This is the second part of our deep dive into Michael Beale’s time in Brazil at Sao Paulo. You can read part one in full here
EDER Militao, the Real Madrid centre half who started for Brazil in four of their games at the World Cup finals in Qatar, was handed his debut in professional football during the time that Rangers manager Michael Beale spent at Sao Paulo as assistant to Rogerio Ceni.
The 19-year-old defender became another product of the renowned Cotia youth academy to force his way into the “Tricolor” first team when he started in the opening Serie A match against Cruzerio in the Minerao in the May of 2017.
But most of the other outstanding players at the Estadio do Morumbi during that turbulent period ended up heading out of the side not into it – making club legend Ceni’s chances of enjoying the same success that he had as a player impossible and leaving Beale deeply disenchanted.
The Englishman had left his job as the Liverpool Under-23 coach and moved to Brazil in January because he was excited by the prospect of working with the world-famous former goalkeeper in a country where football is like a religion.
He firmly believed that together they had a chance to resurrect Sao Paulo’s on-field fortunes after years of underachievement and disappointment.
It did not take very long, however, for things to go awry as a result of broken promises and boardroom interference.
“Ceni was forced to sell a lot of players,” said Andrew Downie, the Edinburgh-born writer who was the South American sports correspondent for the international news agency Reuters in 2017.
“Their winger David Neres was sold to Ajax for €12m the month after he was appointed and several others were sold after that. Michael once said: ‘We were told one thing when we came in – and then they changed their mind and sold players’ .”
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Indeed, centre half Lyanco moved to Torino for €6m, winger Luis Araujo and defensive midfielder Thiago Mendes were bought by Lille for €10.5m and €9m respectively, defender Maicon joined Galatasaray for €9m and centre half Joao Schmidt left for Atalanta on a free transfer in the months which followed.
The reinforcements who were brought in to replace those who had departed were not of the same, or a sufficient, standard and Sao Paulo’s performances in the Copa do Brasil, Campeonato Paulista, Copa Sudamericana and Serie A gradually deteriorated as the season wore on.
“What happened from Mick’s perspective was the project that he signed up to changed,” said Jon Cotterill, the Sao Paulo-based South American football expert, TV commentator, scout and author of Anatomy Of A Football Scout: An In-Depth Look At Player Recruitment.
“He wasn’t happy with the players who were coming in and with the players who were going out – players they would have liked to have kept. They basically had players imposed upon them.
“Football in Brazil is very political. It exists in a state of extremes. Everything is seen as being either absolutely fantastic or a complete disaster. Before the World Cup, Brazil coach Tite was widely regarded as the best thing since sliced bread. Now he’s a total failure.
“When Mick arrived in pre-season everything was going well. They went into three cup competitions and the league with hopes high. But when they went out of a couple of cup competitions the pressure was suddenly on. And all was not well behind the scenes.”
He added: “Sao Paulo had a reputation for being organised, for being well run, for bringing through youngsters. But since then it has emerged they were a bit of a mess. There have been spells when the salaries of players haven’t been paid. As a club, they haven’t won anything of note, haven’t won a national trophy, for a long time.
“Mick resigned five days before Ceni was sacked in July. Sao Paulo held out for as long as they could because it was Ceni. When he left, Mick had a go at the then-president, Leco. The president responded by saying that he was just trying to create some intrigue that wasn’t there. But he had a point.”
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Not, though, that Beale’s brief South American sojourn was a wasted exercise. Far from it. Both Cotterill and Downie believe the Rangers manager will have taken a huge amount out of his spell in Brazil and will be able to draw on his unique experiences as he attempts to make the Ibrox club the dominant force in Scotland in the months ahead.
The former Chelsea and Liverpool youth coach helped to introduce – just as he did when he moved to Rangers to work under Steven Gerrard the following year – an attacking and exciting style of play at Sao Paulo despite not speaking any Portuguese and they enjoyed positive early results.
Sao Paulo had, to begin with at least, numerous individuals with a high level of technical expertise. Beale liked the fact that every player “had a trick and is able to play one v one”. They went undefeated in their first nine outings.
“His role at Sao Paulo was to take training sessions and advise,” said Cotterill. “Ceni was very much in charge and Mick was aware of the situation. In many respects, it would have been similar to how he worked with Gerrard at Rangers and Aston Villa. He was aware of the parameters, but would certainly make observations and suggestions.
“Communication was an issue, certainly to begin with. He didn’t speak good Portuguese – though he was brave enough to have a go with basic commands in training. Ceni, Charles (assistant Hembert) and Pintado (first-team coach) all spoke English to a decent standard so that helped.
“But I think the presence of an English-speaking coach perhaps ruffled a few feathers with some of the Sao Paulo coaches a little further down the food chain.
