“Tibia and fibula” are possibly among the most feared few words in the sports world, a combination of seven syllables and 14 letters that can only mean one thing when uttered by a doctor: bad news.
Jorge Sampaoli can vouch for that, having broken both bones in an injury that cut short his playing career before he had even had a chance to grace Argentina's top flight. He was 19 at time, full of rage but with many dreams to pursue, dreams he would look to fulfil from the dugout, in circumstances that were far from ordinary for a budding coach. With no professional career behind him, the Casilda-born Sampaoli took a job as a bank teller and also worked in a civil registry to fund his passion as an amateur coach. Learning his trade in the lower leagues, he battled against preconceptions and his lack of top-level experience, and came out a winner.
Now 56, the highly regarded Copa America-winning coach has established himself in the elite, having also gone up against Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola for the 2015 FIFA Men’s Football Coach of the Year award, and is currently pondering his future having brought to an end his tenure with Chile.
The one and only coach from South America to receive a Ballon d’Or Gala nomination for his work there, Sampaoli spoke exclusively to FIFA.com, telling us: “I never listened to the people who said to me that I couldn’t.”
FIFA.com: Why is it so difficult for anyone working in South American football to gain international recognition?
Jorge Sampaoli: It’s all to do with the number of voters in each region: Asia, Africa… there are so many other places that have much closer links to European football. The idea of analysing our football is all a bit remote for them. Maybe if you beat Barcelona at the Club World Cup then you might get people in Europe, Asia or Africa to sit up and take notice of you. What we achieved with Chile was very important, including the tours we went on and our good performances against England, Germany, Brazil and Spain. That helped raise our profile.
Where were you when you heard you’d been nominated?
I was in Chile at the time. It was quite a shock and I really couldn’t believe it. I felt very excited about it and it made me think of the difficult and traumatic situations I’ve been through in my career, and of my coaching team and everything we’ve done together. I thought about that and the players, of course. I wouldn’t have got there without them.
Unlike other coaches who’ve earned recognition around the world, you haven’t had a career as a professional footballer. How did you manage to get your ideas across in environment where people tend to make snap judgements?
I came at it from another angle. I knew what my chances were when I started working towards my goal of making a career in international football, but I also knew I didn’t have much of a reputation. That’s why I made a point of trying to get in players’ minds a little, letting them know that I’m a football person 24 hours a day. Though I wasn’t part of a dressing room in the first division, I was at amateur level. I manage to transmit that whole essence of things, which has gone out of football a little today, and it helped me to climb my way up. And now I’m a coach grounded in nothing more than my knowledge of football.
There’s not an Argentinian coach out there working right now who’d be able to say no if the national team came calling.
Is that the reason behind the tattoo you’ve got on your left arm? (It reads “I don’t listen and follow, because a lot of what’s forbidden fills me with life,” a lyric from the song Prohibido (Forbidden) by the Argentinian band Callejeros).
Absolutely. If I’d listened to what people said, I wouldn’t have pitted my wits against all the ex-players who’ve gone on to become coaches. I obviously didn’t have that much of a chance against the whole football environment. But I didn’t listen and I tried to get through to presidents and directors in a different way. If I’d listened to what people said, I would have stayed in Casilda and worked in a bank. But that’s what rebelling is all about: not letting people stop you from doing things, not being told what to do. At the teams where we’ve been, our belief was that being rebellious was an integral part of things. That lyric stayed with me, and that’s why I got it tattooed on me.
You talk about handling the dressing room, but what is it like to share that space with players who are so young and successful and who come from such diverse backgrounds?
By learning to share every situation with every one of them, but without generalising, because, like I said, they’re all different. By trying to make them understand that quite apart from all the temptations out there, there’s another parallel temptation, and that’s football: playing, having fun and enjoying yourself. Given the comparisons, we try not to compete with the temptations on the outside, but to make the players understand that taking centre stage, not being scared of losing and giving as good as you get are also pretty tempting. With Chile, they got the message quickly and though they might have felt differently off the pitch, they always played as if their lives depended on it.
And in footballing terms, what did you do to make Chile Copa America champions?
A few things I took from Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy. When we took the job on, we tried to be as direct, aggressive and offensive as he was, though we had to try and bring in a bit of control. We started to defend a lot more with the ball, and that eventually gave the team the confidence to dictate every game and get on top of the opposition. That’s how we nurtured a commitment to the cause and got the players to really buy into things, and it made us competitive against any side.
It’s been three months since you left the job. How do you occupy your time now?
I watch matches. It’s been hard to adjust actually because I’d spent a lot of time linked to the game, without a break. But I’m watching a lot of football, speaking to people and analysing different leagues. We don’t have a team to compete with, but we’re keeping in the loop and waiting to see what the future brings.
What worries you most about a time like this?
What I dislike most of all is the uncertainty, not knowing where I’m going to be or what project I’m going to sign up for in the near future. My name’s come up in a few rumours, but I know very well that it’s just talk. The fact is that I don’t know where I’m going to go. I hope the best option comes up though.
After everything you’ve been through in your life, can you imagine one day coaching Argentina?
I don’t know. That’s not up to me. There’s not an Argentinian coach out there working right now who’d be able to say no if the national team came calling. It’s the pinnacle for anyone. You have to be excited about the job the whole time, but you’ve also got to be consistent: there are processes that unfold and there are cycles… You just don’t know. If I ever get the chance, though, I couldn’t say no.