Sylvinho: ‘Maybe I was important as a player, but no longer. I’ve had to educate myself’

Sylvinho: ‘Maybe I was important as a player, but no longer. I’ve had to educate myself’

“I never stay calm,” Sylvinho says midway through an afternoon that, in the best way possible, bears out his point. “The players know it, the federation knows it, the president knows it. Christmas party, end of year, normally you restart work in January … but the whole time all I’m thinking is how we can go through. How can we play against Italy? How can we play against Croatia? What will we do against the Spanish?”

It is an understandable preoccupation given Albania, who Sylvinho led to an outstanding qualification for Euro 2024 last year, must face all three over the next fortnight in the tournament’s toughest group. They could not have been dealt a more fiendish hand and it will cause shock waves if they progress. “You have to find a way to reduce the distance between them and us,” he says. “How? You have to work.”

That has never been a hardship. Sylvinho has thrown himself headfirst into the task since, at the start of last year, he agreed to take over a national team that were floundering. The move came from left field: he had been at home with his family in Porto when Armand Duka, the Albanian football federation president, telephoned and invited him to Milan for dinner.

“I thought: ‘Why not?’ and” – he claps – “I’m here.” The decision had to be sound because Sylvinho – known for his playing days at Arsenal, Barcelona and Manchester City – had not lasted long in his previous two managerial positions. Spells at Lyon and Corinthians ended abruptly; a misstep now, in an environment hardly famed for stability, could prove terminal to any further ambitions.

“I said to my assistant, Doriva: ‘I have to be clever, I can’t make a mistake, because if I make a bad choice I’m going to be in trouble.” The risk was calculated and it was no time for half measures. Sylvinho saw no mileage in being the kind of international manager who parachutes in for matches and training camps; he recognised that, with so much on the line, only basing himself in Tirana year-round would do.

Sylvinho leads his Albania team off the plane as they arrive in Dusseldorf for Euro 2024.View image in fullscreen

It means he has a solid grasp of the city’s best spots, offering painstaking directions to a favoured Italian restaurant during the walk to his office from one of the pitches at the federation’s smart headquarters. Hugs are exchanged with the string of employees encountered along the way. The warmth is palpable. “You have to know the people,” he says. “I can’t just turn up 10 days before a game. The kind of atmosphere you see here, I’m absolutely sure it transmits to the pitch.”

Albania’s results under Sylvinho suggest it does. He saw enough encouragement in his first match, a narrow defeat in Poland, to believe a safe passage through Group E might be more realistic than he had imagined. The previous three months had largely been spent flying to meet as many players as possible from a list of about 50, with the rest of his time spent in the “laboratory”: a room at the end of the corridor equipped with charts, whiteboards, screens and reports tracking every potential squad member’s form.

“In Warsaw we lost 1-0 but all the players said afterwards: ‘Coach, that’s the way,’” he says. Albania did not lose another game. Against all expectation they finished top of a quintet that also included Czech Republic, turning heads with a slew of spectacular goals and some slick counterattacking football. At Euro 2016, their debut at a major championship, Albania had been solid but unspectacular. Sylvinho moulded them into a fluid 4-3-3 that he felt played to their strengths.

“Technically they are great, they have something different and can show that on the pitch,” he says of his team. “They’re not made to go out there and just be: ‘4-4-2, we don’t have the ball, we don’t need to do anything special.’ They love the tactical side, they understand hard work, but they love having space to create and you have to let them do it.”

Wild celebrations after Jasir Asani opens the scoring in the qualifier against Poland in Tirana.View image in fullscreen

An emphatic equaliser in Prague last September by Nedim Bajrami was a case in point and, for Sylvinho, instilled a surge of belief. “The window opened for us there. That was the key point of: ‘We can do it.’” Resounding home wins against Poland and the Czechs in front of full houses, once the stuff of wild imagination, followed and Albania proceeded to book their place in Germany.

Sylvinho’s research had paid off: among the star turns was the winger Jasir Asani, who was playing in South Korea and had never been called up before the qualifiers. Asani scored three times, including a mind-bending goal from 30 yards against Poland.

