The last two weeks have seen the departures of the head coaches of Grêmio and Corinthians, two of Brazilian football’s biggest clubs.
Roger, who was at Grêmio, resigned after five games without a win, perhaps a case of jumping before being pushed. Cristóvão Borges, formerly of Corinthians, was sacked after a poor run of form culminated in a 0-2 loss to title favourites Palmeiras, Timão’s first home defeat in over a year.
The fact that heads rolled comes as no surprise; in the quest for instant success football club presidents in Brazil change managers more often than they change their underpants. The managerial merry-go-round is something anyone who takes an interest in Brazilian football will quickly get used to.
However in these cases there was another factor, one that points to a wider problem for Brazilian football. Both men happen to be black and their respective removals have left just two black or mixed-race head coaches amongst the twenty top-flight teams in Brazil; Botafogo’s Jair Ventura, son of World Cup winning legend Jairzinho, and Internacional’s (soon-to-be-ex?) manager Celso Roth.
Over its history Brazilian football has had innumerable star players of African origin, including the aforementioned Jairzinho, as well as the likes of Pelé, Carlos Alberto, and Djalma Santos, and more recently Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar.
The abundance of quality players has not, however, translated into a large number of African-Brazilian coaches. It took until 2009 for a black coach to lead a team to the Brazilian national league title, when Andrade lead Flamengo to glory.
This is not a problem specific to Brazil but in a country where over 50% of the population is black or of mixed heritage it feels like one that is particularly pertinent.
The fact that their departures have left only two black coaches in the top division is one that has received almost no attention in the media here (as far as I can tell, I would like to be proved wrong). This perhaps is indicative of the unspeaking acceptance of the deep-rooted structural racism that still grips the country.
It is relatively rare in Brazil to find someone who is openly racist, yet attitudes of the social and perhaps intellectual superiority of white people remain unbroken amongst a substantial portion of the wealthy, white elite. One only needs to look at President Michel Temer’s first cabinet, devoid of any women or people of colour, to see the regressive attitudes that persist at the top of Brazilian society.
In a recent interview with ESPN Brasil, the former Santos and Flamengo striker Cláudio Adão said there is “a lack of respect for black athletes”, and continued, rhetorically asking, “Is it that black people are only capable of playing football? Are they not intelligent?”
I am not suggesting that the decisions made in regards to Roger and Cristóvão were racially motivated. Roger, despite a wonderful start in his job at Grêmio, had hit a rough patch and this usually results in a trip to the job centre for a Brazilian coach of any ethnicity.
Cristóvão, too, appeared merely to be the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Few, if any, would have been capable of following the beloved Tite at Corinthians, especially after seeing their dressing room decimated in the way the Corinthians title-winning squad of last year has been.
The problem is rather at the other end of the process. African-Brazilian coaches are not afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts to take on jobs at the top level. This is clearly a question of the sort of social attitudes to which I previously referred and to which Adão alluded with his questions.
According to Marcel Diego Tonini, a researcher at the University of São Paulo who looks into questions of race and football, “If you go down the hierarchy, you see more black people – masseuses, kit-men, goalkeeping coaches. But head coach, director, these are bigger jobs and they [club directors and presidents] don’t want to give these spaces to black people… they’re not prepared to see a black person directing a club.”
Faced with a similar problem, the National Football League in the USA instated something known as the ‘Rooney Rule’. This is a policy which states that when interviewing candidates for a vacant head-coach or general manager positions at least one of them must be from an ethnic minority.
The rule, named after Dan Rooney, one time head of the league’s diversity commission, was introduced by the NFL in 2003 and has been an unmitigated success.
In the 80-odd years of the league’s existence before the policy there had been eight black coaches. In the subsequent decade 12 black coaches were hired. They have been successful on the field as well with at least one black manager reaching the Super Bowl every year between 2006 and 2013. Proof, if any were needed, that it was not ability that was holding back African-American football coaches.
Nor should one doubt for a second that there are hundreds of aspiring black football managers in Brazil with the talent and drive to succeed at the various levels of the game.
Roger himself is a prime example. After two years as assistant of Grêmio and short spells as manager of Novo Hamburgo and Série C club Juventude, he was given the chance to have a crack at being Grêmio’s main man. He proved more than capable, completely changing their style and turning them into an attractive team, getting good results as well until their recent lapse.
Bringing in the Rooney Rule, or something similar, would lead to far more of these sorts of opportunities being given to young, talented, black coaches.
Some have argued that the Rooney Rule does not, in fact, go far enough. It only applies to head coaching roles and general manager positions but not to any of the assistant coaching roles that one must serve in before reaching the top job. Opportunities need to be given at the more elementary levels in order to have a talent pool with sufficient experience from which to pick.
In Brazilian football this idea is equally applicable. The Rooney Rule as it works in the NFL would not be enough. African-Brazilian candidates need to be included in the interview process for all positions on the coaching staff of every club, from the academy physio to first-team manager.
Even though there are more black and mixed race people already in these lower positions this should not generate complacency, the inclusion of these sorts of roles in a policy of this type would be an extremely progressive step.
Only with a policy this radical would the barriers that face black Brazilian coaches be reduced enough to give the playing field some semblance of levelness.
Unfortunately the CBF and most state football federations are run by people with the sort of 19th Century mindset described previously so it seems highly unlikely that such a thing would even be contemplated by the powers that be.
This is a terrible shame as the pool of Brazilian managers available today is horribly stale and their ideas of how to play the game have been outdated for some time. A rule like this would not only provide positive action to combat discrimination but could also bring a breath of fresh air that Brazilian football desperately needs.