football

Sylvinho's special account for "The Guardian"

Sylvinho

"I never stay calm," says Sylvinho in the afternoon, which proves his point in the best possible way.

"The players know it, the Federation knows it, the president knows it. Christmas holiday, the end of the year, normally you start work again in January... but all the time I'm thinking about how we can get by. How can we play against Italy? How can we play against Croatia? What will we do against the Spaniards?".

It's an understandable preoccupation given that Albania, which Sylvinho remarkably qualified for Euro 2024, has to face the big three representatives over the next two weeks in the toughest European group.

Albania has not been able to shoot a more difficult group and it will be a sensation if they pass the group.
"You have to find a way to reduce the distance between them and us," he says. "How? You need to work".

He has never missed work. Sylvinho was thrown in when he agreed to take over the faltering national team early last year. 

He was at home, in Porto, with his family, when Armando Duka, the president of the AFF, called him and invited him to Milan for dinner.

"I thought: why not?" he says, clapping his hands. "I am here".

The decision had to be the right one because Sylvinho, known for his days as a footballer at Arsenal, Barcelona and Manchester City, had not lasted long in the past two spells as a coach. 

Periods at Lyon and Corinthians ended abruptly. And so one wrong step, in an environment hardly known for stability, could be a fatal blow to further ambitions.

"You told my assistant, Doriva: I have to be smart, I can't be wrong. Because if I make a bad choice I will be in trouble."

The risk was calculated and there was no time for half measures. Sylvinho did not see himself as a coach of the national team who only shows up for matches and training camps. He understood that he could be successful only if he settles in Tirana and commits himself continuously.

Starting with a loss, but with the right energy

In Tirana, on the way to the workplace, hugs are exchanged with the line of employees belonging to Sylvinho. The warmth is sensible.

"You have to know people," he says. "I can't show up just ten days before the match. The atmosphere that can be seen here, I was absolutely sure that it would be transferred to the field".

Albania's results with Sylvinho reinforce this. He took plenty of encouragement for the first game, a narrow loss in Poland. And he began to believe that qualification was a real goal.
The previous three months were filled with trips to meet players in different countries. Initially, there were about 50 players on the list. The rest of the time was spent in the "lab", a room at the end of the corridor, equipped with charts, screens and reports showing the shape of every possible member of the team.

"In Warsaw we lost 1:0, but all the players said afterwards that this was the way," says the Brazilian.
Albania never lost a match again. It finished at the top of the group that also included the Czech Republic. Spectacular goals were scored and excellent counter-attacking football was displayed.
In "Euro 2016", where they debuted, Albania was solid but not spectacular. Sylvinho decided on a 4-3-3 system and felt he was getting the best.

"Technically they are wonderful, they have something different and they can show it on the field", he says about the Albanian players.

"They are not made to go out on the pitch and simply think: 4-4-2, we don't have the ball, we don't need to do anything special. They love the tactical side, they understand the hard work, but they like to have space to create and you have to let them do that."

Biggest success as a player

A spectacular goal by Nedim Bajrami in Prague last September was one such occasion and for Sylvinho it instilled a boost of confidence.

"The window opened for us there. It was the key point of the idea that we can succeed".

Sensational home wins against Poland and the Czech Republic in packed stadiums booked their place in Germany.

Sylvinho's research had paid off. Among the stars was Yasir Asani, who played in South Korea and had not previously been called up in qualifiers. Asani scored three goals, including a stunning 30-yarder against Poland.

"You work 10 or 12 hours, every day. And then maybe go out to dinner and watch a football game. It was also a big challenge for me. But you believe in tactics, free space and good players. In the U21 team and in the older generation. It's really a pleasure", says Sylvinho.
Success with Albania, says Sylvinho, is greater than any of his achievements as a player. Among other things, he has won two Champions League trophies with Barcelona.

"There cannot be things like: I am Sylvinho, I won three trophies in 2009, I worked for Guardiola and now I know everything. What I have done before is important as the past and he can use it, but he cannot come here and talk to the players about the next level. You can't just go into the dressing room and say Champions League."

He tells a case.

"In the beginning, one of the players gave me the ball. 'Let's see how the coach hits'. I caught the ball with my hands, which is the first thing we're told not to do as kids. I may have good technique, but there was a bigger message in this. Yes, I did. But now you have to do it because I can't do it anymore. It's not my time, it's yours. Maybe I was important as a player, but I'm not anymore. I had to withdraw, work and educate myself".

As if in jest, Sylvinho says he talks too much and that Doriva, former Middlebrough player and very reliable friend, is the quietest voice of reason. It was Doriva who convinced him that his experience as Tite's assistant in Brazil between 2016 and 2019 was the main reason for him to feel confident in accepting the position of Albania coach.

"He was right," says Sylvinho. 

Pablo Zabaleta, the famous former player of Manchester City and Argentina, completes the trio of coaches.

Guardiola, Wenger, Tite

Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Tite are among the coaches who helped shape Sylvinho. He maintains occasional contact with third parties, while he believes that "part of being respectful is not to send them too many messages."

In 2008 it was Guardiola who introduced the benefits of training players using recordings.
"The players are intelligent. If you talk nonsense and you're not right, they'll know it. You have to be precise and convince them," says Sylvinho.

Roberto Mancini is also very influential. Sylvinho was his assistant at Inter. 

Nine of Sylvinho's players play in Serie A. Cultural links with Italy are important and Italian is, along with some English, the language spoken among Albania's staff and players in the dressing room.

"An amazing match to start and it will be tough. A big challenge. We will try to do our best", he says about Saturday's match against Italy. 

"You shouldn't start the tournament worrying about three, four, five or six points. It's about every game. The first match will be really important, but so will the others."

Albania will be very well prepared for the match with Italy. Sylvinho attributes the work ethic he has to his father, who was a constant critic even after he turned professional at Corinthians. He shows how, playing for Arsenal in the Premier League, he prepared for a particular opponent many weeks in advance. 

Expectations are that Sylvinho will lead Albania to the 2026 World Cup. He feels at home now. In December, he was granted Albanian citizenship as a reward for realizing a dream of Albanians. Now the challenge is to create even greater memories. 

"There are three games, 90 minutes each, and anything can happen. You can change your life during that time. You really can. People say 'calm down, calm down'. But I can't. It's my job to make sure we do our best to achieve something special."