Marc Dos Santos is about as likeable as football managers come. There are no coy José Mourinho mind games in his pressers. He is open and honest with media about everything from his team’s performances to life in football in North America’s second division. Above all, he is quite simply a good person.
To truly understand Dos Santos and his approach to the beautiful game, one must take a step back from analyzing his day-to-day duties with the NASL’s Ottawa Fury FC and return to his roots.
Born and raised in Montréal until the age of nine, Dos Santos moved with his family to Portugal where he fell deeper in love with the game. In the environment of his youth, three clear pillars were built into Marc’s life which have stuck with him to this day: family, faith, and football. All three pillars are intertwined with his career as a football manager, and direct him in nearly every aspect of his life.
Principios da Vida
“I was blessed with my father,” says Dos Santos.
It’s a chilly Tuesday in Canada’s capital, and Marc joins me at a table in the ice arena which is adjoined to Fury FC’s renovated stadium, TD Place.
“He played in the first division of Mozambique, which was an ex-Portuguese colony. It was a good league back then, and when he moved to Canada in the seventies, he coached LusoStar of Mont-Royal,” he explains over a coffee.
The Quebec semi-professional circuit in which Marc’s father coached was arguably in its prime during the late-1970s and early-1980s.
“I remember as a kid, going to watch LusoStar play, and there would three- or four-thousand people in the McGill stadium,” he reminisces. “You would have Corfinium, all Italian players, against LusoStar all Portuguese, and Hermes was all Greek – you had that rivalry of communities which doesn’t exist anymore.”
Thus, it was in that dynamic of immigrant cultures being pitted against each other that Marc Dos Santos discovered the game of football.
“That was where I got my introduction, going to training with my dad,” he smiles, remembering the training sessions of his youth with LusoStar, where his father would set him up behind a goal to chase the first team’s errant shots.
Dos Santos always paid close attention to the human side of his father’s coaching. “I remember paying a lot of attention to the locker room,” he says. “How my father conducted himself, how games would affect my dad coming home – that played a big role in my development later as a coach.”
He laughs telling the story of how, when he was younger, his family would struggle with a clunky radio in trying to listen to FC Porto’s games an ocean away. “There was this huge antenna, to get Porto. Sometimes you couldn’t move it, or you would lose the game. You really had to work to find it!”
At age nine, Marc moved with the rest of the Dos Santos clan to Porto, the thriving population hub of northern Portugal. There, he became truly immersed in the game.
Interestingly, Dos Santos never harboured a desire to reach the upper echelons of the game as a player. “Very early on, I said, ‘I want to be a coach.’ It’s funny, you know I never had that interest in becoming a top player. It never crossed my mind, ‘I want to play in the World Cup,’ for me it was always wanting to be a top manager.”
As a player, the 37 year-old kicked about in the Terceira Divisão (Portugal’s third tier) with G.D. Gafanha, though he hardly thinks anything of it. “Some people would praise themselves for playing at that level, but for me, you get praised if you play in the first division, or here if you play in the MLS or NASL.”
A graduate of Beira-Mar’s youth system, Dos Santos realized that he was, in his own words, “Not going to be a player that was going to play for Real Madrid, Benfica, or Porto,” and promptly shifted his vision towards the field of management.
“I started very young – I was twenty-five – when I started to read biographies on coaches, stories on coaches and how they were successful, and coaching methodology.”
Thus, at age twenty-five, Marc Dos Santos’s journey in football had left the commonly-taken path for 20-somethings, playing, and veered off into the unknown of management.
It was in 2003 at age twenty-six that Dos Santos got his foot in the door of the world of management, receiving an internship with his boyhood club Boavista.
“When I arrived at Boavista and did my two-week internship there, I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to become, I want to coach at the highest level possible.'”
Dos Santos worked with the Panteras’ youth academy while on the two-week internship, and still credits members of the club’s coaching staff with his immersion into the world of coaching.
“While I was at Boavista, the coach at the time was Jaime Pacheco,” he explains, “but there it was a fitness coach named Ricardo Pinho who introduced me to Professor Vitor Frade of Porto, and Professor José Guilherme Oliveira.”
Oliveira and Frade are names that will be familiar with Portuguese football purists. The two have been key players in the development of coaching methodology in the country for decades, and offered Dos Santos his first 1-on-1 experience with elite-level thinkers in football.
From there, Dos Santos moved up several notches on the Portuguese football ladder – though he’d never admit it, being a Boavista supporter – after gaining an internship with FC Porto.
At Porto, Dos Santos had the opportunity to work under Ilídio Vale, then-manager of Porto’s reserve side and current assistant manager of the Portuguese national team.
“All of that experience built my dream up more and more of wanting to be a coach.”
