Sylvinho: ‘Winning a treble with Barcelona was spectacular. I ate it up’

Sylvinho: ‘Winning a treble with Barcelona was spectacular. I ate it up’


ylvinho is laughing again, slapping a palm over his eyes before pulling it down to cover his mouth where an oh is forming. He recalls the scene, the embarrassment of the day after, and cracks up. It’s true, he concedes: there are pictures to prove it. “It’s a good story,” he says and the story goes that amid those wild, frantic seconds after Andrés Iniesta’s 93rd-minute winner at Stamford Bridge in 2009, while everyone lost their heads, Sylvinho chased Pep Guardiola down the touchline, grabbed him and, shouting through the din, signalled a safe passage to the final.

“I could say: ‘Yeah, I was calm, I had it all under control, I knew exactly what to do, what was going on,’” Sylvinho says, grinning. “False. I remember Guardiola saying: ‘Keep the ball, be calm, don’t just shoot.’ But it’s not happening and in the last minute, a man down, Iniesta produces that shot. Goal. Everyone starts running. Some on to the pitch, some the other way. Everywhere. It was crazy, everyone going mad.” He waves his hand, the swirl of emotions, then clicks his finger. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It came from inside. There was a click. And I said something like: ‘Míster, there are two changes, eh.’”

Which Guardiola made, by the way.

“I didn’t know who I was talking to, what I was talking about, and when I saw footage the next day …” Sylvinho pauses, reaching for his face, and puts on a voice, the giggling horror, the what was I thinking? “‘Bloody hell that’s my boss.’ I was never a player who interfered with the coach; I respected him, but it came from inside.”

They’ve seen a lot of each other since, laughed about it too. Besides, maybe it was the manager trying to get out, an early glimpse of the coach inside.

Sylvinho in August 2019 during a five-month spell at Lyon’s coach.

If maybe there was something there then, it’s definitely there now – expressed in the speed, depth and conviction with which Sylvinho talks; in the discussion of systems, structures and sentiment; and how convincing it all is. Even the cropped grey hair is good, he jokes: a manager’s look.

Maybe it was inevitable the former Arsenal, Manchester City, Celta, Corinthians and Barcelona defender would become a manager with the mentors he had, the experiences and people he met and is still meeting now. The call has been running for 45min 54sec when he’s first asked about Arsène Wenger. “What. A. Coach,” he says. “Finishing without talking about Wenger would have been a sin.” But, then, there has been so much else to get in. Just the list of players he’s worked with as Brazil’s assistant manager is long. From Neymar: “Technically, physically and tactically spec-tac-ular and he didn’t give us a single problem.” To Dani Alves: “Obsessed with work.” And now two Premier League champions.

Sylvinho challenges Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung during Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League final win.

“Alisson and Firmino are humble, serious, hardworking people who bring a team together,” Sylvinho says. “Alisson’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world even if he doesn’t ‘appear’ much. He doesn’t feel the need to tell the world ‘here I am’, doesn’t make a fuss or ‘sell smoke’, as the Spanish say.

“When I started working with Brazil, Tite [the coach] sent me to watch Firmino at Burnley and he was incredible. You see him play [on TV] and think: ‘Yeah, he’s very good.’ But at the ground? Wow. He does so much. I left there enamoured. The ball’s on the other side and you see him move, the generosity with which he links teammates, how he never lost the ball – that’s incredibly hard in the Premier League. If you say ‘I want 40 goals’, maybe he’s not that striker but if you want someone complete, who generates spaces, goes outside, inside, buah! Brilliant.”

A run through the players whose path Sylvinho has crossed leads inevitably to Lionel Messi, a kid he says hasn’t changed. “He didn’t speak much: come in, train, go home, a great family behind him. We could see there was something there, wow. He was different. But I’d be lying if I said we thought: ‘This kid will win six Ballon d’Ors.’ I’ve never seen a player like him. He gets the ball, bluh, bluh, bluh, bluh, goal. ‘Done, let’s go home.’” Sylvinho dusts off his hands, laughs at the absurdity of it. “Messi has a bad season and scores 25. Barcelona have struggled but Messi is mucho Messi and they can still win the Champions League.”

In 2009, Messi did. Alongside him, so did Sylvinho, a starter in the final against Manchester United. “I could never have imagined that time with Guardiola, those players, Messi at 16, winning a treble,” he says. “That season was spectacular. I ate it up. I was old, mature enough to see the details, absorb it. Not just as a player, but also … look, I had no idea I would [coach], but I was attentive, watching, taking it in.”

Pep Guardiola is thrown by Barcelona’s players as in the foreground Sylvinho and Henry look at the Champions League trophy in 2009.

Sylvinho talks about the construction of that side, the concepts that drove them – the possession, the press – and how, to cite one example, Guardiola built mechanisms to get Iniesta on the ball at the exact moment in the exact place. “‘I only need two seconds,’ [Guardiola would say]. ‘Iniesta gets the ball, turns, everything’s sorted.’ That’s what I saw.”

He explains the depth of study behind it, how all of it is mechanised, or “codified” as they call it in Italy, where Sylvinho did his coaching badges – “and there, everything is codified”. And how all of it is worthless without soul. “You get a good team and people think: ‘Ah, yeah, easy.’ No. There’s so much work. But I can tell you: without soul, passion, pfff,” he says, blowing out his cheeks before gesturing as if injecting football into his veins. “I’ve seen Guardiola, Tite, [Roberto] Mancini: their soul gets inside you. The players’ eyes shine: ‘Let’s do this.’”

Sylvinho and his fellow new Manchester City signing Joleon Lescott in August 2009.

When Sylvinho joined Manchester City, where he would meet Mancini, it was the start of the club they are now but he says he could see something building: “A project, a plan, exactly the way they ‘sold’ it to me.” At the end of the season, he no longer had a playing place but Mancini offered him the chance to be third coach. “I said: ‘Thanks but I’ve been away from São Paulo 12 years, my parents are there.’ I was tired.”

Three years later they came together at Internazionale before Sylvinho joined Tite with Brazil. His first job as a head coach, at Lyon in May 2019, lasted five months but there is, he says, “no time for laments”, no time for the woe is me face he pulls in jest. Another lesson, he calls it. When he departed, a message arrived from Wenger applauding him for leaving as a “gentleman” – a reflection, he says, of the man he knew at Highbury. “If I could have 5% of the humanity Wenger has, I’ll be happy.”

What about his job? Sylvinho laughs. “Arsenal are in good hands,” he says; he spoke to Mikel Arteta last week. Besides, although he admits the Premier League is attractive, the field is wide – Spain, Italy, France, Portugal – and you can never wait for a club. Nor, he knows, are there any guarantees.

Sylvinho working with Roberto Mancini at Internazionale in April 2016.

There is, though, a long experience to draw on, influences from places and people, a mix of cultures: Spanish rondos, Italian tactics, English intensity. Sylvinho talks about bringing those together, finding a philosophy. About how fast the game moves and generations shift, about technology and methodology. And about how, if experience teaches you anything, it’s how often reality gets in the way.

“It’s easy to write it down and say: ‘Do it.’ No. There has to be work, passion, you have to be in love with it. I always return to the same thing: soul.

“Guardiola used to always say: ‘Lads, we’re going to do everything, everything, everything, everything. But I don’t know if we’ll win, I can’t guarantee that.’ Tite’s the same: he studies all … day … long. Locked away, studying. Mancini too, moving with the game. I see Diego Simeone, a great coach, lose two European Cup finals. Sometimes, the difference between winning or not is tiny. We won a treble getting there via Stamford Bridge with the last kick. Bloody hell. Pffff. How do you explain that?”