‘Talented’ and ‘classy’ are words that almost always get a mention when Lucho Gonzalez is being discussed. But there is another adjective that has often been used to describe the Argentinian midfielder during a trophy-laden career that has seen him become a fans’ favourite at Huracan, River Plate, Porto and Marseille: unpretentious. Despite the scorching Mediterranean sun that beats down on him as he emerges from an intensive training session, and despite his club’s difficult start to the season, the 29-year-old still found the time to sign autographs and pose for photos with a smile on his face.
Unpretentious would also be an accurate way of characterising Gonzalez's style of play. His precise free-kicks and tidy, measured passes played a large part in helping l’OM recapture the Ligue 1 title last season, their first in 18 long years. Banners and chants dedicated to the player known as El Comandante (The Commander) are now common at the Stade Velodrome, a battlefield lacking a true leader since the departure of Didier Drogba.
FIFA.com caught up with Gonzalez to discuss his success at Marseille, absence from his idol's squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, playing style, the forwards he dreams of operating behind, and targets at club and international level.
FIFA.com: Lucho, you’re now into your second season at Marseille. How do you think you’ve adapted to your new surroundings?
Lucho Gonzalez: Quite well, in fact. I struggled a bit when I first arrived. It’s pretty tricky getting used to a new country, a new league and, most of all, a new language. To top it off, I got injured during the pre-season. But Didier Deschamps and some of my team-mates who speak Spanish or Portuguese helped me to settle in, and once I got back to full fitness, things started to get better and better. And the best way of adapting to a new situation is winning! At present, I feel quite settled, my French is improving and I’m really enjoying myself here.
This year you took part in full pre-season training, from which you already appear to be reaping the benefits on the pitch. Will Marseille supporters see an even better Lucho Gonzalez this year?
I hope so. But I’d like to talk about how we're playing as a team instead of my individual performances. Rather than the fans seeing a better Lucho Gonzalez, I’d prefer them to be watching a winning, entertaining side. But the two are connected. In my position, it’s possible for me to have a direct influence on the team. And if my team-mates are all playing well and I’m fit, that makes me play better, which in turn makes the team play better. It’s a virtuous circle. Saying that the team’s performance level is more important than the player’s performance level seems like an obvious statement to make, but that’s how football works.
It was an incredible, indescribable feeling just knowing that the player you idolised is the one that’s going to be offering you advice on your play. It made me want to run till I dropped at training.
Having won both Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue last campaign, what kind of ambitions does the club have for this season?
We achieved something that is really quite difficult to do. Marseille hadn’t won anything for so long, and then we go and win the league and a cup in the same season! It was an amazing thing to be part of, but we can’t rest on our laurels – we need to keep winning, so that we can build on our success. Expectations will now be higher. Our main goals are to retain the championship and to try to perform a bit better in the Champions League: to at least qualify for the last 16, in other words. I really hope we can do it. We’re certainly capable, in any case.
What are Marseille lacking that would help them to move on to the next level, especially in the UEFA Champions League?
What was missing last year was a slice of luck. First off, the draw didn’t do us any favours. When you’re thrown in with Real Madrid and AC Milan, obviously you’re aware that qualifying is not going to be a walk in the park. This time around, the draw, which put us in with Chelsea, Spartak Moscow and Zilina, was a little kinder to us. Every match in the Champions League is difficult, though. Of course you have to be completely focused, but a little bit of luck at the right moment helps too. Last season, while we demonstrated that we could mix it with the big boys, we really should have picked up more points at home against Milan and Madrid. Instead, we lost both times. That’s the key: if we can’t win the matches we’re supposed to win, there’s no way we can qualify. We need to concentrate, play as a team and hopefully benefit from the odd touch of fortune.
Whether at River Plate, Porto or Marseille, you’ve always performed extremely well in crucial games, such as versus Benfica, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, or in last season’s title-winning game against Rennes. Are you a fan of high-pressure encounters?
I would say that most players love those types of matches, where the stakes are higher than in the usual three-pointers, such as in derbies, clashes between historical rivals or games in which there’s a trophy to be won. You just don’t know when you’ll have another opportunity to experience that – winning medals, playing Real or AC Milan, facing the best in the world. When you’re a competitor, that’s what you love doing: taking on the top players in the game and beating them. When it comes to games like that, there’s no need to motivate yourself, and the feeling you get when you win is even more intense.
