Paulo Sousa and the path through purgatory

Paulo Sousa and the path through purgatory

“TO BE SACKED after being told that there was a long-term strategy at the club is something that I find very surprising.” These were the words of former Portuguese international Paulo Sousa after having been let go by Leicester City a mere 86 days after ditching Swansea for the burgeoning project at the King Power Stadium.

He most likely had no idea at the time that his quest for managerial redemption would last over half a decade, spawning a globetrotting adventure. Nor would many have bet on him successfully getting out of managerial purgatory after he had to swap the Foxes for Hungarian champions Videoton, then taking on increasingly bigger challenges in Israel and Switzerland. For all his achievements over the course of these years, none could reasonably be classified as a long-term project. Next up? Tianjin Quanjian.

Paulo Manuel Carvalho de Sousa is still one of the most successful players in terms of personal accolades. He is one of only two players who’ve managed to win back-to-back Champions League titles with two different clubs; first with Juventus in 1996, then with Dortmund the year after. In his own mind, it was Sven-Göran Eriksson who had the biggest effect on him as a player, converting him from a right winger to a commanding midfielder in the early years of his career.

He was one of those players whose position and skillset made it likely that he would make the cut as a manager later on. He was a team player, a humble leader who relied on his positioning rather than pace, and a legendary member of the Portuguese national team for over a decade as part of its so-called golden generation. That was also where his coaching career began. It all started with the under-15 national side before he teamed up with Carlos Queiroz to assist with managing the senior team in 2008.

This arrangement didn’t last long as he left in November of the same year to join Queens Park Rangers. Those were turbulent times for the Rs. It was shortly after the club had been saved from its financial woes by Formula One moguls Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, touting seemingly endless riches. On the one hand, it must have looked like a promising project with such funds being available, but on the other, he was the fourth manager in 18 months since the new owners had taken over.

It was a short and bittersweet adventure with an odd conclusion. Sousa didn’t exactly hit the ground running, and his tenure was chiefly marked by a propensity for 0-0 draws, much to the dismay of the former Renault manager who wanted to see more attacking football. Things came to a head after the Portuguese’s 28th match in charge, when he revealed in the post-match press briefing that the club’s most prolific striker has been loaned out to Nottingham Forest without any input on his part.

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In the owners’ eyes, this classified as “divulging sensitive information”, an offence worthy of the sack. Seven wins, seven losses, 12 draws, six of which were goalless – certainly an odd record from a manager who had said that he “believes in playing positive, attacking football” shortly after his appointment.

Then again, it was quite clear to observers at this point that things weren’t particularly rosy at the London club. The chaos at QPR would not subside until Tony Fernandes’ eventual takeover in 2011, meaning this short stint didn’t damage Sousa’s managerial prospects too much. As for his own thoughts on the matter, he has stated that QPR was the “right club [at the] wrong time” for him.

Still, the Swansea appointment came as somewhat of a surprise. Three months later, he was unveiled out of the blue to replace the Wigan-bound Roberto Martínez. Again, if the fans had been expecting continental sophistication and attacking football, they were in for a disappointment. His tenure at the Welsh club began horribly, losing to Leicester away from home and then getting hammered 3-0 by Middlesbrough at the Liberty. The third match was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a 0-0 draw.

While Sousa’s side kept struggling with scoring goals, he did an excellent job shoring up the defence. He still had the slick passing game of Martínez to rely on alongside this feat, leading to an unexpected 12-game unbeaten streak with Swansea seemingly nailed on to claim a playoff spot. Incredibly, they managed to slip to seventh by the very last game of the season as they only won three out of their last 13 fixtures. This was Swansea’s highest league finish for 27 years, but it still wasn’t particularly glorious.

Tensions were running high as the run-in fell apart, with Sousa publicly complaining about the club’s financial constraints and the players secretly organising fitness sessions behind his back. He broke the record amount of clean sheets for the club – 25 in 46 games – while his side only scored 40 goals throughout the season.

It’s safe to say that he didn’t make too many fans inside or outside the dressing room. Garry Monk, the club captain at the time, later reflected on the 2008/09 season: “In terms of the progression Swansea had made under Kenny Jackett and then Roberto, I saw Paulo’s time in charge as a wasted season. Yes, we finished seventh, which was one place higher than the previous season, but I put that achievement down to the attitude of the players rather than anything Paulo Sousa gave us.”

When charting Swansea’s journey to redemption, Sousa’s contributions are often forgotten. Still, his performance was impressive enough in the eyes of the Leicester hierarchy – a team that had made the playoffs but gone out in the semi-finals on penalties – to poach him. He left by mutual consent at the end of the season to join the Foxes as their owner stated that Sousa was “the right man to take our club forward”.

