Completely unknown in France, Charles Hembert began to enjoy a certain notoriety in Brazil. Since January 2017, the native of Sèvres is the assistant of Rogerio Ceni, the former goalkeeper of Sao Paulo (132 achievements), appointed, ten days ago now, manager of Flamengo, the most popular club in the country. Wednesday, a few hours from a match in Sao Paulo (3-0 defeat), the Frenchman detailed at length the genesis of his atypical career and recounted, with an enthusiastic verb, his incredible adventure on this football ground.
Isn’t it singular to find yourself at the age of 29, assistant coach of one of the biggest clubs in South America without having ever played football at a high level?
CHARLES HEMBERT. I’m not going to deny it. Before finally assuming it, I had for a long time been reluctant to work in the world of football. It didn’t seem to me to be taken seriously enough by society. After a business school at McGill University in Montreal, then internships in the field of cosmetics and mass distribution, I still managed to get hired by the organizing committee of the 2014 Brazilian World Cup as an agent. liaison of the Cameroonian selection. I then moved to London, where I was in charge of managing the friendly matches for the Brazilian national team for a sports marketing agency. At the 2016 Copa America, my meeting with former footballer Rogerio Ceni clearly changed the course of my life.
Since that date, you have hardly left each other?
He was retired (Editor’s note: as a player) for six months and seemed a bit lost. He was planning to train in Europe to become a coach. I offered to help him. I then enrolled him in coaching courses, which I took with him. And we also visited several Premier League coaches: Ranieri, Puel, Klopp… I was able to gain his trust. At the end of 2016, Ricardo, the trainer of Sao Paulo (Editor’s note: previously at PSG, Bordeaux and Monaco), is landed. Approached by the leaders of the club, Rogerio imposed me by his side with Michael Beale, trainer in Liverpool who had impressed him during his English trip. I was a kind of “football supervisor”, an assistant coach responsible for acting as the interface between Rogerio and the entire staff. For the first time or almost, European coaches landed in Brazil. We were a bit of pioneers, Martians in the eyes of the people.
Did this first experience fizzle out?
I quickly discovered the other side of Brazilian football. The philosophy of the immediate, the culture of the instant with the need to have results immediately. We lost all our best players including Thiago Mendes and Luiz Araujo, who left for Lille. After six months, it was already over. We all blamed it, especially Rogerio. He had spent twenty-five years at this club, where he was a legend, a bit the equivalent of Francesco Totti at Roma, but he was not even given a season to show his know-how.
How do you get over such a disillusionment?
By plunging back into the bath. A few months later, we accepted the challenge of Fortaleza, a historic club, then in D2. We brought him back to the elite before maintaining him and winning, in particular, the Ceará State Championship twice. These good performances prompted the leaders of Flamengo to call on us ten days ago.
Can your lack of experience sometimes turn out to be a handicap, especially in your discussions with the players?
I struggled a lot for my debut in Sao Paulo in terms of legitimacy and credibility. And not only in my relations with the players, but also in the relations with the management of the club or the supporters. Whether you are good or bad, people don’t care. If you haven’t been pro, you are not competent. My young age also played against me, like the fact that I was a foreigner. In Fortaleza, in a less exposed club, things improved. The expectations and demands were less strong, the players more flexible and tolerant. And, then, there were the victories. When you start winning titles, you gain more respect, even more in Brazil. Today everything is going well. The presence of Rogerio, appreciated by all, also helped me a lot. It’s an exceptional opportunity to harden myself by his side.
Ultimately, do you ever imagine yourself in the shoes of a number 1?
I don’t like to project myself. I reason game after game. In Brazil, things are going so fast. Long-term talk is not audible here. Today, we are in Flamengo but, if things turn out badly, we can be disembarked in a few weeks. I’m exaggerating a bit, even if the previous coach, Domenec Torrent, did not survive a heavy defeat against Atlético Mineiro (0-4) when the club occupied… 3rd place. After 22 days of the championship, there have already been 18 changes of coaches this season. Only two clubs have kept theirs. Severance pay is very low. It doesn’t cost much for a president to fire his coach. In Brazil, a coach lasts an average of three months!
Is it a pride to be the only French in the Brazilian championship?
When I arrived in Sao Paulo, seeing my name in the newspapers, the fans who sent me messages on social networks… Everything was a bit surreal. Since I joined Flamengo, I have been more in demand in ten days than during the three previous years. Looking back, I realize my luck better. I represent France. I convey its values, I exhibit it abroad. At my modest level, how can I not be proud of it?
What does Flamengo represent in Brazil?
Something incredible. It brings together more than 40 million fans across the country and generates an incredible excitement. The supporters live for Flamengo. They breathe it. This club plays, in addition, the mythical Maracana, with an enormous symbolism. It enjoys visibility that goes far beyond the borders of Brazil. Its only equivalent in South America is Boca Juniors.
Do we often talk to you about Neymar since his signing at PSG in 2017?
Not that much right now. With the Covid, we only leave the training center to play our matches behind closed doors. But, in Brazil, everyone is interested in Neymar. His actions are watched and commented on. He has his faults, but everyone agrees to recognize his genius. We are still talking about a planetary star. No matter where you are in this country, you will come across a lot of people with jerseys bearing his name.
The second most bereaved country in the world, Brazil is clearly threatened with a second wave of coronavirus. Are you worried ?
In Brazil, in terms of the health situation, we are about a month behind France. We see the second wave arriving with legitimate concern. Of course.