Let’s talk about the national team. Diego Maradona did not call you up for South Africa 2010. How did you hear about your omission and how did you feel watching the tournament from afar?
Maradona never rang me, and I heard about it through the media. I simply saw the list of names and realised that my name wasn’t on it. I had been slightly hopeful so was quite disappointed. But once the World Cup got underway, I forgot about my disappointment, and I followed and supported Argentina’s progress just like any other fan. Like everyone else, I got a little carried away after the first few matches, because we really were playing well, and like everyone else, I was brought back down to earth with a bump after Germany beat us 4-0. In that type of competition, things tend to change from match to match. When you concede a goal and you can’t find a way to hit back quickly, you end up going home. But there are many positive things to take away from the tournament from an Argentinian point of view, such as the style of play and the work accomplished by Maradona. All that can be built on further.
In your opinion, did Maradona make mistakes as national coach, i.e. in the squad that he took to South Africa, or in the tactics he used there?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s really simple to say after the event that 'he should have done that' or 'he should have selected or left out so-and so'. At the end of the day, we didn’t win the World Cup. So people are well within their rights to say that he got it wrong. But it’s all too easy saying that kind of thing now. I don’t personally think he chose the wrong players – they’re all talented, experienced, world-class performers. There was a definite logic in his selections, sticking with players he had confidence in. But it’s always the same problem with Argentina: we’ve got plenty of skilful players, but the coach can only pick 23 of them. If his choices don’t end up winning, everyone then talks about how the best players are the ones he didn’t pick.
You’ve got a tattoo of Maradona. What’s it like to work under a coach who also happens to be your idol?
I had the honour of being named in his first-ever squad for his coaching debut against Scotland. It was an incredible, indescribable feeling just knowing that the player you idolised is the one that’s going to be offering you advice on your play. It’s the best possible motivation. It made me want to run till I dropped at training. I tried to take advantage of every single minute I was in his company. It’s always nice to be called up for your country, but if your national coach is also a hero of yours, it all becomes a bit of a dream.
And how do you feel now, after he decided to omit you from his final list? Did it change your opinion of him?
(Laughs) No, not at all. I know that it’s a hugely difficult task, and that if he didn’t pick me, it was either because I wasn’t good enough, or because he already had other players in mind for my particular position - players with other skills that fitted in better with his gameplan. I don’t hold it against him, and nothing has changed in terms of my opinion of the man.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are the forwards who really have that something extra. When you’re a midfielder, you dream about having players like that in front of you.
Sergio Batista is currently Argentina’s caretaker coach. Do you think he should be offered the job on a permanent basis?
I’ve never had him as a coach, but I know him well, first from his great playing career, and then from having crossed paths with him when he was working with Argentina’s youth teams. In the two matches he’s overseen so far, he’s shown that he can keep the team playing at a high level and introduce a new system that the players feel comfortable with. He deserves to be given enough time to prove his worth, that he’s the right man for the job. The Copa America’s not that far away, and it would be the best way possible for him to show that he can achieve success.
In January you’ll turn 30. Do you still think you have a future at international level, especially in terms of the Copa America 2011 or the 2014 FIFA World Cup?
There’s no question. Of course I understand that as the years go by, I’m less and less likely to be selected, because Argentinian football always tends to produce quality players, and they’re now being given their chance earlier and earlier. Competition is tremendously tough, but I haven’t given up on being recalled. I’ve got enough experience to know if I’m going through a good patch of form or not. I don’t expect to be called up when I’m not playing well, but if I’m performing at a good level with my club, I think it’s perfectly natural to hope. I’m working hard at Marseille with that goal in mind. 2014 is really too far away to think about for now, but the Copa America takes place in nine months’ time. That’s my immediate objective.
You’ve been described as a player with a great football brain, who sees things before others, with a game based on speed and one-touch play. In an ideal world, which attacker would be best suited to your midfield style?
I was lucky to spend four years playing alongside Lisandro Lopez at Porto. We had a great understanding and we could have played together with our eyes closed – it was really incredible. Last year at Marseille was the same, once Mamadou Niang and I got to know each other well. It all gets a lot easier when you have truly great players around you. For me, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are the forwards who really have that something extra, who just know where they should position themselves or where the ball’s going to end up. When you’re a midfielder, you dream about having players like that in front of you.