With a little and very loose tie-in to El Clásico
if you’ve read anything I’ve written about soccer, you know I like Brazilian soccer, the Brazilian national soccer teams, and lots of Brazilian players. But there are Brazilians I don’t like, or who I think are overrated, or both. Today I’d like to tell you about a major figure in Brazilian soccer, a coach who is both dishonest and not all that great at coaching, but who continues to be treated and paid as if he were one of the top Brazilian coaches. His name even comes up when the speculation about the seleção’s next coach starts every time one quits, gets fired, or just has a bad game. I’m talking about Vanderlei Luxemburgo.
Anyone who follows Brazilian soccer knows who Vanderlei Luxemburgo is, and some of the most die-hard Barcelona and especially Real Madrid fans preparing themselves for Monday’s big game might remember him. For the rest of you, here’s a chance to get to know a bit about somebody who, like him or not, has been one one of the most memorable figures, at least among coaches, in Brazilian soccer in recent decades.
Let me be clear: I think Luxemburgo is overrated, and I dislike him too. The disliking part comes from when he did bad things to two teams I like when he coached them, and I think I’ve got good evidence for the “he’s overrated” part, which comes from what I consider to be a realistic view of his career. So while it’s not nice for me to call him “lixo burro,” which means “stupid trash” and sounds quite a bit like “Luxemburgo,” and while I admit that at least part of it comes from emotional responses to bad and dishonest things he’s done as coach of teams I like, I think he does ultimately deserve it. Let me make my case.
Luxemburgo came to prominence by leading Bragantino, a relatively minor team, to the Brazilian Championship first division via a strong campaign in the 2nd division in 1989, and he led the team to the São Paulo state championship in 1990. The thing is that Bragantino actually stayed in the first division of the Brazilian Championship through the 1990s, and in the two years after Luxemburgo left (1991 and 1992), placed 2nd and 4th in the tournament. In 1990, under Luxemburgo, Bragantino had come in 8th in the Brazilian Championship. So now I need to ask some questions. Was it really shocking that a team other than one of the big four (Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos, São Paulo) won a São Paulo state title? Was Luxemburgo that great a coach if his big accomplisment was leading Bragantino to a state title that none of the big teams prioritize as much as Libertadores, the Copa do Brasil, the Brazilian Championship, or even the Sul-Americana, which now gives a Libertadores spot to its champion? Was Luxemburgo’s influence that important, given that Bragantino did noticeably better in the Brazilian championship in the two years after he left than in the years when he was coach? Ehhh… Whatever. I wouldn’t say there is evidence in his work with Bragantino that he’s a bad coach, but I don’t see any real evidence that he was a very good coach either. He had much bigger successes later in his career, so I still haven’t gotten to most of the supposed proof of his ability yet. Proof of his awfulness is also coming
In 1991, Luxemburgo coached Guarani, a team from Campinas, a city about 100 km from São Paulo, and Flamengo, the most popular team in Brazil and the one generally believed to be Luxemburgo’s favorite team. In 1992, he went to Ponte Preta, another team from Campinas, and stayed there until Palmeiras hired him in 1993. At that time, Palmeiras had the sponsorship of Parmalat, which was willing to invest heavily to win titles. As a result, Palmeiras put together a very strong team and won some titles, including the 1993 and 1994 editions of the Brazilian Championship. Despite the strong team and despite having far and away the best financial backing of any team in Brazil at the time, Palmeiras failed to win any international titles under Luxemburgo.
Luxemburgo bounced around in ’95, going from Palmeiras to Paraná, to Flamengo again, and then back to Palmeiras again, where he stayed through ’96. In 1997, he coached at Santos, then in 1998 at Corinthians. After the seleção got its collective ass handed to it by France in the 1998 World Cup final, Zagallo moved on and then Luxemburgo was hired as the next coach of the national team. His tenure was marked by scandals and failure, but it didn’t start all that badly. In 1999, Brazil won Copa América. Much of the merit has to go to Ronaldinho Gaúcho, who played really well, but I have to admit the seleção was looking good under Luxemburgo for a while. But then things started to go wrong. Luxemburgo was caught cheating on taxes and doing business with falsified documents. He was caught calling up players for the national team to raise their transfer value when he stood to benefit financially from that. But in the end, it was on-the-field performance issues that led to Luxemburgo getting fired. In 2000, Brazil’s men’s Olympic soccer team looked like it was in good shape to win the gold medal Brazil still didn’t have and really wanted. In an Olympic quarterfinal against Cameroon, Brazil actually came to have a two-man advantage in the “golden goal” period (two Cameroonian players got red cards), and actually managed to lose anyway as Cameroon got the golden goal and moved on, eventually even getting the gold medal Brazil still doesn’t have. After the loss to Cameroon, it didn’t take long for the CBF to sack Luxemburgo.
