Cold Head, Warm Heart: How Abel Ferreira Conquered South America with Palmeiras
Since October 30, 2020, Palmeiras’ fanbase has enjoyed a stellar 16 months that has seen them win two Copa Libertadores titles in one year as well as the Copa de Brasil, the Recopa Sudamericana, and the Campeonato Paulista. It is a golden era that can be traced back to one decision in the final days of October 2020: the appointment of Abel Fernando Moreira Ferreira as manager.
Born in the small hamlet of Penafiel, some 40 kilometers away from Porto, the 43-year-old Ferreira would strongly disagree with being given individual credit for the Verdão’s glorious spell, despite the fact that they currently lead the Brasileirão with 29 points from 15 games and have sealed passage to the Copa Libertadores quarterfinals.
Ferreira would disagree with the individual distinction, because for him, the strength of collective work and group unity, both on the pitch and off it, are the cornerstones of his footballing vision.
He includes the four members of his technical staff, Carlos Martinho, Joao Martins, Tiago Costa and Vitor Castanheira, in every decision, always emphasizing in public that they are “the best,” never venturing to give himself credit without taking into account the members of his technical staff. Such is his conviction in this principle that, once all the staff members give their own opinions, they will, without error, support Ferreira’s final decision.
After retiring in 2011 at the age of 32 due to health issues, Ferreira began his coaching career at Sporting and Braga’s youth teams before taking charge of Braga’s first team in 2017, and after two impressive years for the Arsenalistas, Greek side PAOK came calling and paid €2 million to terminate his contract at Braga and appoint the Portuguese manager in 2019.
Despite fighting for first place in the Greek Super League and competing in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Europa League, Ferreira crossed the Atlantic and took charge of Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras, one of the biggest teams in Brazil that, two years earlier, led by veteran Luis Felipe Scolari, had won the Brasileirão and reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores.
However, the Verdão were struggling to convince in local or international competition under manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and they needed a new manager to give them a shot in the arm. Enter: Abel Ferreira.
Determination and Intelligence Since Childhood
During his youth development in Peñafiel, Abel Ferreira was not a conformist child. Beyond his love for football, nurtured while playing on 33rd street next to his house and also on the municipal soccer field, the 25 de Abril stadium, Ferreira was forced to give up his football dreams at one time as his parents pressured him to focus on his academics, while he himself was unconvinced he could stand out as a player after being told to move from midfield to right back.
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However, his coach Manuel Potinho ended up convincing him to return to training and, over time, this decision was justified: Abel became an energetic, technically competent and mentally strong footballer who stood out as a midfielder and as a fullback.
After developing at Penafiel’s academy, Ferreira moved to Vitória de Guimarães and made his debut at right back on October 15, 2000, playing against a Porto side that featured Deco and other talented stars. Whilst they would lose 2-0 in the Dragão, Ferreira had nevertheless made his professional debut at 21 years of age.
This debut would come under Brazilian manager Paulo César Autuori. Two decades later, on November 28, 2020, they would reunite in a Brasileirão match, with Ferreira’s Palmeiras hosting Autuori’s Athletico Paranaense and winning 3-0 at home in one of the Portuguese manager’s first matches in charge of the club.
Having consolidated the right back position as his own, Ferreira would make 80 appearances for Vitória from 2000 to 2004 before moving to local rivals Braga., where he would play in European competition for the first time ever, playing in the UEFA Cup. After two seasons at Braga, Ferreira made the step up to one of Portugal’s Big Three and join Sporting.
Ferreira would play 171 games for the ‘Lions’, winning two Taças de Portugal and two SuperTaças, as well as playing against the likes of Inter and Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League. However, after suffering a knee ligament rupture and facing a lengthy recovery time, he decided to retire at 32 years of age in May 2011.
Communication and Empathy as Cornerstones of his Philosophy
“The greatest evolution of Palmeiras after Abel’s arrival is precisely in the mental aspect. It created a feeling of appreciation and a sense of belonging among all the club’s workers, from the cook to the youth squads, to the professional team and the board,” states Palmeiras expert Mateus Augustine.
This became clear the day Abel was presented at the Palmeiras Center of Excellence in São Paulo, whose facilities he considers to be as complete as those of Manchester City, except for the smaller number of training camps. Giving a speech in front of his technical staff and first-team players, Ferreira stated:
“Demand, talent and respect will be the keywords here. Let’s help the youngest, who are players with talent and quality, but also respect the veterans, who must be an example for the little ones”. After taking a short break for the players to absorb his words, he told them with complete conviction:
“Here we have all the conditions to succeed and it is only possible to succeed in football if we are together. With these values — friendship, respect and internal competitiveness — Palmeiras starts here. The strength of our club is you”.
