Cuca’s return to Palmeiras leaves a bitter taste in the mouth

Last night, after a day of much speculation, Brazilian champions Palmeiras announced the return of Cuca, the manager who led them to the Brasileirão title last year. After winning the league in November Cuca announced that he would be leaving to spend some time away from football owing to some personal issues, reportedly the poor health of a family member.

In his place Palmeiras brought in Eduardo Baptista.

Baptista at the time was doing well with Ponte Preta, a mid-sized club from the city of Campinas in São Paulo State, and had previously had a productive spell as manager of Sport Recife. He was seen by the directors as someone who fit with the guiding principles of the club and the style of play that they desired.

Baptista’s teams do not have all the same characteristics as Cuca’s but they share many of the same fundamental elements. Both encourage pragmatic game management, hard work and pressure on the ball when not in possession.

Cuca, however, was a hard act to follow. His effusive style was hugely popular amongst the Palmeiras faithful and anyone appointed to succeed him would have been given a hard time by the demanding (read: delusional) fans.

After their Brasileirão title success, and a summer in which they signed big names like Alejandro Guerra, Felipe Melo and Miguel Borja, Palmeiras were favourites for every competition they entered. At the start of the year many fans expected nothing less than a clean sweep of the Campeonato Paulista, Copa do Brasil, Série A and the Copa Libertadores. It was clearly an impossible task.

In Baptista’s second game in charge the fans were already showing their discontent, singing Cuca’s name in the stands as they watched their team succumb to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Ituano. It is a perfect illustration of the ridiculously challenging nature of Brazilian football and its supporters.

Baptista, despite having clearly the strongest squad in South America, never had an easy task on his hands. He needed to integrate the new players into the team and try to impose his own ideas whilst consistently winning games.

To some degree he managed this. Out of Baptista’s 21 competitive games in charge Palmeiras won 14, drew two and lost just five, hardly a terrible record. But a lot of games were won in a style that did not satisfy those in the stands or the boardroom. There were late home victories against Jorge Wilstermann and Peñarol in the Libertadores and some poor showings against weaker sides in the Campeonato Paulista.

There were also some clear mistakes. In the Paulista semi-final first leg against Ponte Preta Baptista got his tactics and team selection wrong and o Verdão lost 3-0. He chose the same team that had narrowly won a demanding Libertadores game during the week and a fresh, motivated Ponte swept aside a weary Palmeiras in the first 20 minutes.

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Eduardo Baptista shows his frusutration during a Palmeiras game

Baptista also tried, with disastrous consequences, to implement a 3-4-3 formation in an away game against Uruguayan giants Peñarol. Palmeiras do not have the cultured centre-backs and athletic wing-backs needed for such a system and were 2-0 down by half-time. In the second half they reverted to 4-3-3 and ended up winning 3-2, which temporarily saved Baptista’s job.

In the press conference after that game he also let loose in a wild and inadvisable rant. The then manager accused journalists of preferring to report gossip than write about football and criticised Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most prominent football writers, for suggesting that Baptista was appointed because he was “malleable” and would select players at the behest of the club president.

But mistakes were completely predictable. Baptista is still a young professional, with just three years of experience under his belt, and this was his first big job. The circumstances required patience on the part of the fans and club directors. That patience was not forthcoming and he was sacked on Thursday night after a 2-3 away defeat to Jorge Wilstermann in the Libertadores.

Nonetheless, Palmeiras are still top of their group in that competition, with 10 points, and will go through even if they lose by a one-goal margin in their last group game, at home to Atlético Tucumán. He has hardly left them on the brink of disaster.

The return of Cuca also leaves a decidedly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

It is completely acceptable for him to want some time out of the game to spend with his family, especially if one of them is ill, but Cuca said in December that he would not spend more than a few months away from the dugout. If Palmeiras always had the intention of giving him his old job back as soon as he decided he wanted it, they should have been explicit about it. Not to do so was dishonest and unfair on Baptista.

It begs the question: what would Baptista have needed to do to keep his job? Win every single game with the style of peak Jupp Heynckes Bayern Munich? Score 20 goals on the way to collecting 15 points out of 15 in the Libertadores?

If Palmeiras merely wanted someone to keep the hot seat warm whilst Cuca was tending to his personal problems, would his brother and assistant Cuquinha not have sufficed? Surely with the help of Cuca’s other assistant, Alberto Valentim, who left in the summer to become the manager of Red Bull Brasil, Cuquinha would have been able to guide Palmeiras through the near-meaningless state championship and the group stage of the Libertadores.

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Cuca, left, playing for Palmeiras in 1992

There is also another element to the dismissal of Baptista and the return of Cuca that contributes to its bitter tang. With the announcement of Cuca’s second coming it was also divulged that Palmeiras’ main sponsor Crefisa will be paying an undisclosed proportion of his salary.

Crefisa already does this with some of Palmeiras’ foreign star players and it makes one wonder who is in control of the club and who makes the decisions.

If Crefisa is directly paying the wages of the club’s playing and coaching staff, rather than giving Palmeiras money and letting the club decide how to spend it, does it cease to be merely a sponsor and become an owner. And if Crefisa is the owner, then in whose interests is the club being run?

Crefisa, incidentally, is a short-term loan provider in the mould of a Wonga or Quick Quid in the UK. It is a company that preys on the economically vulnerable and in the process makes huge profits.

The loan shark pumps more money into Palmeiras than any other sponsor into any other club on the continent, but according to the company’s owner José Roberto Lamacchia, it is well worth it. Earlier this year he told ESPN Brasil that “a lot of people only became aware of Crefisa after we put our brand on the Palmeiras shirt. It’s worth a lot because the return is fantastic.”

All in all, this episode is indicative of many of the things that hold Brazilian football back. The impatience of fans and willingness of club presidents to bow to their demands, and in this case also to the demands of a controlling sponsor, mean that coaches almost never have enough time to mould a team in their image. Mistakes and losses, both inevitable parts of the learning curve, are simply not acceptable.

This attitude encourages coaches to do everything within their power to avoid defeat, rather than play well and win, and feeds a negative, cynical style. The lack of patience also impedes the development of young, emerging managers such as Baptista, who need time to work and develop.

If we want to watch a better quality of domestic football in Brazil then a change in this approach would be a big step in the right direction.

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