“You work every single day, 10 or 12 hours, then maybe go for dinner and watch a game afterwards,” Sylvinho says. “Even for me, it’s been a big challenge. But you believe in the tactics, in free space for good players, in your under-21s and in your older generation. It’s really satisfying.”

Going the distance with Albania is, he thinks, in many ways a bigger achievement than anything he did as a player. That is some statement given he won two Champions League finals with Barcelona, starting the second of them against Manchester United in 2009. Tirana seems a long way from the Camp Nou but he has made a conscious effort to wear his past lightly.

“There can’t be any: ‘I’m Sylvinho, won the treble in ’09, worked for [Pep] Guardiola, now I know everything.’ What I did before is important for me as background and I can use it, but I can’t come here and talk to the players on a different level. You don’t just walk into the dressing room and say: ‘Champions League.’

“A small thing: in training early on, one of the players passed me the ball. ‘Let’s see how the coach kicks it then.’ I picked it up with my hands, which is the first thing we’re told not to do as a child. I may have good technique but there was a bigger message: ‘Yes, I’ve done it, but now you have to do it because I can’t any more. It’s not my time, it’s yours.’ Maybe I was important as a player, but no longer. I’ve had to step back, work and educate myself.”

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Sylvinho grapples with Sheffield Wednesday’s Alan Quinn at Highbury in 2000.View image in fullscreen

Sylvinho fizzes with animation, words and thoughts, which emerge rapidly and endearingly. He half-jokes that he talks too much and that Doriva, the former Middlesbrough player and a deeply trusted friend, is the quieter voice of reason. It was Doriva who persuaded him that his experience assisting Tite with the Brazil national team between 2016 and 2019 was a major reason to feel confident taking the Albania job. “He was right,” Sylvinho says, smiling. During this conversation Doriva is working a few yards away in the open-plan office outside. Pablo Zabaleta, of Manchester City and Argentina fame, completes a decorated coaching trio.

Guardiola, Arsène Wenger and Tite are among the managers who have been formative for Sylvinho. He keeps in touch sporadically with all three, while believing “part of being respectful is not sending loads of messages to these guys”. Back in 2008 it was Guardiola who introduced to him the benefits of educating players using video clips, a topic about which he now evangelises. “Players are intelligent,” he says. “If you bullshit to them and you aren’t right, they’ll know. You have to be precise and convince them.”

Another major influence is Roberto Mancini, whose legacy will be visible in the Italy team Albania face in Dortmund on Saturday. Sylvinho was assistant to Mancini at Internazionale in the mid‑2010s. “Really intelligent,” he says of his former boss. “And really brave promoting young players.” He cites the example of Federico Dimarco, the wing-back, who should start the opener and was blooded at Inter having just turned 17.

Nine of Sylvinho’s squad play in Serie A. The cultural ties with Italy are significant and Italian is, along with a dash of English, the language used between staff and players in Albania’s dressing room. “An amazing match to start with and … pffff … it’s going to be tough,” he says. “A great challenge and we’ll try to do our best. You don’t have to start the tournament worrying about three, four, five or six points – oh la la, where do I have to sign? – because it’s about each game. The first game is going to be really important, but so are the others.”

Albania’s coach SylvinhoView image in fullscreen

Albania will be meticulously prepared. Sylvinho traces his work ethic back to the influence of his father, a constructively critical presence even after he turned professional at Corinthians. He explains how, as a Premier League player with Arsenal, he would tune into particular opponents weeks in advance. “Stephen Carr, Tottenham: strong, good guy, always difficult playing against him. So I’d start thinking: ‘In a month we have this derby and I have to prepare really well, because on my flank they have a really strong player.’”

In April he turned 50 but there is, he thinks, little point mapping out a career plan from here. “If you’re thinking about south, you go to the north; you’re thinking about north, you go to the south,” he points out.

The expectation is that he will guide Albania to the 2026 World Cup; he could hardly feel any more at home now, having been granted citizenship of the country in December as reward for making their dreams come true. Now the challenge is to create even headier memories, even if that means the “off” switch remains broken.

“It’s three matches, 90 minutes each, and everything can happen in that time,” he says. “You can change your life in that time, you really can. People say: ‘Mister, calm down, calm down.’ But I can’t. It’s my job to make sure we try our best to do something special.”