“I know how the players think, because the ‘school’ that they attend, I have already gone down that path.. I know when they are frustrated. But there is something that they and everyone at the club always need to be clear about: no one is above the greatness of Palmeiras. Everyone here has the mission of always giving their best, so that on game day we can bring joy to our supporters.”
Paulo Bento, who coached him from 2006 to 2009 at Sporting, left Ferreira with an enriching lesson in leadership: don’t be afraid to exchange ideas and listen to the players, even if, at the end of the day, you will go with your own decision. At that time, experienced veterans like Anderson Polga, Marco Caneira, Tonel and Derlei debated with Bento and discussed tactical ideas with the coach, now in charge of South Korea’s national team.
Over a decade later, Ferreira would use this to his advantage at Palmeiras, where the opinions of veterans like Weverton, Gustavo Gómez and Felipe Melo — before his departure from the club — – have always been respected and promoted by the coach. These topics range from improving the quality of grass at the Allianz Parque stadium to the search for alternatives for certain positions on the field.
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At the start of 2021, Joaquín Piquerez was the only left back available and, due to the accumulation of games with the team and with the Uruguayan national team, Abel had to ask the squad to find a new alternative at the left back position.
Communication, then, is a differential element in Abel’s line of work, who knows the names of all the club’s workers and is truly interested in the personal lives of the players, especially the younger ones, whom he advises to be prudent with the use of money, educate themselves beyond playing football and, above all, not be conformists at any time.
“My reference in football is knowledge. They are the books, the people, the Portuguese and Brazilian coaches, because I am the fruit of my experiences. I learned from all the managers I had: the good, the bad, the weak, the great… It is mainly in difficult time wwhen the greatest lessons are acquired.”
Since his time as a professional player, another element that has marked Abel’s path as a manager is lifelong learning. During his time at Sporting, he took notes on the training sessions, asked questions and talked with his coaches, and even recorded specific moments of that daily dynamic.
During his training process to be a coach at the Escola de Treinadores de Portugal, he always stood out as someone open to absorbing new ideas, ready to listen to his colleagues and instructors, and start a conversation and draw his own conclusions.
This process, added to everything he learned as a footballer, allowed him to structure his own versatile work model, within which the person, and above all the player, is a fundamental component.
Trusting the Academy Players
Nine months after hanging up his boots, Ferreira made his coaching debut on February 14, 2012 for Sporting’s U-19 squad, later taking charge of their B team. In both these positions, Ferreira gained recognition in Portugal for his ability to not only eke out results, but develop youngsters into more complete players.
He returned to Braga in 2014 to take charge of their B team, where once again, and with better resources, both human and logistical, he made a difference. After two experiences in two widely respected academies, he “graduated” as a coach with a remarkable ability to find emerging talents in the academies who could later stand out in the first team.
Ferreira’s managerial debut in Portugal’s top-flight took place on December 16, 2016, where his Braga side paid a visit to the Estádio José Alvalade — the same stadium that Ferreira had spent half of his professional career at from 2006 to 2011 after joining from Braga in 2005, before spending three years beginning his coaching career at Sporting’s academy.
Braga would eke out a 1-0 victory via a late goal from Wilson Eduardo, and since that win, Ferreira not only consolidated Braga as the fourth-best team in the Primeira Liga, only surpassed by the “big three”, Sporting, Benfica and Porto, with Braga achieving various club records in the 2017/18 with 75 point, 74 goals scored, and 24 wins to secure the Archbishops qualification to the UEFA Europa League.
The following season, Braga finished with 67 points, seven points behind second-place Sporting, the same team that they would lose to in the Taça da Liga semifinals on penalties, whilst they would also lose to Porto in the Taça de Portugal semis and lose to Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk in the third qualifying round of the Europa League.
Ferreira’s exploits at Braga would grab the attention of Greek side PAOK who paid €2 million to acquire his services in June 2019 to replace Răzvan Lucescu following his departure to Al-Hilal — Lucescu would reclaim his position in May 2021 and is the current manager.
One year after suffering defeat in the third qualifying round with Braga, Ferreira would suffer the same exact fate as PAOK fell to ŠK Slovan Bratislava on away goals to end their dreams of Thursday night football, with the loss coming after Ajax defeated them 5-4 in the Champions League qualifiers.
PAOK finished second in the table with 73 points, 18 behind Olympiakos and four above AEK Athens, and lost 4-3 to Olympiakos who prevailed 4-3 on aggregate in the Greek Cup semifinals to win the domestic double. However, a promising start to life in Greece was cut short when Ferreira decided to head across the Atlantic and take charge of Palmeiras.
