By Louis Smith.
In April 2017 Tiago Nunes joined Athletico Paranaense to take charge of their Under-19 side. Before this role, Nunes had experienced spells with 12 different clubs across Brazil at both senior and youth level.
After a short period with Athletico’s Under-19s, the Brazilian was appointed as manager of the Under-23 squad, giving him a new challenge to get stuck into.
“Athletico stood out as being a club that values academy training and the constant development of its professionals, providing them with knowledge and experience at a world-class level,” Nunes told WFi.
“I already had experience with older players and competing in professional competitions. The fundamental difference was to collaborate in the transition process of those who were in the Under-19 team, and also to strengthen young players who were not having opportunities in the first team.”
As well as taking charge of the Under-23s in 2018, Nunes also led the first team to the Campeonato Paranaense, a triumph that was a pivotal moment in his managerial career.
Just before the break for the World Cup in June, as the club sat in the relegation places with only two wins from their opening 12 games, Fernando Diniz, the first-team manager at the time, was relieved of his duties. Subsequently, the Furacão hierarchy decided to hire Nunes on an interim basis, meaning he’d gone from the Under-19s to the senior team in just under a year.
Nunes’s focus was to turn Athletico’s fortunes around. The club was languishing in the league, while also fighting in the Copa Sudamericana (South America’s equivalent of the Europa League).
After going without a win in three domestic games, Nunes and Athletico were confronted with a continental duel with Peñarol — the Uruguayan club are one of the most decorated in South America, with five Copa Libertadores titles to their name.
In what proved to be a huge turning point, Athletico won the home leg 2-0, before enjoying a comfortable 4-1 win away at the Estadio Campeón del Siglo; Nunes’s men then went on to defeat Caracas, Bahia and Fluminense to reach their first ever Copa Sudamericana final.
Arguably more impressive was Athletico’s performance in the league, as they ultimately finished 7th, a remarkable achievement given their continental commitments and their start to the season under Diniz.
As Conmebol had opted to change the final of the Sudamericana to a one-off showpiece event from 2019 onwards, 2018’s was the last to be decided over two legs.
Here, Athletico met Colombian side Junior, in what was the third year running that a Brazilian side had reached the competition’s final (Chapecoense in 2016 and Flamengo in 2017).
The first leg was played in Barranquilla, where the sides played out a 1-1 draw. Although the Colombians looked the more threatening, Athletico managed to earn an important result away from home.
In the return leg the hosts got off to a great start, a goal from Pablo giving them a 1-0 lead going into the half-time break.
Not long into the second half, however, Teófilo Gutiérrez equalised for Junior, which was enough to take the game to extra time.
In this period, Jarlan Barrera had a fantastic chance from the penalty spot to fire Junior into the lead, but blazed his strike high into the stands, giving Athletico a lifeline. The title would instead be settled by a shootout.
Thus, with the spot-kick score at 3-3, the football gods conspired to present Thiago Heleno with a glorious chance to place Athletico into the history books. Unlike Barrera, Heleno held his nerve to send fans, coaches and his teammates into delirium. Athletico had done it.
Consequently, Nunes rightfully earned the manager’s role on a permanent basis.
“It was a great challenge, a wonderful experience that we built together with the staff and the players. We focused on always thinking about one game at a time, so I only managed to have a sense of the scale of the achievement at the end of the season,” he said.
“The team was going through a difficult time in the Brazilian championship, being the 19th-placed in the competition. We took advantage of the downtime for the World Cup to train the team and strengthen abilities that the team had already built in previous seasons. Throughout the rest of the campaign, we focused on short-term goals while always keeping highly alert.
“It was a season of recovery and affirmation, not only for me but also for a generation of players from the club and other experienced players who were looking to take the club to a new level. The feeling [of winning the Sudamericana] was one of accomplishment… a magical moment.”
Nunes also spoke about his tactical plans leading up to the penalty shootout.
“The players were chosen based on their performances during training, their previous experience with penalties, the characteristics of the opposing goalkeeper and how confident the players were at the time of the decision.
“We always went to games with a list of eight names; we had confidence that they would do exactly as they had trained. We also had a specific report of the characteristics of each opposing player, which was passed on to our goalkeeper.”
Renan Lodi and Bruno Guimarães were part of the team that won the Sudamericana and have since gone on to play in the UEFA Champions League (for Atlético Madrid and Lyon, respectively), as well as for the Brazilian national team.
“I had the privilege of participating in the formation and affirmation process of those two: Renan Lodi in the Under-19, Under-23 and senior categories, Bruno in the Under-23 and senior teams. They are players with high technical potential and with great competitive capacity,” said Nunes.
“They have always stood out for their level of tactical awareness, in addition to showing great emotional balance in high-pressure games. With these attributes, they were key players to raise the team’s competitive level.”
Halfway into 2019, Nunes’s side was dealt a huge blow when Renan Lodi left for Spain to join Atleti, meaning the Brazilian club had to make changes.
