Starting at the highest level felt natural to me. I know how that might sound, but hear me out. The top level of football is the environment I know best. Not the youth. The highest level. Choosing such an important club as Milan for a first job as a coach can feel very natural. If you have the competences and the confidence, then you feel prepared for it. When I got the call from the president in 2014, I felt I had all of those things. It was a role I had been preparing for since I left Milan as a player two years earlier. I was leaving the club to play in Brazil but, before I went, the president and I had a conversation about me returning one day as a coach. “Prepare yourself,” he said. Nobody thought my return would be so fast. Five years, maybe. But two? I don’t think so.
My curiosity about the coach’s job was always there. In my first years as a player at Ajax, I talked to Louis van Gaal many times and watched how he did things. Later, when I started doing my coaching courses, I realised I could recall with great detail how each coach I had played for did his job. Whether I knew it or not at the time, I was always interested. As a player, I was always considered to be a coach on the field. Part of that was that my collaboration with the coaches was always very close – I just saw it as an extension of my role as a player. I think that’s also a matter of character. I always had leadership qualities and an interest in the tactical side of the game. But I was also interested in the people around me. The players. Often, there are conflicts to be solved or personal issues to be supported.
Over more than 20 years as a player, I’ve experienced most of these conversations and moments of solving things. As a coach, you have no choice but to deal with these things. If you don’t, it can lead to other problems. I have always thought that managing these issues off the field is just as important as what you do on it. Spending the final years of my playing career with Botafogo in Brazil, together with the role I had alongside head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira, gave me the chance to prepare for what was to come. I’ve been privileged, from a young age, to live football around the world. The experiences that gives you are invaluable. It creates the capacity to adapt, to understand the things you don’t know.
Playing in Brazil was also like going back to my youth – in terms of the position I played, the freedom and creativity I felt on the pitch, and the simple appreciation of playing football. I was able to work closely with the coaching staff there, too – doing a lot of work with the analytical team, individual analysis, game analysis. Being part of the discussions. I was very much “in the kitchen”. I also had the chance to work with the Under-16s and Under-17s, which meant I could complete the practical part of my coaching courses. It was tough, but I was committed as I knew it was taking me somewhere.