“Throughout my career, I have been creating our technical team, specifying what each of the members would have to do within the organization. Carlos, Joao, Tiago and Vitor are not my assistants or assistants, they are my coaches.”
These members of his technical staff played a key role in Ferreira’s decision to move to Brazil — a decision that was not capricious or naive, but meditated and concerted. It meant joining an institution that offered them everything necessary to win a title, the last thing missing in his young managierial career.
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For this reason, in the midst of the global pandemic and without his wife, who stayed with their two daughters in Portugal due to concerns over the South American country’s effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Ferreira left Europe and headed for Palmeiras in November 2020.
Tactical Flexibility: One of Ferreira’s Biggest Strengths
Just as sports directors turn to technical staff and scouting departments to develop exhaustive searches and sign players with certain profiles, trying to see to it that they adapt to the training methodology, the game model, and the values of the club. The Palmeiras leadership adopted a similar strategy to find a manager that fit their ambitious sporting project:
“Abel is a great professional and was identified within our search and selection processes,” explains Cicero Souza, Palmeiras’ manager of football. In a chat with the journalist André Hernan, he states, “The ability and talent he has allow him to do things with excellence and therefore, everything results in the success of the club.”
From a tactical point of view, Ferreira has quickly adapted to the footballing idea that Palmeiras expected of him: with the 11 players participating in the offensive phase, including the goalkeeper, they are a team that generates a lot of width when attacking to force opponents to stretch their lines and is capable of exploiting the internal spaces that the opponent ends up leaving.
Likewise, and it has been a distinguishing feature that has added many positive points towards winning titles– the active participation of all the players in the defensive phase, starting with the forwards, has made them a deadly counter-attacking side. This is the fruit of the high level of preparation that Ferreira and the technical staff dedicate to structuring their game model, in order to exploit the weaknesses of each opponent, both tactically and strategically.
“The expression ‘proactive game’ or offensive does not mean that we will have the ball all the time. No team in the world can have the ball all the time. We must understand the moments of the game: when it is time to have the ball, we will control it. But if we have to gather troops and defend, we will.”
During his spells at Braga and PAOK, there was also a strong adaptability in terms of basic tactical approaches, setting his tactics according to the characteristics of his players: he used a 4-4-2, 4-2-3 -1 and 3-4-3 alternately.
At Palmeiras, the tendency has been to play with the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2, alternating between wingbacks and the midfielders and in the attacking roles, where sometimes he uses wingers who rotate through interior corridors and in others, offensive midfielders located at different locations to weaken the opposing team’s outputs.
In terms of football purism, Ferreira is not tied to any particular ideological school. Although he was trained under the mantle of tactical periodization in Portugal, he has taken ideas and concepts from Pep Guardiola, whose work he has already observed in England, and he admires the intensity and work ethic of Jürgen Klopp’s teams.
Within CONMEBOL, the tie against Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate in the semifinals of the 2020 Copa Libertadores, which Palmeiras ended up winning, allowed him to adopt one or two ideas of the “Muñeco” for the midfield of Verdão.
After renewing his contract with Palmeiras four months ago until 2024, and with his family already settled and adapted to life in São Paulo, Abel Fernando Moreira Ferreira and his technical staff continue to work tirelessly for the principles that have seen them flourish for the winningest team in Brazil.
“He is a very complete manager and makes a difference in his way of understanding the different areas of specialization of a team: training, group management and communication”, says the Portuguese journalist Tomás da Cunha, who works for Eleven Sports, TSF Radio and Tribuna Expresso.
The Penafiel native has achieved an unprecedented defeat of two Copa Libertadores titles in the same year, beginning 2022 with the Campeonato Paulista and Recopa Sudamericana, maintaining a two-point advantage at the top of the Brasileirão. They have thrashed Cerro Porteño 8-0 on aggregate and will face off against Atlético Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores quarterfinals, whilst they’ll be looking to erase a one-goal deficit in the Choque-Rei crosstown derby against São Paulo.
“I think whoever has the best team has the best chance of winning,” says Ferreira.” I do not promise results or titles. I promise to always work and that we will do everything so that Palmeiras, in each match, plays to win, from the first to the last second.”
Sooner or later, the opportunity to cross the Atlantic again, no longer to go on vacation or visit his beloved Penafiel, but to measure himself against Europe’s elite, will come knocking on his doorstep. But first, he has to do two things — lead Palmeiras to their first league title since 2018 and keep their South American dominance alive in the Libertadores.
There are many ways to describe Abel Ferreira but perhaps no two words fit better than the title of his recently published book and the mantra that has come to define him in Brazil: Cabeça Fria, Coração Quente: Cold Head, Warm Heart.
By: Francisco Buitrago Castillo / @franbuitragoc
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images