So where exactly did DosSantos’ career begin? In the forgotten Quebec city of Trois-Rivières, managing the reserve side of the Montréal Impact, then a member of the second-tier USL.
Dos Santos enjoyed two successful seasons with the Trois-Rivières Attak, a now-defunct team that played in the Canadian Soccer League, and says his main takeaway from his time with the Impact’s reserve side was learning how to build a team from scratch.
“When I came to Ottawa (in 2013), when I came into the office, I saw myself doing a lot of the things I did with the Attak of Trois-Rivières,” he says. “Both times we were starting from scratch.”
It wouldn’t be a humble beginning without a story or two mixed in to provide perspective, and Dos Santos gladly shared one:
“When we were in Trois-Rivières, we had a small apartment – it was my first year married with my wife Marie – in Lachine (Quebec). I remember the little table we had, just filled with papers and names. I remember the names, writing names of all the players; the best players of the semi-pro league of Quebec, the best players of the National Training Centre, the best university players. With all of that, I started building the team from zero, in that apartment.”
Learning to deal with his first group of older players, having been around youth set-ups during his internships in Portugal, was also a steep curve for Marc in his early days of management in Trois-Rivières.
“At that time I was about twenty-seven, and the average age of my squad was twenty-six,” he remembers. “I’m like their buddy, but I had to learn to separate myself from them, to be their manager.”
Under Dos Santos, the Attak won the final edition of the Open Canada Cup in 2007, and made the CSL final in 2008 before falling to Serbian White Eagles.
From Trois-Rivières, Dos Santos made the move to the first team, becoming an assistant coach with the Impact ahead of the 2009 campaign. After just a few months in the dugout as an assistant, Dos Santos was promoted to head coach after the firing of John Limniatis.
Not missing a beat, Dos Santos led the Impact to a USL championship during his first season in charge (video of final).
“With the Impact, I really learned about a winning mentality. We won the championship on October 17th, 2009, and the 18th I was already talking with Nick (DeSantis, former Impact sporting director) about what our next moves were to win the next year,” he explains.
In Montréal, Dos Santos experienced a competition level, a pressure to win, that he had never seen before. “I learned how to deal with pressure, the must-win attitude everyday,” he reflects.
In his first full season in charge, 2010, Dos Santos led the Impact to the league semi-finals, where his side was defeated by the eventual champion Puerto Rico Islanders.
With winning being the wholehearted focus of the Impact organization, few were surprised when Dos Santos resigned from his post in late June of 2011, with Montréal off to its worst start in recent memory. Just two wins in the team’s first twelve league matches had left them adrift in 7th place in the eight-team circuit, and Dos Santos stepped out of the Impact fold on his own terms.
“For me, the Attak was phase one and the Impact was phase two,” he says, “a lot of the passion and intensity I have in my blood comes from the Montréal Impact.”
Welcome to the Jungle
Ask Marc Dos Santos about his time in Brazil. Ask for the stories, ask for his philosophical reflections, ask for his political sporting analysis. Seriously, if you ever have the chance to meet him, ask him about his journey through Brazilian football.
In 2012, with young family in tow, Dos Santos set off for the Mecca of football: Brazil.
“After five years in Montreal – the media, the fame, going to a restaurant and having this and that paid for, people knowing you, autographs – I arrived at Primeira Camisa,” he smirks, remembering the rude awakening he received at his first post in Brazil.
Primeira Camisa is about as deep into the bowels of Brazilian football as you can get. An Under-20 club located in the eastern part of São Paulo, the club’s setup was rudimentary to say the least.
“The jerseys were white and red,” he smiles, “but the training jerseys were so washed that they were white and pink!”
He continues, more seriously, “Where we slept was old – I had ants running up my neck while I was sleeping. It was very hot, forty degrees in São José,” the area of São Paulo where the team was located.
Enter Dos Santos’ spirituality. A devout Christian, he approaches everything in life with a positive mentality and tries to make the best of what any situation presents him with.
“I get to the first training session, I arrive, and I see the equipment manager putting the netting on the goals because there was no net at the field. There were no lines on the field, no white lines! I’m putting out the cones, and the grass was about knee-high. What I see – this is a real story – is a horse! A real horse, passing from one side of the field to the other! So I had two options; I could b****, and talk about how this was bad compared to Montréal. But I’ll tell you something; because of my roots, and the Bible, I believe in being faithful and always doing the best you can, wherever you are. I took the second option. I gave every single training session like I was at Real Madrid. I put my all for the players, and the result?
One of their worst teams in history on paper, ended up being a Cinderella story in the Copa São Paulo. We ended up getting knocked out by Corinthians, who had players like Marquinhos*, and were on a completely different level.”
