Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Joao Saldanha – the star coach

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This man above is probably one of the most colorful people to belong to the Brazilian football pantheon. He is the coach who set up the legendary 1970 team and the most popular radio and tv commentator Brazil has ever known. Funny, lovable and polemic he was part and parcel of Rio’s, and indeed the country’s, football passion in its glory days.

The greatest peculiarity about him was that he was a member of the banned communist party. This was no small matter, the regime’s plan was to used that team riddled with stars such as Pele, Tostao Rivelino, Gerson and Carlos Alberto for propaganda, and they invested heavily in it. They wanted to silence the protests with a world cup win, meanwhile the man chosen for the job held meetings of their biggest enemy in his flat after training session.

This couldn’t last and they fired him after he refused to call up the President’s favorite player Dario, or Dada Maravilha, and after making political statements during his visit to Mexico to inspect the stadiums where the squad was going to play.

He went on to TV Globo, which at the time was like a dictatorship sponsored station, to become their leading football commentary man. He was excellent at that: one could not get enough of him talking, he made the strangest analogies of the games and of the players with known and made up folk stories. He also was politically incorrect and never shied away from slagging off coaches, players and club owners. Despite the craziness what he said was always precise and he was very influential in all matters: club policies, choices of coaches and of players, even in the national team.

As a coach and as a man of the press he was a libertarian who believed in allowing the players do what he could do best: play football, he was passionate about talent and understood where the players came from: the favelas and believed in bringing its joy and toughness to the field. This was not something small in a time with no political liberty while the country was drunk by their football success. As I stated above these were the glory days of Brazilian football, when players were not sold to the richer European clubs and people saw players as if they were their best friends.

We salute Joao Saldanha, a hero in that time and place.

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