Jex-Brazilian international Elano enjoyed a distinguished 15-year playing career with the likes of Santos, Manchester City, Grêmio, Flamengo and Shakhtar Donetsk. High wages, powerful club infrastructure and stadiums full of buoyant supporters seemed to be worthy rewards for the midfielder’s precise passing and tackling, as well as his soothing and reassuring presence.
But the 40-year-old has put all that behind him – and thankfully. Until the end of March, Elano was the coach of Ferroviária, a Brazilian fourth-division club that plays in front of a few thousand fans in Araraquara, a bucolic orange juice-exporting town in rural São Paulo state. Elano has been a coach since late 2016, but jobs at three clubs, including Santos, have never taken him below second tier.
“It’s real football!” said Elano. “It’s not about the money. It’s passionate. What I experienced in Serie D, traveling, talking to different people, going to small stadiums and small towns, I had never experienced before. I experienced situations that made me see how beautiful football is, how sport is so important to many people. We have people supporting clubs that will never be great. They know it and are always there to support us. It’s real love.
Serie D is the lower national division in Brazil, where football reflects society in being painfully unequal. According to a Credit Suisse survey last year, half of health funding in Brazil went to the top 1% of the population. In 2015 Research by the Brazilian Football Confederation showed that 82% of footballers in the country were paid less than £160 a month and 96% earned less than £800 a month.
Elano has enjoyed helping players who don’t get the opportunities his talent has brought him, but his presence at Ferroviária has raised eyebrows. After a match at Patrocinense, in Patrocínio, a small town in the state of Minas Gerais, a resident asked, “Elano, what are you doing here? It’s Series D! Do you need the money, man? Have you lost all your money? Are you poor?”
Elano recounts their conversation with a big smile. “I said no.’ I told him I was having a time that I needed to have. I want it. It’s a fantastic school. I need to build my career, start a new life, and I’m witnessing stories that would have been amazing to me a few years ago.
Serie D is not always a beautiful environment, however. It is also home to big social problems such as drug addiction, poverty and family dramas. “I had a player who had a tough life,” says Elano. “His parents, both of them, are addicted to crack. Can you imagine it? How is it possible to live well in these conditions? He was the only hope for the family; football was his only way to have a better life. He needed to deal with life’s problems and play football. I learned a lot from him and his mentality to distance himself from problems.
The word Elano says the most is “learn”. During a career launched with Santos in 2001 and ended with 50 caps in Brazil, he played with Ronaldinho, Neymar, Kaká and Ronaldo. At Ferroviária he worked with athletes who combine football with other professions.
“One of my players was a mason. He didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it and built his own house with his father. He bought building materials and when he had free time he worked there. He did it all. I’ve always told everyone. But he was ashamed of it. So I said to him, ‘Don’t feel that. This is a wonderful story.’ He built his own dream. Where could I have seen that in my life as a footballer?
In five months in the Fourth Division, Elano covered more than 5,500 miles, mostly by bus on the dusty, poorly maintained roads of Brazil. Each trip allowed him to get to know his players better.
“I have to listen to my players,” he said. “At my former club, Inter de Limeira, a player’s wife had serious health problems. He always carried his cell phone in case of emergency. Once his cell phone rang a few minutes before the game. For many coaches this is a rude attitude, but I knew what was going on. So I told him to take 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, for our sons, for our history, let’s win the game. It was simple. turned a bad situation into motivation and we played a great game.
Elano was grateful for the support he received during difficult times as a player, especially in 2006 when – to his surprise – he returned to the Brazilian team.
“I can say Brazil saved my life because I wasn’t having a good time at Shakhtar. I didn’t adapt there. It’s very hard to live in a country with -15C. But I was called by Dunga and [the assistant coach] Jorgenho. I do not believe it. On the first day, I asked, “Sir, sorry, but why am I here? Why was I chosen? They replied that it was because of Santos, which I had done before Shakhtar. They want to see me up close, to see if I could do it again.
The following year, Elano moved to Manchester City, at a time when the club was not the powerhouse of today. “Man City was one of the best times of my career. We had a great group, a great manager. Sven-Göran Eriksson was one of the best men I’ve ever met. He gave the employees flowers “A real lord. I regret leaving Manchester City… We started this ongoing project. We showed how big Manchester City was and had incredible potential.
Elano left in 2009 to play for Galatasaray, returning from there to Brazil. The path in turn led him into training and his sacking by Santos in January 2018 began the journey down the lower divisions that Elano says made him a new man.
“I am a better human being. I feel more ready to take over any club. I’m more sensitive, I have more skills to understand any situation, on and off the pitch. I was in the last national division, but one day I will be the coach of the Brazilian national team.