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SAO PAULO (AP) — When Tite became Brazil coach last year, millions of Corinthians fans had mixed feelings.
Supporters of the Sao Paulo-based club were concerned about their team's future after winning major titles under Tite, while also being confident that their coach was the best person to lead the Selecao ahead of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
But the solution to the fans' worries was already sitting on the Corinthians bench.
In his first year as coach, Tite's former assistant Fabio Carille has caused shockwaves in Brazilian football. Halfway into the national league season, the 44-year-old Carille's team of hardworking and well-organized players is so far enjoying its best campaign ever.
Corinthians has 47 points from 14 wins and five draws, and is eight points clear of closest challenger Gremio.
Since Carille became coach in December, Corinthians have lost two games, and the last one was in March. Even more impressively, his team kept clean sheets in 28 out of the last 34 matches.
After only three months in charge, the new coach won his first title — the Sao Paulo state championship trophy — holding off favorites Palmeiras, Sao Paulo FC and Santos.
Tite's 2015 Corinthians had the Brazilian championship's best campaign ever, tallying 81 points in 38 matches. But even rival coaches concede Carille's Corinthians could finish the season with more points.
A self-described "football geek that worked in a cane mill until age 19," Carille even managed to revive the career of striker Jo, who flopped at other Brazilian clubs and at Manchester City. The 30-year-old Jo is the top scorer in the Brazilian championship with 11 goals.
Fans who didn't even know Carille until a few months ago now believe that he will become Tite's natural successor with the national team.
"This is all very surprising for me," Carille told The Associated Press in an interview at the club's training ground. "And much of this I owe to Tite. I am doing well now because I learned from the best in the business."
Before coaching, Carille played for several small clubs from Sao Paulo state so he could remain close to his family. He started coaching less than 10 years ago as an assistant at tiny Barueri, the club where he ended his playing career at 33 years of age. Corinthians brought him to their staff in 2009.
For the major titles Corinthians won under Tite, including two national championships, a South American crown and the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup against Chelsea, Carille was the man responsible for the rock-solid defense for five years.
After Tite left, shortly before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the club initially replaced him with outsiders. Carille took over as interim for a few matches, but it seemed he'd never get a promotion at Corinthians. The club's financial crisis put the soft-spoken assistant and big fan of Bayern Munich's Carlo Ancelotti in charge.
"Corinthians is a great school for coaches, no wonder why Brazil often picks someone from here," Carille said. "My team is not perfect and we will lose a match at some point, but I love to see how little the gaps between defense and midfield have shrunk, how everyone helps marking."
Carille dreams of winning many trophies for Corinthians and of a future in Europe, probably starting in Portugal or Spain, he said. Many former Corinthians players now in Europe feed him with information, including new tactics and training. He also talks to new coaches inspired by his work.
"There is a new generation in Brazil. We want to do well in Europe too. We want doors to finally be open for Brazilian coaches there," he said.
How about one day becoming Brazil coach?
"I try not to think about it, but I know that it will get much closer if the results keep coming with the quality that we have shown," he said. "But it has to be natural and I still have a lot to learn. This is my first year as a (head) coach."
Carille and Tite talk to each other often, and Brazil's coach remains a fan of his former student.
"He deserves every compliment he has gotten, and that has nothing to do with me," Tite said. "It is the result of his own work. Carille made me grow a lot, we helped him grow too. He will achieve great things yet."
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