Insecure coaches set a cynical tone
When Pepe, Real Madrid's Brazil-born defender, steps on the hand of Barcelona's Lionel Messi, the blame is not his alone.
A coach has three main tasks. He selects the team, prepares the strategy - and he also sets the emotional tone for the work. An uptight coach usually produces an uptight team.
When the opposition is Barcelona, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho appears to get carried away with the importance of the occasion, with some personal questions and with his own frustration at losing so often.
He has crossed the line and behaved in a manner inappropriate to a sporting contest and it is no surprise that one of the more hot-headed members of his team commits the same error.
Jose Mourinho (second left) has never been far from controversy at Real Madrid. Photo: Getty
Two weeks ago I argued that footballers are often unfairly criticised for the huge amounts of money they earn. After all, they put on a show followed by millions. But I also pointed out there are perils in paying the players so much. Fundamental values can be twisted.
Much the same applies to coaches. If the players are getting a fortune, it stands to reason the top coaches will, too. Basic hierarchy requires that they be well paid. But this, too, presents a problem. It means they have a lot to lose. The need to protect their job introduces an excess of fear.
A couple of months back I had the pleasure of chatting with Estevam Soares, who I hope will not be offended if I refer to him as a fairly typical Brazilian coach. A tough centre-back in his playing days, he has carried that spirit of leadership into his subsequent career. In 20 years of coaching, his most high-profile achievement is fourth place in the Brazilian championship with Palmeiras in 2004.
I was amazed at how much we agreed on one specific subject - the harm coaches are capable of doing to the Brazilian game.
Ever since football became a professional sport, the coach has always been the fall guy - the one to take the blame for disappointing results. In Brazil he has more reasons to fall.
The absurd calendar of the domestic game leaves little time for a proper pre-season. The model of administration means political conflict takes place inside the clubs, with factions often looking to destabilise the situation. The media are hungry for a story, the supporters are notoriously impatient and a tradition has emerged of sacking coaches with bewildering speed.
The players, of course, are aware of this, and stories are rife of squads taking their foot of the pedal long enough to ensure the dismissal of an unpopular boss.
Soares, for example, is currently in charge of his 21st Brazilian club - with two or even three spells with some of them, as well as a couple of brief stints in the Middle East. After losing a job he has always managed to find another one. But the fear must always be there that one day he might not.
It was in search of job security, he told me, that so many coaches constructed their sides on a safety-first basis, with limited but athletic defensive midfielders protecting the centre-backs. It was also the excessive nerves of the coaches, he said, that sent the players out with the mentality of going into battle.
The spirit of the game is often breached in Brazil, with matches frequently lacking flow, constantly interrupted by a series of fouls committed by over-zealous players.
The worrying aspect is that the money flooding into the game, in Brazil and elsewhere, only seems to enhance the expectation of instant results. Certainly, job security for coaches in English football is much more precarious than it used to be.
It is for this reason that I am against moves to introduce technology into refereeing decisions if it means coaches will be given the right to make challenges.
For one thing, the flow of football makes such a measure extremely difficult to implement. And for another, I sincerely doubt it would be used in the spirit intended by its advocates.
The prioritising of job security in Brazil gives us an example of the level of cynicism that can exist when coaches are under pressure.
Just over a decade ago some in the coaching fraternity were convinced that part of the secret of victory was to commit more fouls than the opposition. Indeed, it was argued, a foul is not exactly against the rules. Rather, it is something dealt with by the laws - a resource of the game rather than an offence.
In more recent times - and this one drives me mad - substitutions have been used to waste as much time as possible. When the winning side wants to make a change, the player about to be removed throws himself to the floor. The little cart has to come on to wheel him off, and a simple switch that should take 10 seconds ends up eating a minute or two. This, to my mind, is an abuse of a measure - the cart - introduced to protect the health of the players.
A similar risk exists with any proposal to allow coaches, via technology, to challenge refereeing decisions. The intention might be to enhance sporting justice. But I fear the outcome would be to hand coaches another means to interrupt the flow of the game and harm the spectacle.
Questions on South American football can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I see QPR have just signed Brazil Under-20 international Henrique from Sao Paulo. I know little about him, other than that he was player of the tournament at the U20 World Cup last year, and was wondering whether you rate him and think he is good enough to make the grade in the Premier League?
A) I don't think it's gone through yet, and I can't see how he can get a work permit. The argument will be based on his "World Youth Cup player of the tournament" award. Well though he played, he wouldn't have been my choice. Five of that side have since seen action with the senior Brazil team. He's not among them, which tells you something.
He's certainly promising, talented and versatile - more of a second, support striker than an out-and-out centre forward. But he has yet really to establish himself in domestic Brazilian football. Sao Paulo loaned him out to Vitoria in 2010, where he did OK in a relegated side, and then last year he was a bit-part substitute.
He's also prone to youthful petulance - and at the moment I think QPR need something more solid than a good long-term gamble.
Q) I remember watching Giuliano, who captained Brazil in the 2009 Under-20 World Cup. He looked similar to Kaka, and was really skilful. What is the latest news on him?
A) A terrific little player, who was voted player of the Copa Libertadores in 2010 when he helped Internacional win the title.
I'm not too sure about the Kaka comparison. Giuliano is squatter, without the same prolonged acceleration. But he's certainly more versatile, capable of filling any role in the midfield.
I've watched him make steady progress since playing for Brazil at Under-17 level. At every stage he always looked better than the last - which made me disappointed when he moved to Ukraine to join Dnipro.
It doesn't seem to have worked out - I'm told that the switch to a long-ball style has not been good for him. Gremio are optimistic of bringing him back to Brazil in the next few days.