The former São Paulo coach is well placed to offer insight into how things really work at the club
Emerson Leão is notoriously cantankerous and dismissive of journalists, so I confess I was a little apprehensive when I went to interview him in Brazil in February. He was the coach of São Paulo at the time, so we met before training one morning at the club's leafy training complex. He talked, forcefully but agreeably enough, about his experiences playing in goal for Brazil in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups and seemed genuinely interested in the book I was researching on the history of goalkeeping (it should come out later this year).
He even referred to it in a press conference later that day, although he referred to me as "an American journalist".
The club's media officer, evidently happy with how things were progressing, wandered off, at which Leão's tone abruptly changed. The flow of anecdotes ended. He stopped talking up how great he had been, how he'd bought a training video for goalkeepers in West Germany and found that he was used in 70% of the clips, how he'd been the first goalkeeper to captain Brazil at the World Cup. He became suddenly a man fighting desperately against a changing world, a coach who, frankly, could see his end coming.
Leão is 62 now, but a lively, youthful 62. His hair may be white but it bristles with energy. He does not look like a man who made his debut 44 years ago. He clearly feels he still has much to offer as a coach but at the same time he seems disillusioned – in an angry rather than a resigned way – at the modern game. More than most, he understands the turbulence of football. When he arrived at São Paulo last year, it was to begin his 28th job in management. The problems began almost immediately.
"The first day I arrived I saw we needed to hire a goalkeeper aged 20 or 21 so we could mould him," he said. São Paulo already have in Rogério Ceni, their captain, a very fine goalkeeper, but he is 39; Leão wanted to plan for a future after his retirement by signing a young prospect. "You wait one or two years and then he's ready to play," he explained. "But the directors think differently. They kept saying, 'Look, we have one.' But then when it happens that a goalkeeper doesn't play so well then they will hire one.
"It's all short-term. They won't build a team for three years from now. This is the problem. And the coaches, it's as if they know nothing … I was an exceptional goalkeeper. I've been in football 48 years but today in football it's all about marketing and friendship and not about the capability of the coach. I belong to a different world."
Seeing the media officer returning, he checked himself. "I apologise if I'm harsh," he said, "but this is the truth." Then he went on to talk about how he'd advertised chicken and worked as a part-time underwear model as his fame grew in the seventies.
Leão was sacked a fortnight ago as a 1-0 defeat to Portuguesa compounded their semi-final exit to Coritiba in the Copa do Brasil. São Paulo initially approached André Villas-Boas who was apparently willing to consider the role but only if he could wait until January. "He wanted some time to plan things, and I do not have time to wait," said the São Paulo director, Adalberto Baptista. "It's hard to sign a foreign coach. By the time he gets things going, the ship has sunk already. In Brazil, you have to win the next match. Now, we are going to war. I am looking for a new coach." As Leão said, the culture of short-termism reigns.
São Paulo eventually made their new appointment at the weekend, turning to Ney Franco, who led Brazil's Under-20 side to success at both the World Cup and South American Championship last year. "São Paulo is the perfect place to put my work philosophy into practice," Ney Franco said. "I like to get the most out of the seniors and give opportunities for the young players. With my experience and style of football, I'm convinced I can do a great job."
This is a strong squad. Denílson has extended his loan spell from Arsenal, Rogério Ceni is fit again, Luís Fabiano has banged in four in five games this season and Jádson has settled quickly after his move from Shakhtar Donetsk. And then there is the potential of the likes of the defender Bruno Uvini, the midfielder Casemiro and the forward Lucas Moura, all of them members of the Under-20 World Cup-winning squad. Lucas is reportedly the subject of interest from Manchester United but even if he is sold, that leaves a gifted core.
Sunday's 3-1 win over Coritiba lifted São Paulo to fourth, three points behind the leaders Fluminense with eight rounds of the season played. A serious title challenge, followed by a charge at the Libertadores, should be on. The question as ever, though, is whether Ney Franco will be given time. Read More
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