In 2001, Luxemburgo went back to Corinthians, and then in 2002 back to Palmeiras again. But he didn’t stay very long at Palmeiras. While he was there, he led the team to an awful partial campaign in the Brazilian Championship and did things like firing the entire starting midfield and even leaving the team without a single “volante” on the roster. “Defensive midfielder” is a woefully inadequate translation of “volante,” but defensive midfielders are a subset of volantes, so consider the seriousness of having a team without any defensive midfielders. And then Luxemburgo went to Cruzeiro, leaving Palmeiras with an incomplete roster and no coach. To this day, I believe Luxemburgo had an unofficial deal with Cruzeiro for some time before leaving Palmeiras, but stayed on to sabotage the Palmeiras team before moving on to Cruzeiro. As a result of his bad coaching and outright sabotage of the team, Palmeiras ended up relegated to the Brazilian second division for 2003.
Luxemburgo was at Cruzeiro through 2003, then at Santos again in 2004. Cruzeiro had put together a very strong team, and Luxemburgo led them to titles in the Brazilian Championship, the Copa do Brasil, and the Minas Gerais state championship. In 2004, he helped the very strong Santos team with Diego, Robinho, and Elano repeat as Brazilian champs. By then, I believed he was just smart enough to go to the right team at the right time, and that he himself was adding little value. This was a major change from 1998-1999, when I thought he was actually doing a pretty good job as coach of the seleção.
Then in 2005, he went to Real Madrid to coach the “galácticos.” This is how my rant ties in to Monday’s Barcelona-Real Madrid derby. Sorry, Real Madrid fans, but I found it really funny when Luxemburgo did a whole lot of nothing with a very expensive, very highly publicized roster. He was coaching a team just about every coach in the world would have loved to have a chance to coach, and he won nothing with it. Real Madrid fans had been calling for his head for a while when they finally got it after he managed to lead Real Madrid to a 0-3 shellacking at home against arch-rival Barcelona. Another significant thing about that game: the star of the game was Ronaldinho Gaúcho, who became the first Barça player to ever get a standing ovation from the fans of Real Madrid. Nice job, Ronaldinho. And I hope you sent ol’ Vanderlei something nice for Christmas that year.
Luxemburgo returned to Santos yet again and won a couple of São Paulo state championships there in ’06 and ’07. He then went back to Palmeiras yet again for 2008. I couldn’t believe any Palmeiras fan, much less the front office, would accept that proven thief, cheater, liar, and bad coach as Palmeiras’s head coach, especially after he was personally responsible (and in such an ugly and dishonest way) for Palmeiras’s relegation just 5 years earlier. But they did. And they got a title. A state title. Yay. Nothing more. In 2009, he was finally fired after screwing up the team’s relationship with striker Keirrison, and he went back to Santos yet again. After Santos’s expressive 12th-place finish in the Brazilian Championship of 2009, Luxemburgo moved on again, this time to Atlético Mineiro, Cruzeiro’s arch-rival. Under his leadership, Atlético, despite having essentially the same team that actually contended for the title last year, found itself mired in LAST PLACE in the Brazilian championship of 2010, severely threatened with relegation. But nearly relegating one team wasn’t enough for this genius. He was fired by Atlético Mineiro in late September, and since then Atlético-MG has gotten better. With the results of Sunday’s games, just a week before the end of the tournament, Atlético is now officially and mathematically safe from relegation. It appears they fired Luxemburgo just in time. But as I said, Luxemburgo wasn’t done working his magic in the 2010 Brazilian Championship. Oh, no. In late October, he was hired by Flamengo again. And after the end of the penultimate round of the tournament, Flamengo is just two points ahead of the top team in the relegation zone. It doesn’t seem all that likely that Flamengo will be relegated, because it would require Flamengo to lose and the two teams with two points less than Flamengo (Atlético Goianiense and Vitória) to win, but it’s not impossible. So Luxemburgo’s coaching, which continues to get him mentioned in conversations about top Brazilian coaches and continues to get him outrageously high salaries, has taken not one but TWO teams to the edge of relegation this year. And neither is a joke team having a brief cup of coffee in the first division. Flamengo is one of the big four in Rio and the most popular team in Brazil, and Atlético is one of the big two in Minas Gerais.
I wonder exactly what Luxemburgo would have to do for the Brazilian media to stop pretending he’s actually one of the top coaches in the country. Will I ever get to hear them saying he’s overrated, that he’s been left behind by the game, that he’s overpaid and really not all that good? I honestly don’t know. I won’t ever forgive him for treating his tenure as coach of the seleção as an opportunity to make money for himself by increasing mediocre players’ transfer value, nor for acting in bad faith as Palmeiras’s coach in 2002 and causing Palmeiras to fall to the second division. The Brazilian media and most Brazilian fans seem to be much more willing to forgive his all-too-frequent transgressions than I am. OK, fine. Maybe they’re all more optimistic about Vanderlei’s ability to grow and change than I am, even though he has expressed no interest in or need for growth or change. I’ll just say that I think it’s funny that Brazilians complain about corruption in politics, business, law enforcement, and soccer (not necessarily in that order), but continue to fawn over Luxemburgo, who is as good a symbol of corruption in Brazilian soccer as anyone. But what I really don’t get is why they continue to ignore his spectacular failures, like dragging two teams down toward the bottom of the table this year, and of course his international flameouts with the 2000 Olympic seleção and the “galácticos” Real team. I won’t say he’s the worst coach in Brazil, or even one of the worst. But it seems to me his body of work doesn’t support his lofty reputation and salary. It’s as if the media, team front offices, and even fans all remember only his successes and ignore his failures and his outright dishonesty.