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Meet Sylvinho, the Brazilian coach who led Albania to Euro 2024

Tooba Shakir 5 months ago 0

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Editor’s Note: This was originally published in Portuguese on Nov. 16 during the recent international break. We have translated it to English as Albania successfully qualified for Euro 2024.

It’s 7.45 a.m. on a normal Thursday. Sylvinho is already in the reception of his hotel in Tirana, ready to have breakfast: whole wheat bread, fruit, and coffee to start the day, plus an in-depth analysis of the Faroe Islands national team. The routine of the 49-year-old Brazilian coach, who has been in charge of the Albania national team for nine months, alternates between days at the office, travel around Europe, and work on the pitch.

Albania needed a win in each of the final two rounds of Euro 2024 qualifying to secure a place in the continent’s premier international competition for the second time, and did so after a 1-1 draw to Moldova.

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Sylvinho had been the Albanian federation’s surprise choice as coach at the start of this year, replacing the experienced Italian Edoardo Reja. Sylvinho’s debut ended in defeat against Poland in Warsaw — since then, Albania have had four wins and a draw in qualifying, results that put them in Saturday’s Euro 2024 draw.

ESPN Brasil traveled to Tirana to spend a day with Sylvinho, a former Corinthians, Arsenal, Celta, Barcelona, and Manchester City player, the week before these two decisive matches to qualify for the Euros.

The move to Albania

When he arrived at the Albanian federation building in the heart of Tirana, Sylvinho greeted everyone in Albanian. He hasn’t mastered the native language yet, but he knows enough to be comfortable with everyone around him. The former Lyon and Corinthians coach is multilingual, speaking fluently in Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and English.

Albania, located in the Balkans, is a country with a strong Italian influence — in the specific case of the national team, even more so. The last three coaches have been Italian, including Christian Panucci’s stint between 2017 and 2019. Sylvinho worked as Roberto Mancini’s assistant coach with the Italian national team for two years, but his linguistic acumen was decisive for the deal.

“The president Armand Duka was in Milan and through a mutual friend, he invited me to dinner,” the Brazilian said. I was living in Porto with my family, so I went to Milan and we had dinner. We had a good time and a good conversation. I didn’t expect it, because I had prepared myself to speak in English, and the conversation was in Italian. Then I realized more during this hiring process getting closer within the next seven to 10 days, that the federation spoke both English and Italian.”

From that first meeting, Sylvinho was already thinking about moving to Tirana, a city with 900,000 inhabitants and smaller than the East Zone of São Paulo, where he played for Corinthians. His children were already in college, and his wife continued to live in Porto. He felt it was essential to experience the day-to-day life of the country and the federation itself in order to fully immerse himself in what was a new reality for him and also for his assistant coach, Doriva.

The former São Paulo, Porto, Sampdoria, and Middlesbrough midfielder — and Sylvinho’s teammate at Celta de Vigo — Doriva had already worked with him at Corinthians. Not all of the Albanian team’s coaching staff is permanent or part of the long-term plans, but the Brazilian duo are the basis of everything.

Calm and easygoing, Doriva is the opposite of Sylvinho in terms of behavior.

“We balance each other well. Sylvio is more agitated, a very hard-working person and very proactive, so I end up compensating,” he said. “Calm is a word I use a lot. Sylvio thinks ahead and I often make the counterpoint, saying ‘Calm down, it’s going to work out, let’s do it.’ When I received Sylvio’s invitation, I was very happy and promptly said I’d like to work with him, a born worker.”

The day-to-day routine at the federation

First thing in the morning, after a few more cups of coffee, Sylvinho settles down in his office and starts assessing the files of all the players who are on his possible waiting list for Albania’s next international dates. One by one, he checks the minutes of the last games played by their clubs. This is a more personal approach, but he aims to be fully up to date on his players, since Italian video analyst Alarico Marco Rossi is the mastermind behind all the data collected by the Albanian federation.

In the next room, Alarico is already preparing his briefcase with notes on Albania’s opponents and the players they’ll face. On the other side of the table is Portuguese analyst Rui Pedro Vieira de Souza, who attended their last matches against Moldova and the Faroe Islands and has also brought his reports.

The first match for Sylvinho and his staff to watch will be Poland vs. Faroe Islands. The recording is in wide-angle, showing the entire pitch and the movement of the players on the pitch with and without the ball. There is no commentary or ambient sound: the video plays in total silence, broken up only by the comments of the coach and his analysts in the room. Situations of numerical advantage in the Faroese attack and the team’s defensive tendencies are carefully analysed.

