may beg to differ at 5pm tomorrow afternoon.