Samba magic spells success for Cayman women

Brazil doesn’t just produce extraordinary footballers, their coaches are a bit special too.

From the home of samba football, the most successful World Cup nation has produced many exceptional coaches.

Cayman players

Cayman have improved considerably Photo: Ron Shillingford

There are plenty of Brazilian coaches dotted around the world who have won international and club tournaments or just irrevocably raised the level of expectations. Prime example in the Caribbean is Rene Simoes, the charismatic technical director who took the Reggae Boyz to their only ever World Cup finals in 1998.

Cayman may have unearthed another gem in Thiago Cunha, the young coach in charge of the women’s programme. Only 28 but already blessed with years of experience at top level, Cunha’s resume stands up against coaches twice his age.

Cayman spotted him working for Vasco Da Gama as the fitness coach for the Under-20s and U-17s head coach there in 2003 and appointed him to work on the women’s programme initially just in East End. A central defender for Vasco for nine years before making the premature move into coaching full-time, realising, like Jose Mourinho, that if he couldn’t be a world class player then coaching might be a better option. Shrewd move.

The speed he has developed the women’s progress with assistant coach Bobby McLaren is amazing considering Cunha lost a year after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004.

Their dramatic progress showed last year when they went to their first post-Ivan tournament, in the Bahamas. They thrashed a Bahamian League team 8-0, beat Bahamas 2-1 and then defeated Turks and Caicos 4-0. ‘The girls showed me a lot of improvement and lot of effort,’ he smiles. ‘They listen much more than the boys. They’ve developed in areas like ball possession and controlled passing. Possession is a big thing in women’s football. Only Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean can do it really well. We’re not at their level yet because we have a lot of young players, but in two or three years, the Cayman girls who are 14, 15 and 16 now will be strong players and we can reach anybody’s level.’

Cayman are hosts to Haiti and Puerto Rico next week for the first round of the Olympic qualifying tournament. All games will be at the playing field in North Side, kick-off 7.30pm. Cayman’s first game is against Puerto Rico on Wednesday 24 October. Haiti and Puerto Rico play two days later and Cayman face Haiti on 28 October.

Formidable Haiti will start the tournament favourites simply because they have far more experience and are mature women in their twenties whereas Cayman have to rely on teenagers for their nucleus.

Cunha is not unduly worried though. ‘We have to play compact and my formation is to play counter attack all the time. We have Shenel Gall who is an excellent player. She was our MVP in Bahamas. She scored both our goals there. I’m sure she’s going to have an excellent tournament here.’

Cunha has high hopes that they will do well next week and glean enough experience for the World Cup U-17s qualifiers in Antigua from 19-25 November which will include Jamaica and US Virgin Islands. He is confident Cayman can see off Antigua and the Virgin Islands but tournament favourites Jamaica will not be pushovers.

‘I think we can go through. We have a strong U-17 team. Of course, Jamaica is a big country. It’s amazing how they play football there but we have some formation which we’ll try to surprise them with. I’m sure we can do it because in 2003 we lost to Jamaica only 1-0 here. We played an excellent game and lost in the last two minutes. But now, the girls have worked hard and improved a lot, especially the young players and I’m sure we can reach far.’

Having spent so long at Vasco da Gama, one of Brazil’s greatest clubs, he almost forgets to mention the legendary players he came up against.

‘I played a lot against Ronaldo. He lived four doors away from my house in Rio de Janeiro. He is two years older but we played at the same level all the time. I was a defender and had to mark him all the time. He scored a lot of goals against me, I have to tell the truth.’

Ronaldo shone for the little club he played for, Sao Cristovao before getting his big break. ‘I played against him U-12 and U-14. I had a lot of opportunities too to play against Ronaldinho. He is two years younger.’

Cunha grew up hearing about the great Pele but seeing Romario, Vasco’s greatest ever player. ‘He was an unbelievable player, the second Brazilian after Pele to score 1,000 goals. Always I see him, it’s unbelievable what he did in his career. And he’s still playing for Vasco Da Gama at 41. Last season he was the leading scorer at 40. Amazing.’

Cunha loves life in Cayman. ‘I think this is a great opportunity to be here and working with the girls. They have improved a lot and I hope we keep this programme going. Cayman is beautiful, like Brazil with its lovely beaches, nice people, good character. I’m home!’

Besides Portuguese he also speaks Spanish and Italian. ‘For me this is excellent exposure and experience. I came here at a very young age. It is also a good chance to learn English. This is very important for me because now I can work any place in the world.’

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