The former Brazil international Elano spent a glamorous 15-year playing career with teams such as Santos, Manchester City, Grêmio, Flamengo and Shakhtar Donetsk. High wages, powerful club infrastructures and stadiums packed with vibrant fans seemed worthy reward for the midfielder’s accurate passes and tackles, and his calming, reassuring presence of him.
But the 40-year-old has left all that behind – and happily so. Until late March Elano was the coach of Ferroviária, a fourth-division Brazilian club who played to a few thousand fans in Araraquara, a bucolic orange-juice-exporting town in the São Paulo state countryside. Elano has coached since late 2016 but jobs with three clubs, including Santos, had never taken him below the second tier.
“This is real football!” Elano says. “It’s not a money issue. It’s passion. What I have experienced in Serie D, travelling, talking to different people, going to small stadiums and small cities, I had never lived before. I’ve experienced some situations that have made me see how beautiful football is, how sports are so important for many people. We have people who support clubs that will never be big. They know it and are still there supporting. It is real love.”
Serie D is the bottom national division in Brazil, where football society mirrors in being painfully unequal. According to a Credit Suisse survey last year, half of Brazil’s health finance went to the population’s richest 1%. In 2015 Brazilian Football Confederation research showed that 82% of footballers in the country were paid less than £160 a month and 96% made less than £800 a month.
Elano has enjoyed helping players who lack the opportunities his talent earned him, but his presence at Ferroviária raised eyebrows. After a game at Patrocinense, in Patrocínio, a small city in Minas Gerais state, a local man asked: “Elano, what are you doing here? It’s Series D! Do you need money, man? Did you lose all your money? Are you poor?
Elano recounts their conversation with a big smile. “I said: ‘No.’ I told him I was living a moment that I needed to live. I want it. It’s a fantastic school. I need to build my career, start a new life and I’m witnessing some stories that would have been unbelievable for me a few years ago.”
Series D is not always a beautiful environment, though. It also harbors big social problems such as drug abuse, poverty and family dramas. “I had a player who had a tough life,” Elano says. “His parents of him, both of them, are addicted to crack. Can you imagine it? How is it possible to have a good life under these conditions? He was the only hope for the family; football was his only way to have a better life. I have needed to cope with the problems of life and play football. I learned a lot from him and his mentality from him to distance himself from the problems.
The word Elano repeats most is “learning”. During a career that was launched with Santos in 2001 and ended with 50 Brazil caps, he played with Ronaldinho, Neymar, Kaká and Ronaldo. At Ferroviária he was working with athletes who combine football with other occupations.
“One of my players was a bricklayer. He did not have the money to pay someone else to do it and he built his own house with his father. He bought building material and when he had free time, he worked there. I have done everything. I always told everyone. But he got ashamed of it. So I told him: ‘Don’t feel that. This is a wonderful story.’ He built his own dream of him. Where could I have seen that in my football life?
In five months in the fourth division, Elano traveled more than 5,500 miles, mostly by bus on Brazil’s dusty and poorly maintained roads. Each trip allowed him to get to know his players better.
“I need to listen to my players,” he says. “In my previous club, Inter de Limeira, one player’s wife had serious health problems. He always carried his mobile from her in case of an emergency. Once, her mobile ranged a few minutes before the game. For many coaches, that is a rude attitude, but I knew what was going on. So I told him to pick up the call. It was his wife informing him of a new problem. I turned to my players and said: ‘Let’s play for him. Only we know how our lives are. For his wife of him, for our sons, for our history, let’s win the game.’ It was simple. I turned a bad situation into motivation and we played a great game.”
Elano was grateful for support he received in difficult moments as a player, not least in 2006 when – to his shock – he returned to Brazil’s squad.
“I can say that Brazil saved my life because I wasn’t living a good moment at Shakhtar. I didn’t adapt there. It’s very hard to live in a country with -15C. But I was called up by Dunga and [the assistant coach] Jorginho. I didn’t believe it. On my first day, I asked: ‘Mister, sorry, but why am I here? Why was I picked?’ They answered that it was because of Santos, what I had done before Shakhtar. They want to see me up close, to see if I could do that again.”
The following year Elano moved to Manchester City, at a time when the club were not today’s powerhouse. “Man City was one of the best moments in my career. We had a wonderful group, a great coach. Sven-Göran Eriksson was one the finest men I’ve ever met. He gave flowers to the employees. To royal lord. I regret leaving Manchester City … We started this current project. We showed how Manchester City were big and had incredible potential.”
Elano left in 2009 to play at Galatasaray, returning from there to Brazil. The path in turn led him into coaching and his sacking by Santos in January 2018 started the journey into the lower divisions which Elano says has made him a new man.
“I am a better human being. I feel more prepared to take over any club. I am more sensitive, I have more skills to understand any situation, on and off the field. I was in the last national division, but one day I will be Brazil’s national team coach.”