Why 30-million fans support Santana

Writing about the current head coach of Brazilian club Flamengo, who jets into South Africa on Friday morning, Dr Nikolaus Eberl, the man responsible for building Safa’s brand, says that in order to understand the man behind the brand called Joel Santana, one needs to go back to the origins of the club that runs like a golden thread throughout his coaching career and made him the only coach ever to have won Carioca State Championship crowns with Rio de Janeiro’s ‘big four’ - and the Brazilian championship with Vasco da Gama.

Flamengo are the standard-bearers for the working class of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a whole, and according to former coach, Prof Julio Caesar Leal, are supported by 30 million poor people.

Leal, who rescued AmaZulu when they were going through a financial crisis and on the verge of relegation, explains: “In Brazil, our people suffer a great deal and constantly encounter difficulties in daily life. But when you work for a club like Flamengo, supported by over 30 million people, you forget day-to-day difficulties for 90 minutes.

“This enables us to overcome our own limitations and maintain our will to win, despite the fact that winning one football match after another is far from easy.”

This is where Santana’s greatest strength lies - being a true Carioca (a Rio synonym that denotes the trait of going out of your way to help others), he understands what it takes to engage an entire community in the fraternity that a winning team provides, and how to build the support of a club’s extended family.

It is Santana’s qualities that have endeared him so much to the Flamengo supporter base that on the announcement of his resignation, midfielder Toro said; “Joel is like a father for me and I am sad that he is leaving. We are going to lose a great father, but we will try to win for him and to give our lives for him in the Copa Libertadores.”

Santana is well aware of how big a difference the 12th man can make to a team. He is known for his emotional outbursts on the sidelines during games and was reproached last year during a game at rivals Santos for encouraging his players to get physical.

So who is Joel Santana and, above all, is he the right man to turn Bafana Bafana into a championship team, with just 25 months to go?

Joel Natalino Santana was born on Christmas Day 1948 in Rio de Janeiro. After a football career as a central defender in the 1970’s, he became a coach, first at the United Arab Emirates for Al-Wasl (1981 - 86), then at the legendary Brazilian club Vasco da Gama, with whom he won the State Championship.

Thereafter he coached Al-Hilal and Al-Nasr in Saudi Arabia, before he returned to his homeland and kicked off a coaching campaign which saw him acquire the nicknames ‘Conquistador’ and ‘Salvador’ (The Conqueror and Saviour) in particular during his two latest spells at Flamengo.

First, in 2005, when he took over a side that was playing hopelessly and staring at the unthinkable - relegation from the Brazilian Championship Serie A - in the face.

It was then that the tactician masterminded six victories and three draws from the final nine matches to keep Flamengo among the elite, before leaving for an offer “too good to refuse” to join the Japanese side Vegalta Sendai.

Since he returned to the Flamengo bench on 30 July 2007, he brought about the ‘miracle’ of pulling the team out of the relegation zone of the Brazilian championship (who were pegged at penultimate position at the half-way stage) and commanded a comeback that allowed Flamengo to end in third place and qualify for the prestigious Copa Libertadores (and at the same time packed the famous Maracana Stadium in Rio to capacity for each of their home games (that is in excess of 88,000 spectators).

“The fans knew what we needed and they gave us that lift. Just look at how many supporters we had at the Maracana, everybody in Flamengo colours. It’s a dream to see this... We’re like a family and when the supporters unite and get behind us like they did, the team responds.

“All the way through the fans have been an inspiration and thanks to them, we’ve managed to achieve something which seemed impossible.”

So maybe Santana can work two miracles in South Africa; one with Bafana Bafana and the other for Safa, in getting fans behind the national team and giving them a lift ahead of the 2010 World Cup.