“There were some reports here when he left that he didn’t have a good relationship with the players and the other coaches, but that is not true. He spoke some Spanish and there are a lot of similarities between Spanish and Portuguese.
“There were certainly different attitudes towards working in Brazil than there are in the United Kingdom. Their attitude can very much be ‘I will do it when I am ready’ rather than ‘I will do it now’. But Mick embraced it all, adapted to the different pace of life and enjoyed the people and the change.”
Beale certainly revelled in the passion the Paulistanos had for their side – they would gather in their thousands when they arrived at the airport to catch a flight to an away match, at their team hotel before a game and at the stadium long before kick-off to cheer and show their support.
He also enjoyed facing some of the most famous names in the beautiful game at the most iconic venues – Sao Paulo took on Corinthians, Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Fluminense, Gremio, Internacional, Palmieras, River Plate, Vasco da Gama.
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Playing their city rivals Santos in the Vila Belmiro – where had watched the legendary Pele give “soccer skills” tips in his The Master and his Method instructional video which he received one Christmas as a young boy – in February was a massive highlight.
“It was hugely special for me on a personal level,” he said. “Santos and Pele was something I grew up with. For us to win there (Sao Paolo romped to a 3-1 triumph in the Paulista) for the first time in seven years on the day that my family, who I had not seen in eight weeks, arrived was special.”
Much is made of the gruelling schedule of European and domestic matches which Rangers have to negotiate each season and the lack of time their manager often has with his charges on the training pitch at Auchenhowie at certain stages during a campaign.
Last week Beale has to contend with cinch Premiership games against Aberdeen and Ross County away in the space of four days.
But the packed calendar was far more of an issue in Brazil. Sao Paulo’s players spent days travelling and recovering. The heat, humidity, hard pitches and huge distances covered were a constant headache. Beale realised why teams preferred to sit deep and play a possession-based counter-attacking game.
Being exposed to a completely different style of football to that he had grown up with proved eye-opening. “More British coaches need to leave and educate themselves,” he said. “Football in England is not a world game so we need to go out and learn.”
That Sao Paulo have had no fewer than 11 managers since Beale moved on five-and-a-half years ago – they appointed Ceni, who had gone on to win Serie B with Fortaleza and then Serie A with Flamengo, for the second time in October last year and he is still in charge – underlines what he had to contend with.
Neither Cotterill nor Downie were surprised when he left Queens Park Rangers and returned to Rangers last month – he had taken exactly the same bold step when he moved from Liverpool to Sao Paulo six years ago – and have no concerns about him coping with the demands of life in the Glasgow “goldfish bowl”.
“All experiences go into the locker,” said Cotterill. “You learn from everything, especially the negative stuff. He had the bottle and the drive to leave England and come over to Brazil despite not speaking Portuguese. How many people would stick their neck out like that? Not many. He was always ambitious. He’s full of confidence, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it.
“I am sure that he is aware that in moving from Queens Park Rangers to Rangers is going to a different level. But he has done that before, he has got that background. He has all of the experiences at Sao Paulo to draw on. He has worked in the hustle and bustle of a big club environment and dealt with the things that go along with that.
“He is a top bloke, is very sociable, has an affable personality. He reached out to the ex-pat community when he was here and was prepared to listen to people like me to learn the different cultural aspects of the game in Brazil.”
Downie agreed: “Going to work in a foreign country in any walk of life forces you to be creative, forces you to think outside the box, forces you to deal with new situations, forces you to deal with people you wouldn’t ordinarily deal with.
“Even if it ends up being a disaster, even if it turns to s***, you come away with new experiences and with learnings from those new experiences. I think he will have benefitted enormously from his time at Sao Paulo.”
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Beale will be keen to strengthen his squad with new signings during the January transfer window and boost Rangers’ chances of landing the Premiership, League Cup and Scottish Cup in 2023. Cotterill fully expects him to look to South America.
That Sao Paulo are still producing excellent young footballers was underlined earlier this month when West Ham announced they had signed Luizao, a 6ft 2in 20-year-old centre back who a number of Premier League clubs were interested in, on a three-and-half year deal.
“I do a lot of scouting and have had a lot of contact with Ross Wilson (Rangers sporting director) in the past,” he said. “I first met him when he was at Southampton. Ross runs a well-organised ship. I know the club are looking at all sorts of regions and will hopefully be talking to Mick in due course.
“South America is the market to look for players. Cost-wise, the pound is very strong to the local currency. There is a lot of young talent coming through. It is not too difficult to get a work permit for players after Brexit. No doubt about it, it is the place to look. There are very, very good deals to be had if you get in early.”
If Michael Beale can unearth a couple of South American gems for Rangers as a result of the contacts he made in Brazil then his bold decision to leave Liverpool for Sao Paulo will be vindicated further.