Sylvinho sits at the head of the table, facing the television. To his left is Doriva, attentive to every detail of the game; to his right is Ervin Bulku, coach of the U19 team, who has already been in charge of the senior team on an interim basis and has become an extremely important contact for the Brazilian duo in their dealings with the Albanian players.

The first meetings with Albanian players

Sylvinho’s career has been marked by playing in major European markets. The decision to move to Tirana came as a surprise to federation president Armand Duka, but it was crucial for the coach to better get to know the players he would be working with. From the federation’s database, the work of its analysts, constant travelling in the first months of 2023 and meetings with the players, the coach understood who he would be counting on.

It’s worth noting there are tangible examples of players he “discovered” during this process.

“[Jasir] Asani is the result of an incessant search we had for a left-footed centre-back,” said Sylvinho. “Regardless of the tactical system, it was a characteristic we wanted from a left-footed player in that section. We had seen one or two until his name came up: a player who had spent a few years in Albania, had a spell in Hungary and was in South Korea.”

“We started analysing him and after the first few games, seeing the concepts of how he played, offensively and defensively, we liked him a lot and didn’t hesitate to bring him in.”

After the video came the first break: lunchtime. Unlike in São Paulo, for example, when he coached Corinthians, Sylvinho strolls through the streets of Tirana calmly, without being approached by fans, let alone pressured for results. The walk from the federation to the seafood restaurant chosen by Bulku for lunch is a short one — about 10 minutes between shops and houses in a peaceful setting.

Football is left out of the conversation: topics include the various curiosities among the nationalities present at the table, Albanians, Italians and Brazilians.

Language and politics

They have a few more coffees on the way back, and there are more videos to analyse. The wall of the team’s meeting room is full of squad lists, players being watched and their opponents’ tactical schemes. Conversations are mostly in Italian, but flow naturally into Portuguese and English when necessary.

Albanian is an Indo-European language, but it’s very different from those mentioned above. Sylvinho has learned the local language enough to hold a conversation, but it’s impossible to convey his ideas to the players in Albanian. On a day-to-day basis with the players during training weeks, conversations take place in a wide variety of languages. However Sylvinho makes sure that the last pre-match talk before the game, is in the players’ own language.

That’s where Bulku comes into play again, translating the Brazilian coach’s Italian instructions into Albanian. There’s also the geopolitical complexity of the region, which Sylvinho, Doriva, and Pablo Zabaleta, a former Manchester City centre-back and member of the coaching staff during training sessions, have had to learn.

“When we’re talking about a national team, it has important ties [with politics],” he said. “You represent a nation. The first place I put myself in as a coach of a national team, and the result I need to bring is always for the athlete, the win, and the sport. However, we need to understand the complexity when we talk about a national team that has a nation behind it, and every nation is governed by politicians.”

Albania shares borders with Greece, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. With the latter, it has very strong cultural ties and total opposition to Serbia’s policy, which has never recognised the territory’s independence, a cause of dispute among the public. “We had to understand the conflicts here when we arrived,” he said. “We went to understand, to talk to the local people, where we can bring players from, how they feel. That’s part of it.”

Learning and constant work

The latest debate in the meeting room is about the Faroe Islands’ way of playing in the match against Albania. Despite their opponents’ technical weaknesses, some believe that the Faroese will come out more strongly this time around. The reason, based on the videos and tactical presentations, is that due to the greater footballing history that Poland and the Czech Republic have, the Faroes have behaved very defensively. In Tirana, it is believed, they will take more risks.

Sylvinho listens to everything and gives everyone a chance to express themselves. The exchange of ideas is one of the highlights of the meeting — something that Tite, with whom Sylvinho worked in the Brazil national team between 2016 and 2019, has always done a lot of.

The autumn sun in Tirana is beginning to drop, as is the temperature. The Brazilian coach finishes his work with Doriva and heads back to the hotel. Do you think the day is over? At the age of 49, Sylvinho keeps in great shape, working out in the gym and running on the athletics track in the Albanian capital’s tree-lined Grand Park.

In the evening, after going back to his room, he meets up with Doriva again. More work? In a way, yes, but with a nice grilled fillet of beef accompanied by vegetables to watch a Romanian Cup match on television.

Sylvinho has a contract until July 2024, after next summer’s Euros, and he dreams of historic days ahead with Albania. After all, this is just the beginning.

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