When Enzo Scifo is asked if he has anything planned to celebrate his 50th birthday on Friday 19 February, the smiling Belgian says, “No, but I think something’s been planned for me. That’s what a little bird told me, anyway.”
Ahead of this special landmark, the legendary playmaker, who appeared at four FIFA World Cups™, granted an exclusive interview to FIFA.com, in which he looks back at the five decades of his life.
From the early days of kicking a ball around the streets of La Louviere as a passionate youngster to his post-retirement move into coaching, the son of Italian immigrants talks about the milestones in his life that have made him the man he is today.
Happier than ever as he enters his 50s, Scifo is now fully focused on bringing through the next generation of talented footballers via his position at the head of Belgium’s U-21 side, a role he has fulfilled since the summer of 2015.
FIFA.com: How do you feel about your birthdays generally?
Enzo Scifo: Honestly, I don’t have a problem with birthdays. I wasn’t looking forward to turning 40, because there are inevitably people around you who’ve been there already and didn’t deal with it very well, but quite frankly, I sailed through it without any trouble. I don’t know what that comes down to, but personally speaking, my 50th birthday is likely to be similar. I don’t feel like much will change apart from gaining a few extra wrinkles [Laughs]. I don’t have a problem with it – I must get that from my dad.
Speaking of your father, Agostino, he sadly passed away on 16 January of this year. How do you deal with a landmark event like a 50th birthday after experiencing such a loss?
I haven’t stopped thinking about him. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting over the past month; I didn’t leave the house very much. I needed to be alone with him for a bit. You can never properly prepare yourself for it, but when it happens, everyone has their own way of dealing with it. He’s still with me, somewhere, and I’ll try to represent him as best I can for the rest of my life. My dad always taught me to be brave and bold when dealing with my problems, and I had a few of those during my career. I’ve had a lot of good times, but whenever I was going through tougher periods, he always helped me out. He was the kind of person who wasn’t afraid of anyone, while my brother, my sister and I tended to be more reserved. From time to time, he would make a point of saying 'You need to go for it, you need to impose yourself'. Growing up with him, I learned a lot about things like that – and I needed to.
When you look back at your life, what is your biggest source of pride?
Without wanting to seem pretentious, I think that I’m now at an age where enough time has passed and where I’m mature enough to look back objectively. I’m particularly proud of the success I’ve had generally, not just on the football pitch but also with my family, because I have a wonderful family. My great regret, and I say this often, is losing my brother so early. We shared everything – we were very close. He was only 42 when he died after an accident at work. That was the low point of my life, because losing a brother who was still so young, and in those circumstances, made no sense to me. Otherwise, I did what I wanted to do and now I have a great family. That’s what I’m most satisfied about: achieving everything that I aspired to back when I was 13 or 14, that is, enjoying professional success, and also having children who bring me great joy every day.
Can you tell us what the 10-year-old Enzo Scifo was like?
I was a very well-behaved boy who only had one thing on his mind: football. I would play in the streets of my estate all the time. I wasn’t a bad student, but due to football, I never had the marks I needed to comfortably move on to the next school year, but I managed it anyway by working hard for the three months before my exams. Between the ages of seven and 12, all I remember is football. After school, I would always be playing with my friends. I learned to play in the streets, and that had a real impact on my style of play. I’m always explaining to young players that football was our life and that’s what helped us to succeed in the sport. We had passion, and we lived and breathed football. There wasn’t any PlayStation; football was all we had! It was the best possible way to learn, although in tandem with that you had certain coaches that also kept you on the right track. Knocking the ball against a wall to continually improve your skills, playing around parked cars, learning to control the ball at just the right moment, and playing for hours on end, of course: that was what we did. There’s no great secret.
You must have felt quite satisfied by the time you were 20. You had already been a professional for three years, and you were named Best Young Player of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
I was happy, yes, but at the same time I was concerned that it had all happened too quickly. It wasn’t intentional, but I already had a few years of top-flight football under my belt during which I’d stood out, and maybe I wasn’t making the same kind of effort to improve. When I turned 20, I went through the most difficult period of my life. It lasted until I was 22 and I started to return to my previous self when I was about 23. I was lucky enough to meet the right people, who made me see that I was heading in the wrong direction. When I understood that, I had a good look in the mirror and knuckled down like never before, and I managed to find my feet again. These days, when I see a young player having trouble, I try to work out if he still has the motivation inside him, rather than criticising him. If he does, then I try to help him by recounting my own experiences. It was Arsene Wenger who told me one day that all young players go through difficult times, and he was right. And that means that coaches have an important role to play at that point, to help their players overcome their troubles.
By the age of 30, you were playing in a successful Monaco team with players like Fabien Barthez, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, and others. How did you feel back then?
At that age, normally you’re starting to head towards the end of your career. But I’ve got fond memories of that time, when I was a bit more mature. In any case, it was the point where I really started to live my life. It’s an age where you feel you’ve got enough clout to assert yourself. You’ve had some life experience, you’ve already had kids for a few years, and you’re financially stable. I really enjoyed being 30.
And when you turned 40, you had already been a coach for five years.
I really enjoyed that time in my life too. My playing days were behind me, but I was starting a new career, one that I took on determinedly, ready to share my experience. I tend to deal with the pressure surrounding the job of coach quite well. Stress has never unsettled me. In fact, it’s the other way around: I’m a very calm person, so when I’m in a stressful situation, that motivates me.
And now how do you feel? Are you proud to be overseeing the next generation of Belgian footballers?
I feel good. I’m making the most of it, because I’m fortunate to still be mentally sharp and physically fit. I do whatever I want to do, so all is well. I’m really proud to coach the Belgian U-21 team and to try to meet my objective of guiding players to the senior side. We know that our national team has become a model, and so it was a real honour to come on board with the Belgian FA and get involved in the project, which genuinely motivates me. Right now, we’re lucky to have some high-quality generations, and we need to hold on to them as best we can and ensure they last as long as possible. And for those jobs, there’s a few of us. There’s Marc Wilmots and me, and then below us there are a whole pile of people who carry out that sort of work. If we get it right, Belgian football can keep going like this for the next 10-15 years.
In conclusion, where do you see yourself at 60?
To be honest, I wouldn’t even try to look forward ten years. Even when I was a player, I didn’t attempt to predict what was around the corner. I’m quite a down-to-earth person. Right now, I’ve got a football job, but who knows what the future may bring. It all depends on the opportunities, but at the moment I don’t see myself coaching anywhere else. Everything happens so quickly in our profession – the good things and the bad. I just take things as they come and know that if I put in the effort, it’ll all work out. What I would say is that if you told me that in ten years, I’d be working in a role like the one I have now, I’d sign up for it tomorrow. Because my job doesn’t just involve coaching the U-21 team; it also means working together with Marc Wilmots to generate success for Belgium. When I compare my experience as a player and what’s happening now, I’m convinced that the guy in charge is doing a great job. There’s no luck involved. Yes, we’ve been lucky to benefit from this incredible generation of players, but you also have to know how to manage them. Nobody but Wilmots could have achieved such great results, of that I’m sure. He manages the squad extremely well, using his ability to motivate the big stars who all play at major clubs. For me, he’s a role model. It’s an ideal situation, where I can make good progress in the field of coaching.