My parents never saw me working as a coach. There was no time.
At the age of 32, I decided to end my career as a footballer to become a manager. My parents died in a car accident shortly after my decision. At that moment, it wasn’t only my profession that changed – my life did too.
To lose them was the most negative moment in my story. There must be few tougher things in life. I lost my father and mother on the same day. It was the greatest sadness I have experienced – but it helped me develop an extraordinarily strong emotional structure. When I have a problem with a player, when I suffer a big defeat, everything falls into perspective. No matter what happens, I have been through worse times.
It is paradoxical, but it is the truth: my parents’ death has been my strengthening. I would not say that I am a new person since then. I have not changed my personality. But I am prepared for whatever comes my way. I am no hero. I am fully aware of what life is about. I just feel that my tragic loss gave me a great deal of mental strength.
Ever since I was a kid, I always had one thing fixed in my mind: a desire to be connected to sport. I was an average footballer; alongside my career on the pitch, I graduated in physical education.
Gradually, I realised that I would not be an elite player, so the possibility of becoming a coach started to gain strength in me. I didn’t think I could get to where I am. My journey has always been like that, goal by goal, little by little. Without looking too far.
For someone who has played at a high level, doors may open more easily. For those who have not shone on the field, the journey may take longer. Both ways are possible. In Portugal, for example, right now there are more coaches who were not prominent players. That is my case.
"I was a passionate young man with the ambition of someone who starts out and wants to win everything"
The decision to retire was not hard. Since I became a coach, I never felt that urge to be on the pitch again. Don’t get me wrong – I loved playing football and it was great to be a professional player. But coaching has fulfilled me.
I was still a player at Alcochetense when I received two offers to become a manager on the same day. One was from the club at which I was playing. The other, and the one I chose, came from Vilafranquense.
It is not every day that we receive two job offers in an interval of half an hour. That Sunday, I decided it was time to quit playing. On Monday, I officially put an end to my career as a footballer. On Tuesday, I started working as a coach.
I think I had the best possible formation as a coach. The mix between academic and empirical knowledge was crucial in my learning. Education opens horizons, but my experience as a player and my interaction with managers has been the perfect complement. There is the practical part, and there is the scientific part. I have always seen the theoretical base as providing the necessary support from which to make decisions further ahead.
That Rui Vitória from Vilafranquense was a passionate young man with the ambition of someone who starts out and wants to win everything. But reality soon taught me all the tricks to manage a football team and its particularities. In my first years as a coach, I had to deal with several off-the-pitch problems. In the first season, the club was five months behind in paying salaries. In the following season, it was four months late.
This creates problems that need to be managed quickly. They were difficult times, but they represented a great internship for me. I think I carry this ability to adapt to reality from the beginning of my journey. I think it is fundamental for a manager.
Today, I am a quite different professional to the one at the beginning of my career. Every coach is the result of his or her experiences. Over the years, our experiences shape our way of thinking and making decisions.
There are things, however, that have not changed in me in almost two decades as a coach. Those are aspects of my personality. I was and remain a reserved person. I am still emotionally stable. In other words: I am the same person, but I am a completely different manager.
"i am shocked when teams treat the ball badly. my idea of the game is about quality and intensity"
Adaptation is a key word in my profession. You may have a favourite game idea, but you must see if the context allows you to put it into practice. The coach must balance between these two worlds. You cannot be stubborn. I never played just for the result. At the same time, I never ignored the context to obsessively impose my preferred style of playing.
The best decisions necessarily involve analysing the situation. What are the goals? Who are the players I have to help me achieve them? You need to find the answers to these questions to know how possible it is to put your preferred way of playing into practice.
I was a midfielder. I was technically sharp. The thing I liked least was seeing the ball going over my head. I like well-played football, a well-considered game. I am shocked when teams treat the ball badly. My idea of the game is about quality, intensity and immediate reaction to loss of possession.
My career has been made of various kinds of goals. At each club, in each season, I have experienced the most varied targets. At Paços de Ferreira, for example, the objective was to remain in the first division. For this, I needed to be a little more pragmatic at the beginning. It was necessary to help the team build its confidence.
At Vitória de Guimarães, the club was going through a deep crisis. The goal transitioned between fighting for survival, developing the youth teams and, at a later stage, fighting for a place in European football (above). In each of these moments, the coach needs to understand the situation before making his decisions. Fortunately, I was able to come up with strategies to overcome every obstacle.
At Paços de Ferreira, we reached the final of the League Cup in the 2010/11 season. Benfica beat us 2-1, but we missed a penalty and played a fantastic game. Since we did not become champions, our work does not get the same attention, but I am proud of what we did. We practically started from scratch. The team was playing good football – and it was my first year in Portugal’s top division.
"i fight permanently against this cult of results that rules football"
Two seasons later, I had the opportunity to take part in another final – this time with Vitória de Guimarães, against the same Benfica, in the Portuguese Cup. This time, we were winners – but long before that title it had been necessary to remodel a club facing serious financial issues. We looked for players in youth teams and the second division. That work, sealed with the cup win, is usually more highly publicised than what I achieved at Paços.
