As we enter the home stretch of this year’s Brazilian championship, São Paulo club Palmeiras have established themselves as clear favourites to win the title. At the time of writing, the Verdão sit five points above second-placed Flamengo with only five matches remaining.
If consummated, this would be Palmeiras’s ninth league title, making them the club with most Brazilian championship wins to their name. Considering their last league trophy came in 1994, it would be celebrated all the more.
Their success can partly be explained by the relatively peaceful administration of club president Paulo Nobre and the financial clout that has resulted from it, but credit is also due to the players and, above all, head coach Cuca, who is fast becoming one of the highest rated managers in Brazil.
Cuca, or according to his birth certificate, Alexi Stival, has walked a long road to get this close to his first Brazilian league title. Born in the southern state of Paraná, he took up a professional football career in the 1980s and first gained attention at the age of 24 as a brutish, combative attacking midfielder at Juventude.
His impressive performances in the state championships caught the eye of Porto Alegre giants Grêmio, where Cuca would spend several victorious years, winning three consecutive Rio Grande do Sul state titles as well as the 1989 Copa do Brasil, in which the forward scored the decisive goal in the final against Sport.
His career tailed off after Grêmio, with brief spells at Internacional, Palmeiras, Santos and Portuguesa. His last trophy as a player came at northern Brazilian club Remo, where he won the 1994 Pará state championship – the same year Palmeiras won their last league title.
Only two years after retiring from playing, Cuca embarked on a coaching career in 1998 at the modest Uberlândia. It was not until 2003 that things took off for Cuca The Coach, when his impressive work in charge of Paraná Clube (from his home city of Curitiba) earned him the manager’s job at first division side Goiás.
He arrived to find a club flailing at the bottom of the league and a civil war raging in the dressing room. After making changes to the starting 11, dispensing some of the key troublemakers and forming an exciting, attacking side, Cuca’s Goiás rocketed up the table, finishing the season in 9th place.
The following year, he became head coach of São Paulo FC. Although he did not remain long enough to reap the fruits of his labour, Cuca is widely credited with building the Copa Libertadores-winning São Paulo side of 2005 that went on to become world champions by defeating Liverpool in Japan the same year.
After some unsuccessful stints in charge of Grêmio, Flamengo, Coritiba and São Caetano, Cuca’s next big job came in 2006 in charge of Rio de Janeiro club Botafogo. Once again, Cuca managed to build an excellent, free-flowing attacking side that was the envy of the rest of the league.
However, Cuca was still unable to transform attractive play into trophies. Botafogo let the 2008 Rio state and Brazilian championships slip out of their grasp, while also being eliminated in the Copa Sul-Americana by River Plate. The following year, they reached the finals of the Rio state championships once again, but, once again, they were defeated. Once again, by rivals Flamengo.
This series of disappointments earned Cuca the unwelcome reputation of being cursed, a tag that would remain with him for several years.
In 2009, now in charge of Flamengo, Cuca repeated the feat he managed at São Paulo five years before, building a championship-winning side and being sacked before he could get his hands on the trophy. This time the problem was a personal one, as the Flamengo squad revolted against him, presenting the club board with a dossier of complaints regarding Cuca’s treatment of his players.
One such grievance claimed the manager openly dismissed young centre-back Welinton’s future in the game, saying he was “never going to be good, because he’s stupid”. There were similar gripes that Cuca called midfielder Ibson “spoiled” and dubbed Leo Moura “the laziest full-back in Brazil”. The manager was shown the door and his Flamengo side became national champions a few months later.
Cuca’s redemption came in 2012 when he took charge of Atlético Mineiro. It looked like a match made in hell. Both the manager and the club were always the bridesmaids, never the brides. But if Cuca was cursed, Atlético – with their last national title coming in 1971 – were truly damned.
Luckily for the Galo Mineiro, the jinxes appeared to cancel one another out and Atlético enjoyed the most successful period of their history. Cuca’s first major trophy was no less than the 2013 Copa Libertadores, the greatest honour in South American club football.
After his Atlético team sealed their triumph, Cuca celebrated on the pitch with his players and did not miss the opportunity to set the record straight in his first interview as South American champion. “They always said Atlético are sufferers, that they’re cursed, that I’m cursed”, he barked into a forest of microphones. “But we’ve put an end to that, there’s no more fucking curse!”
It was clear to see that while being nothing more than a playful jibe from rival fans, talk of The Curse always bothered Cuca. A devout Catholic, the 53 year old is also heavily superstitious, famously forbidding team buses from reversing while his squad is aboard. He is also one for adhering to lucky items of clothing, such as the t-shirt with the image of Our Lady of Aparecida (Brazil’s patron saint) which he used throughout Atlético Mineiro’s Copa Libertadores run, or his fetching wine red trousers (often paired with bright white football boots) that accompanied Palmeiras’ recent unbeaten streak.
While he is no longer seen as unlucky, Cuca has yet to shake off the reputation of being difficult to work with. Even at Palmeiras there have been suggestions of the manager having rifts with more than one first-team player, while he upset a large part of the team soon after arriving by sending well-liked squad members Robinho and Lucas on loan to league rivals Cruzeiro.
On the pitch, Cuca’s Palmeiras retain many of the traits of the coach’s previous sides. They press aggressively without the ball and are lethal on attacking transitions. With a solid creative midfield base, delivering good service to quick, able wingers and superb centre-forward Gabriel Jesus, Palmeiras have the league’s best attack and create the most shots on target per 90 minutes.
Cuca has also taught his side to win ugly, scoring many of their goals from free-kicks, corners and most notably, long throws. They’ve had to endure some unfair criticism, but their form is superb and should they hold on to their lead, they will be fully deserving of their ninth Brazilian title.