Considering the difference in stature between the two clubs, it’s a minor miracle that Marc’s Primeira Camisa side managed to score a goal against the mighty Corinthians.
* – Marquinhos Aoás Corrêa, now twenty, is under contract with French giants Paris Saint-Germain.
From Primeira Camisa, Marc moved into Brazilian giants Palmeiras’ youth academy. As manager of the Under-15s, Dos Santos led the club to a Copa do Brasil title (the final game of which can be viewed with excellent background music here).
“When we won on PKs…I cried,” he admits.
As Dos Santos asked his team for a volunteer to shoot sixth in the penalty shoot-out if need be, a centreback named Sosa offered to take the shot if necessary. “I looked at him, and in my head I go, ‘Oh no,'” he says, breaking into a huge grin. “Then, you know, he puts it into the top corner, a very well-struck ball, there’s a big celebration, and the first thing that comes into my head? I was faithful; when the grass was knee-high at Primeira Camisa I didn’t b****, and here is my prize.”
From Palmeiras, Dos Santos moved on to become Desportivo Brasil’s technical director, a post he would hold for roughly one year before returning to North America.
“In Brazil, I discovered a passion for the game,” he reflects. “I mean, there were six thousand people at a youth championship. Six thousand for a U-15 game! People in Portugal, people in England think they are passionate about football – but they have no idea. Brazil is football.”
Throughout his life, Dos Santos has been in a family-oriented environment, and today is no different. While his life may revolve around a singular ball on a pitch filled with twenty-two players, there is an off-pitch side to Dos Santos which few get to see.
“I like wine,” he blurts out quickly when asked about his hobbies away from the office and stadium. “I enjoy wine very much…and that’s why I have to run in the gym here,” he laughs before seriously answering, “I love my wife, Marie.”
“She has been so incredibly supportive. I’m going to write a biography one day, and in it I’m going to stress how important it is for a young coach to choose the right partner,” he says with a determination only matched during games and intense training sessions. “My wife always has the luggage ready, and if we have to, say, move to Dubai, she’s with me. I’m the national coach of Ethiopia? She says, ‘Okay I’m with you.'”
Dos Santos, a father of three, further admires his wife’s willingness to move because of the hassles of relocating with young children. “We are a gang when we move, we move like the Gremlins,” he chuckles.
“My life outside the game is my wife, my kids, and good food. I enjoy a table with wine, food, and family, and being there for hours and enjoying the company.”
Within the offices and training sessions of Fury FC, the family theme continues for Dos Santos, with his highly-respected brother Phillip acting as the club’s technical director. The two are currently working in tandem towards a goal of infusing the first team with homegrown (and thus, more affordable) talent.
A spiritual man, Dos Santos believes that spirituality and faithfulness to, at the very least, one’s moral values play a key role in success in football.
“Sometimes we go through things that are very difficult, and I tell my players; ‘Integrity. Character. Give your all everyday, don’t lie to yourself! Work hard, and you will see doors open.'”
The guiding principles of his faith are evident in Dos Santos’ coaching; the respect, the trust, and the work ethic which he derives from his religious background are elements that he tries to infuse into his squad.
“You approach things a certain way, with a certain vision, and that vision affects how you perform. In life and in football. So absolutely there is a connection between spirituality, life, and football.”
In a way for me personally, as a journalist coming from a Portuguese-Spanish background, it’s incredible to meet somebody like Dos Santos in a North American soccer environment.
He is a blending of two worlds, working in a sport that still seems somewhat odd and out of place on this side of the Atlantic, despite huge strides made by MLS.
He is a devout man, both religiously and as an analyst of the beautiful game. He is a pinch of Portugal, right here in my hometown of Ottawa. Off the pitch, it’s his family values, love of wine, and relaxed, chatty manner which all remind me of summer spent in Portugal. On the pitch, it’s his methodology, style, and Portuguese/Brazilian imports (i.e. Oliver) which remind me of the (unfortunately) empty stadiums of Portugal’s Primeira Liga.
As an individual, Dos Santos is somebody I came to respect greatly during Fury FC’s inaugural campaign in 2014. Always available with an honest quote and (usually) a smile, he made time for everybody.
During my first presser with Dos Santos in the makeshift media zone at Fury FC’s first home, Keith Harris Stadium, I lost my train of thought. I was blown away by the sheer Portuguese-ness of Dos Santos in such a Canadian environment.
And I loved it.
Regardless of what he accomplishes in 2015 and beyond with Ottawa Fury FC, the club and its supporters will always remember him as its first manager, a respectable professional by the name of Marc Dos Santos.
To listen to the full interview with Marc Dos Santos about his life in football and Ottawa Fury FC’s offseason moves, click here.