João Saldanha.
João Saldanha Rio de Janeiro State Champion with Botafogo (1957).

João Saldanha

A Dissident in Charge

Enrico Cavalieri
Enrico Cavalieri Istituto Comprensivo Porretta Terme. FMH contributor

On 17th march 1970, just a couple of months before the Mexican World Cup started, Brazil coach João Saldanha was dismissed from the national selection. He had just ended the qualification round with 6 victories in 6 matches. He commented on this decision by saying: “Easy to guess why they fired me, harder to understand why they hired me”. 

A revolutionary background

Saldanha’s main job for all his life was as a journalist, but he happened to be an innovative football coach, at first in Botafogo FC, in the early years of Mané Garrincha and Didì, and then in what somebody says was the strongest national selection ever. He came from a rebellious background. His ancestors had been involved in the revolutionary movements of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. As a kid he had grown up among the smuggling of ammunition with Uruguay, made in 1923 by his parents. He was known for his temperament and communist beliefs.

A globetrotter writer

He traveled the world, for sporting and political reasons. He wrote about nazi concentration camps soon after WWII, testified against the damage of the Korean war, and met with international communist leaders. As a sports fan and journalist, he used to say he had been present in every World Cup since 1934. 

Coach, why not?

Between 1957 and 1959, in spite of his total lack of experience, he was designated as the coach of Rio de Janeiro’s team Botafogo FC, with which he won the state championship in the first year. The experience ended two years later, after difficult relations with some players and a protest by him for the transfer of the team star Didì. He came back to journalism, but his coaching career wasn’t over. 

A dissident journalist in a dangerous position

In the late 60s Brazil was under a military dictatorship, and the green and yellow selection was preparing the Mexican Rimet Cup. Critics against the national team management were coming out on a daily basis after the “failure” of 1966. In 1969 João Havelange, at that time president of Brazilian football federation, appointed Saldanha as head coach. It is believed that he was chosen to put a journalist far from the government in a usually over-criticized position. 

People witnessed the creation of one of the most innovative teams ever, the so-called five-10s team. “Who should play, Pelé or Tostão?”, experts used to ask. Saldanha put both, and Brazil won all six qualification matches, scoring 23 goals and conceding just 2. 

At the beginning of 1970 he was in Mexico, and during an interview with the French Le monde he talked about the imprisonments and the tortures that the Brazilian dictatorship was carrying out, in a moment in which all these issues were censored in his country. 

Some weeks later, when dictator Gen. Médici asked Saldanha to add Atlético Mineiro footballer Dadà Maravilha to the World Cup list, his answer was: “The President chooses the ministers, I choose the players”. This together with his communist ideas and his never hidden critics to the government, was the reason why Saldanha was sacked as coach of Brazil.

“His” Brazil conquers the Rimet Cup forever

Some months later, his substitute Mário Zagallo won the Rimet Cup in Mexico with exactly the same team, plus a Dadà Maravilha who never got up from the bench. Saldanha celebrated the victory without any grudge and continued his work as a journalist. He followed the Brazilian team until his death, in Rome, during the 1990 World Cup. Curiously, his trip as a football journalist ended in Italy, exactly where it had started 56 years before.

Thinking points

João Saldanha was a fervent dissident in a military-ruled country, but he nonetheless was designated to be the national team head coach. Indeed, somebody believes his dissidence was the reason why. As an almost newcomer, he created a wonderful team, where talented players, who were supposed to annoy each other, played wonderfully together and won a World Cup without actual rivals. Do you think experience is always an advantage or sometimes newcomers can play out of the box and radically change the play?

Find out more

João Saldanha left us an amusing report of his coaching years in Botafogo: Os subterrâneos do futebol (“The underground of football”). Players as Garrincha, Nilton Santos and Didì are portrayed in their very daily life, with pub chat-like anecdotes and quite a funny storytelling (unfortunately for Portuguese readers only). Journalist Alex Bellos, in his column Brazilian way of life, can provide you with more details and stories about Saldanha’s particular life. The Brazilian edition of international review Jacobin dedicated an article to him, as the Brazilian BBC.

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Anti-government journalist was chosen as a coach and then fired.

Life Story 119

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João Saldanha Rio de Janeiro State Champion with Botafogo (1957).
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