One of the biggest, yet least surprising, stories in Brazilian football over the past few months was São Paulo’s goalscoring goalkeeper Rogério Ceni making the move into management at the club where he is idolised. With 1,238 games, 132 goals and 16 trophies for the club, Rogério has become somewhat of a demigod at São Paulo, so when he finally hung up his gloves in 2015, after years of going back on retirement promises, his career path to becoming São Paulo’s head coach seemed clear.
Five months in, it hasn’t gone particularly well.
After a start that showed tentative promise, the last few weeks have been torture for Rogério, seeing São Paulo eliminated from the state championships, Copa do Brasil and Copa Sul-Americana and losing their opening match of the national championship, all in the space of 25 days. The proximity of these disappointing results has even led some of São Paulo’s fans to question their faith, wondering whether Rogério might not be the messiah they thought he was.
Of course, any judgement on Rogério Ceni’s capacity as a coach at this stage is incredibly premature. He is, after all, five months into his first-ever managerial job, and he has inherited a relatively poor squad, the result of a series of misguided decisions made by the board over the past five years.
Furthermore, his portion of the blame for São Paulo’s poor form is minimal. The team has been fairly well put together, they are positionally sound, playing some progressive football and many of their disappointing results have come from poor individual performances. There is only so much he can do.
While he has not gotten off to the best of starts, Rogério Ceni has plenty of potential as a coach. Throughout his playing career he showed himself to be precise and intelligent in his analysis of the game and since deciding to go into management he has studied extensively under some of the world’s best coaches. It was likely an error for him to dive straight in at the deep end and manage São Paulo, but such is his association with the club that it would be difficult to imagine him starting anywhere else.
Where he has fallen short in this recent run of poor form has been in his handling of the press. When São Paulo were eliminated from the Copa Sul-Americana against unexceptional Argentinian side Defensa y Justicia (in what was their first ever continental tournament), Rogério refused to call the loss an embarrassing result. Instead, he quoted statistics which apparently proved his side were not playing that badly, bafflingly reminded journalists of matches against state championship minnows which they “almost won” (against Mirassol and Novorizontino, they led 2-0 before drawing 2-2), and arrogantly confronted one of the journalists in attendance who asked about the positioning of Peruvian midfielder Christian Cueva.
While this is a standard strategy by football managers, particularly in Brazil, that of shielding his own players from criticism by reinforcing positive arguments about their performances or taking the blame himself, Rogério Ceni hasn’t managed to implement it properly. Losing 1-0 to Cruzeiro on Sunday, he mentioned that an “idiotic” individual error led to their opponent’s goal, but made a half-hearted attempt at not singling out the player in question by making the dubious claim that he “couldn’t see who made the mistake”.
He wasn’t even convincing in his assumption of blame for his team’s poor results, saying he was responsible, but sulkily adding that “when the victories come, I’m sure the players will get the credit”.
The doubt now surrounds his future at the club. No one is in any doubt that Rogério Ceni only remains the manager of São Paulo because he is Rogério Ceni. I argued at the beginning of the season that this would actually be a good thing for the club, meaning that he would have freedom and time to work without fear of a premature ejection. I had not expected, however, that São Paulo would have such a bad start to 2017.
São Paulo return to the field on Monday to play Avaí, before facing rivals and reigning champions Palmeiras the following weekend. Their results in these two home games could decide the future of The Rogério Ceni Project, which, not unlike like The Alan Parsons Project, is progressive, but a bit shit.