The following article was co-written by Jerrad Peters and Rodrigo Beilfuss for Soccer365 magazine in September 2010.
Coaching changes are hardly extraordinary events. This is especially true in Brazil, where the top division’s 20 clubs have managed to sack, release or otherwise replace nearly 30 coaches so far this season. It’s an alarming rate of turnover, and it represents the extreme in club soccer. But it goes to show the expendability of coaches throughout the sport. Undervalued and under appreciated, they are hired to be fired—and nobody bats an eyelash in either instance.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sir Alex Ferguson, when he eventually leaves Manchester United, will do so with no small amount of pomp and ceremony. And Jose Mourinho, soccer’s preeminent hired gun, always manages to create a stir when he changes clubs.
The same is true with Dorival Junior. At least it should be. The coach of Santos until late Tuesday night, he was dismissed from his job after a run-in with the board of directors over his handling of Neymar, the club’s—and the country’s—rising star. And while he is the Brasileirao’s 29th coaching casualty of the year, his exit is anything but insignificant. In fact, it speaks volumes about the imbalance of power in Brazilian soccer, the lingering frustration of the 2010 World Cup and the hopes and dreams of the nation ahead of the 2014 tournament.
Dorival’s dismissal, in other words, is something that transcends Brazilian soccer. And the direction the club and Neymar have chosen to take could have serious and far-reaching ramifications.
The very presence of Neymar always meant that the Santos coach would be under intense scrutiny. The natural successor to Ronaldo and the player charged with delivering Brazil’s future glories, the 18-year-old was given special treatment not even afforded by the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka when Santos fended off a handful of European clubs—and Chelsea in particular—and opted to develop the player on their own.
They paid dearly for it, and were forced to sell several good, young players in order to offer Neymar a better contract. But they did it because they knew they had something special on their hands. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pelé and national team boss Mano Menezes lent their voices to the chorus calling for him to remain at Santos. Everyone seemed to agree that both Neymar and Brazilian soccer as a whole would be better served if he played a few more years at home.
Not surprisingly, Neymar found himself under even more pressure, and with significantly more power. Brazil’s disappointing performance in South Africa had brought about a shift in the stylistic philosophy of the national team. A switch back to the creative, spontaneous futebol-arte was in the cards, and Neymar became the face of the revolution. Menezes, in his first game in charge of the national team, named Neymar to his starting lineup and was rewarded with a goal in a 2-0 win over the United States.
Then it all went pear-shaped. Neymar, having just signed a lucrative contract and worshiped as Brazilian soccer’s stylistic savior, snapped. Snapped big time.
After Santos’ 2-1 loss at Ceara on September 12, Neymar confronted Ceara midfielder Joao Marcos about what he felt to be excessive violence during the match. He tried to pick a fight with Marcos, as well as the police officers and reporters nearby, and had to be restrained by his teammates.
His behavior became even more bizarre three days later in a match against Goianiense. Having drawn a penalty after being hauled down in the box, he quickly grabbed the ball and prepared to take the spot kick. But as he had missed his two previous penalties, Dorival instructed Marcel to take the kick instead.
Neymar threw a fit. As Marcel stepped up to the spot, the youngster ran over to the Santos bench and lambasted Dorival, tossing water bottles and spewing obscenities. When the match resumed, he greedily took possession of the ball at every opportunity and refused to pass it to his teammates. Captain Edu Dracena tried to pacify him to no avail.
After the match, Goianiense boss Rene Simoes remarked that Neymar’s behavior was unacceptable. “We are creating a monster,” he said. “Neymar is not a man.”
Indeed not. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Wealthy 18-year-old’s—worshipped by Brazil’s hero-craving culture—can hardly be expected to behave with humility and restraint. Nevertheless, Dorival made an attempt to rein him in. It cost him his job.
Following the Goianiense debacle, Dorival requested that the Santos board fine Neymar and suspend him for a minimum of 15 days, a period that would have kept the player out of matches against Guarani, Corinthians, Cruzeiro and Vasco da Gama.
The board agreed to fine the player, but remained mum on the issue of the suspension. Dorival kept Neymar out of Sunday’s Guarani match anyway, and that’s when things blew up.
On Monday, board chairman Luis Oliveira announced his decision that Neymar be restored to the squad. Dorival dug his heels in over the issue, and the board dismissed him the next day. Having been forced to choose between the coach and the star player, they arrived at the obvious conclusion. And Neymar’s already incredible power grew even more.
It’s a classically Brazilian set of circumstances, at least as far as soccer in concerned. This is a country where soccer is governed by personalities, not institutions, and where heroes created by the public and in the press exercise considerable power. Neymar is their latest creation. And who was Dorival to stand in the way of that?
This scenario is played out at every level of the sport. Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ricardo Teixeira is a similar character. The son-in-law of longtime FIFA president Joao Havelange, he runs Brazilian soccer like a fiefdom and is exercising similar control over the 2014 World Cup organizing committee, which his daughter chairs.
Teixeira doesn’t have to play by the rules. He’s too big for that. So, too, is Neymar. And the dismissal of Dorival was Santos’ affirmation of Neymar’s status, of his power. It signaled that they approve of what he has become, and that they won’t stand in the way of his persona.
Dorival was just a pawn in this saga. But his exit summed up Brazilian soccer to a tee.