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He turned out to be wrong. He lasted less than three months as the previous year’s playoff participants only managed to pick up five points from their first nine matches. While the sacking was widely criticised at the time due to the fact that Leicester had chewed through 14 managers in six years, the owner was adamant: “I don’t think you have to be a brain surgeon to figure it out. If you play nine competitive games and you win only one it’s not good enough,” he told BBC Radio 5 at the time. The team had conceded 10 goals in their previous two matches in the league at that point.

That was Sousa’s last job on British shores to date. His replacement at Leicester? Sven-Göran Eriksson. For all the talk of the managerial merry-go-round, it’s tough to get back up from a start like that in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. It’s perhaps no wonder that his next job took him to a faraway land, as his first steps through managerial purgatory led him all the way to Hungary to take over Videoton.

They had finally won their first championship title the previous season after finishing second two years running. The swap meant that Sousa had to settle for around a quarter of his previous wages. Again, he described a three-year “project”, reminiscent of his words regarding his dismissal at Leicester.

His first outing pitted the team against Austrian team Sturm Graz early on the path towards Champions League qualification. It ended with a 4-3 defeat on aggregate. This, however, turned out to be a fitting environment for the Portuguese, as he led Videoton to a club record points total in his first season. It was an impressive feat, even considering the fact that it was only good enough for a silver medal in the league.

However, it was perhaps also a sign of things to come, with the team scoring the second most goals as well. Videoton proceeded to score 140 goals overall throughout his tenure, with the team successfully reclaiming the league the following season while also qualifying for the Europa League. Fittingly, the team only conceded a single goal throughout the preliminary rounds. While they won both of their opening matches against Sporting CP and Basel, they still ended up eliminated in the group stage.

Despite these accomplishments, the local atmosphere was smeared with outright hostility towards Sousa, ranging from ignored handshakes to a headbutting incident with a journalist in a charity match. His tenure ended midway through his three-year contract as he cited family reasons behind his decision to leave. According to rumours, he was going to join the New York Red Bulls as manager soon after, but nothing came of that. This was his first managerial stint where he had actually recorded a positive win rate – the next one would follow soon after.

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His next appointment took him all the way to Israel, after a five-month sabbatical. Maccabi Tel Aviv‘s technical manager stated that Sousa “was always our only candidate”. Again, impressive results followed, both at home and abroad, and many of them were laced with irony. Sousa’s side managed to win the league in his first and only season, while narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification against Basel, having already dispatched a Hungarian side in the process. This time, his outfit made it through the group stages in the Europa League, only to again be stopped by Basel in the round of 32.

Whatever the Swiss outfit saw in those fixtures was enough to approach him soon after. Sousa only had a one-year contract with the Israeli side and he decided to immediately embark on a new adventure, but not before posting a heartfelt open letter on the club’s website. “My farewell words are for the MTA supporters. I hope you understand my decision to leave. It was not easy for me to do this, but I feel that this next challenge is right for me at this time in my career. Our year together was incredible and from the bottom of my heart I say openly that there will always be a part of me in Tel-Aviv.”

Most of him ended up in Switzerland. Again, a short tenure followed, no matter the three-year contract. Despite some early criticism due to his continual squad rotation, he successfully engineered the club’s sixth consecutive league title. It was his Champions League heroics that put him back on the map, though, successfully qualifying from a group that featured Real Madrid and Liverpool as well as Bulgarian whipping boys Ludogorets, winning at home and drawing away against the Merseyside-based outfit. While they failed to make it past Porto in the first knockout round, it was still a successful campaign, and likely one of the main reasons for Fiorentina’s interest in the manager.

The allure of something new and bigger proved irresistible for Sousa, as he left after just one season. Conflict seemed inevitable in Florence, with the Portuguese’s former Juventus playing career being a serious sticking point with the ultras. The initial results were impressive, as was the manager’s commitment to attacking football. The team shot to the top of Serie A, consistently posting high possession stats using a creative 3-4-2-1 system.

In another twist of fate, the team ended up alongside Basel in the Europa League group stage. Sousa’s new team advanced second behind his former side, failing to make the cut against Spurs in the first knockout round. They finished fifth in the league, dropping a place from the previous year’s campaign with identical points total. Again, they struggled at the end of the season, only winning three of their last 11 league matches.

Things turned sour the following season. Fiorentina again struggled with finishing, dropping points despite keeping four clean sheets in their eight opening games. There were already rumours of his departure by September, with the manager apparently angered by Marcos Alonso being sold to Chelsea on deadline day despite previous assurances to the contrary. This wasn’t the only familiar pattern that emerged during his time in Florence: it was yet another tenure cut short as he left in June this year. “Perhaps I didn’t manage to transmit my passion for football,” he later said.

There was quite the buzz surrounding Sousa, with links to Borussia Dortmund and other clubs floating around on social media. Was this the end of his quest for redemption? It turned out his next destination was in fact China. Tianjin Quanjian is going to be the next bullet point on this curious CV, proving that the path through purgatory might run longer than any of us would have anticipated on that rainy day when he got the sack at Leicester 

By Luci Kelemen  

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