“It was a loss of great significance, considering that he was a player who contributed a lot in the attacking aspects of our team. We had to modify some offensive movements and the characteristic of our attack on the left. We started using Marcio Azevedo as a base defender, and gave Rony and Bruno Guimarães more freedom and depth on the left side,” Nunes added.
Owing to the success of 2018, the following year Athletico played in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s greatest club competition, adding to an already tough schedule. Indeed, the club was also rather competitive in the Copa do Brasil, unlike the previous season when they suffered an early exit.
Because Athletico had qualified for continental competition, they were able to enter the cup in the round of 16. Here, they enjoyed a 1-0 aggregate win over Fortaleza to set up a tough encounter with Flamengo. Athletico stunned Rubro-Negro — who would go on to conquer every trophy but the Brazilian cup — with another penalty-shootout victory.
In the semi-final, their opponents Grêmio gained a massive advantage as they won 2-0 at home. Going into the second leg without an away goal, the Paraná-based club had it all to do. However, Nunes once again guided his side to a 2-0 victory, remarkably setting up yet another penalty shootout; Athletico won this one 5-4, which sent them into their first Copa do Brazil final since 2013.
“Our team acquired a clear identity regardless of the players who were on the field. Of course, with so many games, it was difficult to maintain the highest level at all times. We had very clear physical and performance controls to collaborate in the athletes’ exchanges, in addition to prioritising continental competitions and the Brazilian cup,” said the 40-year-old.
“Our group was very competitive and we knew that playing in our stadium with our fans was a factor that always helped us have a high performance. Our plan [in the semi-final] was to score the first goal and let the environment do the rest. That’s what happened. After that, we scored the second goal and fought for the third until the end. It was an incredible night.”
The final set up an intriguing tie with Internacional, who were the favourites to lift the trophy. The first leg at the Arena da Baixada saw the hosts win 1-0, yet despite this, Athletico were still unfancied to get the job done away from home.
In the lead-up to this match, Inter fans got out their flares, lighting the streets red and doing everything possible to gear up their team and intimidate their opponents.
Unfazed, goals from Léo Cittadini and Rony gave Athletico their first ever Copa do Brasil title as they defeated Inter 2-1 away from home (3-1 on aggregate).
“In any final match, any advantage is always good to have. We had strengthened ourselves as a team during the season, playing important games against Boca Juniors, River Plate, Flamengo and Grêmio. These experiences, added to the real desire to win the second game, were fundamental to the conquest. I just told my players to go out there and enjoy it,” he said.
“To lift the Copa do Brasil was a moment that marked the history of the club with another unprecedented title, demonstrating the value of continuity and that players with clear objectives are capable of great achievements. Personally, it was proof that a professional who came from smaller teams can reach the top.”
Asked about which title he enjoyed winning the most, the Copa Sudamericana or Copa do Brasil, Nunes said:
“I would like to win both again. The grand prize was to participate in the lives of players, fans and people who changed their lives forever.”
On 5 November 2019, Nunes was dismissed after seeking a new challenge which saw him agree to become manager of Corinthians for the 2020 season, ending what had been a very successful tenure at Athletico.
“It was a very difficult moment to leave Athletico. First because of the affection for the club, because of the fans and all the work done, and also because of the board for not allowing me to finish the last 30 days of the season after communicating that I would not stay for 2020. I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans,” said Nunes on leaving the club.
Nunes’s time at Corinthians was short, which is the life of a football manager in Brazil: owners don’t give bosses enough time, instead expecting an instant change in fortunes.
Nunes took over Corinthians at a difficult time, as the club has been going through a rough couple of seasons and, add to that a global pandemic, his chances of instigating a rapid turnaround were slim. He lasted until September, a time when the Brazilian football schedule had been crazy with matches every three days — or sometimes less — because of the impact of Covid-19, meaning there was hardly any time for training sessions that could have given him a better chance to work with players so they could adapt to his system.
“Only through information and education will it be possible to change this culture. Support from the press and leaders is needed for the continuity of work in the long term, as well as laws that protect and regulate the profession of a football coach in Brazil. It’s impossible to think about an evolution of the game since in each round half of the coaches are at risk of losing their jobs. This instability directly affects the players and ultimately the quality of the game,” said Nunes.
Nunes hasn’t returned to football since his dismissal from Corinthians; instead, he’s keeping his options open and waiting for the right moment.
“I received five offers to return to the Brazilian championship, but in the midst of this pandemic and the accumulation of games, it is very difficult to imagine that any coach will be able to do a job with quality. I will wait as long as necessary for a project in which we can build on ideas and collaborate with the whole institutional process.
On managing outside of Brazil, Nunes said:
“It’s a professional project for the future. Now with Conmebol licences being accepted internationally, the possibilities are increasing. I am studying English and Spanish to prepare for challenges outside of Brazil. In addition to a professional opportunity, I seek for my family a cultural experience.”