I fight permanently against these labels – against this cult of results that rules football. Sometimes fantastic work doesn’t get crowned with a trophy or an outstanding moment. Saving a team from relegation can be an incredibly beautiful job. It may even be more difficult than winning a trophy at a different club – but it is not always as appreciated.
I wish that a coach’s competence was examined more than his results, but the world is like that.
I like to tell my players the story of the violinist who filled a large concert hall with people who had paid for expensive tickets. The next day, the same violinist played in a metro station attracting little or no attention. Like it or not, showcases are essential.
Remarkable moments are a milestone in the manager’s life. And there is no greater mark than winning a title.
I remember clearly the day I received the offer to manage Benfica. It was a new challenge, as my others had been, but Benfica is an ‘aircraft carrier’ – a club of global stature.
"at benfica, i had the opportunity to promote from the youth teams. It was the club's wish, but it matched my will"
I felt no fear, though. It was a natural step at that moment in my career. After the work at Paços and Vitória, taking charge of one of the three big clubs in Portugal – or even one abroad – was the next natural step.
My immediate reaction was to get to work and learn quickly what it involves to run a club of this size. And I always do the same thought exercise: “Rui, if you have come this far, it is because you have some quality. Let's go for it.”
I was to be the coach who ultimately delivered Benfica the tetracampeonato – four consecutive league titles (below). The club had never accomplished such a feat in its history, so it was an important mark in my career. But my time at Benfica is not limited to the victories.
I probably managed to achieve everything that a club expects from its manager: winning titles, almost always filling stadiums, and developing young players. There were both sporting and financial returns.
There is a point here that we should never lose sight of when we assess the work of a coach: the relationship between investment and sporting performance. In this regard, the balance I left in Benfica was frankly positive.
I had the opportunity to promote players from the youth teams. It was a wish of the club, but it matched my will. We decided together that it was time to take a chance, to put five or six youngsters into action.
There must be harmony in these decisions. It is not enough for only the club to want it, or only the manager. It is necessary to share the same vision. Thus, players like João Félix and Renato Sanches, among others, began to play a more prominent role.
"JOÃO FÉLIX HAS A RARE TALENT – HE MAKES DECISIONS QUICKLY AND EFFICIENTLY"
In João’s case, few people know about all the work done in his development. The year before he joined the first team, we decided that he would play in the final stages of the juniors league.
He was by then already in the Benfica B team, but we opted for his return to the youth team for that final stage of the competition. We wanted to give him one last run before he established himself in the professional side. He ended up as the top scorer in that final stage, for a Benfica team that became national champions.
His talent is one of those that is rare to see in youngsters. He makes decisions quickly and efficiently. Efficiency is doing things well with the least possible expenditure of energy. João (below) has never been one to waste time. He can find the best solution for a move with great maturity. A young man usually likes to embellish, to put the bow on the wrap. João gets the ball, and that is it: goal.
But he only grew to play a major role after I left Benfica, and when Bruno Lage was in charge. For me, João is better in the central channel – but we were playing in a well-defined 4-3-3 formation, with one defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, two wingers and a striker.
We had changed the system at the beginning of that season, but when I left the new coach changed the system again – it turned out to be ideal to get the best out of João Félix.
It needs courage to give opportunities to youngsters, but it is a positive strategy for clubs. They have fewer bad habits in games, and the fans like to see young players getting opportunities in the first team; they have more tolerance for them. Just do not ask me to use a young footballer today and expect him to reach his maximum level in two weeks. They need time.
"to be a good manager, you must know more about life – more about other worlds beyond football"
The context at Benfica contributed to me having this courage. Having a championship-winning team makes it easier to integrate the irreverence of youth. This irresponsibility is relevant not only in football, but in all areas of life: the youngster brings lightness, and is often bolder. This is also fundamental to reaching high levels of performance.
I spent three and a half years in charge of Benfica. At a club of this magnitude, this period of time will generate some wear and tear. By mutual agreement, we decided that it was time to close that chapter. The end of the relationship felt natural to me. Fortunately, my work cycles have always been long. I had almost four years of courtship at Benfica, and then it came to an end.
Soon after, the chance arose for me to work at Al-Nassr, in Saudi Arabia. The financial aspect contributed to my decision to accept the challenge, but not only that – it was a chance for me to experience a new culture, at a club that gave me the chance to fight for titles and showed great interest in me. It turned out to be a shorter relationship than my previous ones, but it was worth it.
The coaching career is very intense. Therefore, it is crucial to know how to disconnect from time to time. To be a good manager, you must know more about life – more about other worlds beyond football. If you know only one thing, you cannot be a good professional.
Yes, we work with professionals: players, assistants, directors. But before any of that, we are all human beings. The coach manages the skills of these human beings. A good coach needs to understand people.
When I am with my kids, or at dinner with friends, or playing drums, I am unplugged from the game. As a result, I am evolving as a professional, too.
Football is life. And there are many things from our lives that we bring into the game.
Author: Tony Hodson