Last August, former Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Sabella was given one of the biggest challenges a coach can face when he was handed the reins of his national team. An assistant to Daniel Passarella at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, Sabella’s brief was to restore the lustre of La Albiceleste and take them to Brazil 2014.
Already preparing for Argentina’s next qualifying match in June, the 57-year-old father of four and avid history student spoke to FIFA.com about the unique challenges and demands of the job, the form of the world’s leading national sides and the contribution Lionel Messi makes to the national side.
FIFA.com: You took over as Argentina coach nearly six months ago. Has the job matched your expectations?
Alejandro Sabella: I felt a huge responsibility when I took over and a huge amount of love too. The first thing I had to do on coming into the job was to get familiar with how a national team works, which is totally different to a club side. Luckily I’ve been able to draw on my experience alongside Passarella, which came at a time when Argentinian players started going abroad in large numbers. It’s taken me a while to settle in but I knew all about the responsibility I had on my shoulders when I took over and how difficult the World Cup qualifiers are.
What do you enjoy most and least about coaching the national team?
As a football-loving Argentinian this is the biggest job there is, the thing you dream about doing most. Anyone who makes a living out of the game dreams about playing in the first division and for the national team, and that goes for coaches too. That’s the good thing. The hardest part is handling the tremendous pressure to get results. There’s more and more pressure in football these days and not just in Argentina. There’s maybe a bit more in Latin America than there is in English-speaking countries, where the mindset’s a bit different, but there’s pressure wherever you go. That’s the unpleasant bit but it’s all part and parcel of the job.
Did the untimely departures of your predecessors Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista make you think twice about taking on the job?
No, not all. I didn’t have any doubts, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. This job is the dream of any Argentinian who’s ever been in coaching. You just can’t turn it down or even have any doubts about it.
Let’s turn to the qualifiers for Brazil 2014 now and Argentina’s away win over Colombia in their last game, a result you seemed very pleased with.
Yes, because our previous match against Bolivia [a 1-1 draw in Buenos Aires] was a disappointment for us. We didn’t play that well but the result was totally unfair. We fell behind in Colombia and I felt a lot of pressure on myself to turn the game around quickly and take Argentina to where they belong.
Do you demand high standards of yourself?
Yes, I do.
That’s quite an explosive combination: someone as driven and determined as the national team coach of a country as passionate about its football as Argentina.
That’s right, and that’s why I feel you shouldn’t ask too much of yourself or be too critical of yourself. There’s nothing wrong with being self-critical as long as you don’t go too far. That’s when you can get depressed and that’s not good.
Have you ever had counselling or therapy?
No, never. Mao Tse Tung once said that self-criticism was a symptom of weakness. And there’s something in that because it is a weakness when taken to an extreme. Reading that helped me because I’ve always been critical with myself. It’s something I use with my players as well. I always tell them not to dwell on their mistakes because that’s worse. A little bit of self-criticism is great sometimes and necessary even. It’s a sign that you’ve got your feet on the ground. You can get big-headed otherwise, but there again, you always need to strike a balance.
Turning back to football now, would you say your biggest problem has been putting the defence together?
Overhauling the defence is taking a bit more time, that’s true. We need to stay grounded about it but when you’ve got strikers of the quality of [Lionel] Messi, [Gonzalo] Higuain and [Sergio] Aguero, I don’t think people should be offended by anyone saying the back line is proving to be a bit more of a headache. The thing is, we don’t have much time to work with and solve the problems inherent in the team. We need to get a good squad together, make sure the players get on well and that they have a sense of belonging and feel something when they pull the Argentina shirt on. That’s what these boys have been doing, especially in the second half against Colombia.
Do you listen to what the media have to say?
A little but not that much. There’s always someone worth listening to, and criticism, whether it’s positive or negative, is good. It opens your mind. Some people do have useful things to say.
You received a lot of criticism in the press when you said before the Venezuela match that you’d be happy to win “by half a goal to nil”, a comment some felt gave the Venezuelans belief. Having lost the game, do you regret saying that?
Given the history of the fixture, maybe I made a mistake in saying the “half a goal to nil” thing, though I don’t think it gave our opponents extra belief. You need to put things in context. Venezuela have come on a lot, they rested their first-teamers for their first game, and the match was played in very hot and humid conditions. Venezuela had the luxury of playing with their second string against Ecuador, the idea being: “If we lose this game, then so be it because we’ve got Argentina next.” But with the history Argentina have got they don’t have that luxury. Maybe my comment was a little unfortunate but I don’t think it helped them gain in stature.
Brazil are the hosts of the upcoming FIFA World Cup. You’ve played there and you know Brazilian football well. Do you think playing at home will be a disadvantage for them?
Home advantage can be a double-edged sword, and it all depends on the character of the players. Brazilian players are very special and possess tremendous technique. If they hit their stride they can destroy you, wipe the floor with you, thrash you. They’ll also be under pressure though. They’ll have the obligation of having to win, and we’ll have to see how they handle that. They’ll be big favourites of course. They always are and they’re at home. It’s a tricky one, though, and I always say that the sword has two edges.
You were assistant coach to Daniel Passarella during his time as Uruguay coach. Why do you think La Celeste have been doing so well lately?
Uruguay have got a lot of character and a very strong and close-knit squad. The players really stick together and they feel they belong. They know what the Celeste shirt is all about and they also seem to have a great relationship with the coaching staff. Then there’s the fact that the players based in Europe have come on a lot. All that’s made them tremendously strong and they’ve really gained in confidence. They’ve created a virtuous circle and it’s all very positive for them.
You watch a lot of football. Which national teams have impressed you the most recently?
Germany and Spain are the best sides around. Germany are looking really good and they’ve grown a lot. They’ve brought in a couple of new and very talented young players, the likes of [Thomas] Muller have cemented their places in the team and big-name players like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are still there. They’ve gained in experience after going through a transitional phase. Spain are up there as well, no question. They’ve got fantastic potential but sometimes you ease off a little when you’re the world champions. They stand out the most, but then there’s Brazil too. How could I forget about them? Brazil are Brazil, and the five-time world champions too.
A question about Lionel Messi. What has surprised you about him most as a person?
I knew I’d be working with the best player in the world, a player who can change a game quicker than anyone. But to see him close up, and his acceleration, explosiveness and technique at pace, was a real eye-opener for me. The control he has of the ball at full pace is amazing. It reminds me of the Scalextric I used to play as a kid – those cars going flat out from a standing start. What’s surprised me about him more than anything, though, is what he means to people in India and Bangladesh, for example. It’s incredible. It’s the same in Venezuela, and Colombia was something else. He means so much to people. They idolise him and they’re crazy about him on and off the pitch. It’s unbelievable.
One last question. Do you see yourself at Brazil 2014?
No. I just see myself playing against Switzerland in February. After that we’ll see. I like to take things one game at a time and focus on the job in hand, and that goes for my work in general, not just coaching the national team. I don’t think long term, only short and medium term. We’ll see how the rest works out.