When Miguel Angel Russo started his coaching career back in 1989, the idea of taking charge of one of Argentina's biggest clubs and competing in the Intercontinental Cup was a remote dream. Today, however, 18 years on, that dream is about to become a reality.
Much has happened to Russo between that inaugural stint at the helm of second-division outfit Club Atletico Lanus and his latest adventure with the Boca Juniors side that lifted the 2007 Copa Libertadores and is about to contest the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. And like any good yarn, Russo's tale is one well worth telling.
Bilardista through and through
Born in the city of Lanus on 9 April 1956, the hero of our story was a combative central midfielder who spent his entire 13-year career at his beloved Estudiantes de La Plata. In 1983 he would win the first of his two championship medals under the wing of Carlos Bilardo, the inimitable tactician who would have such a big impact on Russo's future career as a coach.
Quite how much of an impact can be revealed by one incident in 1986. After taking Estudiantes to the top, Bilardo was appointed Argentina coach. Although Russo had an important role to play in the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup™ finals in Mexico that year, which the Albiceleste would go on to win, he was left out of the squad before the tournament.
"He rang to tell me and we both started crying," the Xeneize boss reveals to FIFA.com without a trace of resentment. "He said something that stood out, though: 'You'll understand when you're a coach.' It hurt at the time, but to be honest, when I changed jobs I understood things that have helped me in my new career."
Russo hung up his boots in 1988 and a year later made his move into football management, starting off in the lower divisions in Argentina and working his way up to the top flight. He also tried his luck further afield, leading Universidad de Chile to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores in 1996, before enjoying spells with Salamanca in Spain and then with Mexican club Morelia. It was then, however, that he moved into the big time, winning his first Argentinian championship with Velez Sarsfield in 2005.
By this stage Russo had earned a reputation as a disciple of Bilardo's, a preacher of the virtues of hard work and a low-profile leader of men. These were exactly the qualities Boca were looking for when they offered Russo the chance to replace the Albiceleste-bound Alfio Basile in the Bombonera hotseat in 2006. With El Coco having taken the Azul y Oro to five titles in five competitions, it was a tough act to follow, but Russo was equal to the task, steering the Buenos Aires giants to Libertadores glory in Brazil only seven months later.
'A winning aura'
Japan may be just around the corner but it is the Apertura championship that is currently occupying Boca's thoughts. The Xeneizes trail leaders Lanus by three points with three games to play, a position that has exposed Russo to some criticism. "In the pressure cooker that is Argentinian football people forget that Boca are South American champions and are about to play in the Club World Cup. There are always so many demands made on you here and people shouldn't forget those things."
"This is the most demanding country in the world," continues Russo in deliberate but forceful tone. "Here victories last only a short while and defeats become the heaviest of burdens. I try to strike a balance between the two. Boca is so big you always have to win something else. That's what's so good about the job, though, and that's what really motivates me at this stage in my life."
Russo knows that bringing the title home from Japan would see
him emulate coaches of the calibre of Juan Carlos Lorenzo and
Carlos Bianchi. "I'm not trying to match anybody, but the
bar has been set high, that's for sure. This is the fourth time
Boca has gone to Japan in eight years, and it's a special
achievement. It's nothing new for the club. It's just the
result of the club winning things time and again at home and
When asked to identify the secret behind Boca's success, Russo is unequivocal. "Hard work and a winning aura. What does that mean? It's something you sense, feel, smell, and taste even. It's hard to describe but it's there and it manifests itself in everything to do with the club. It's in the players, the directors, the fans. The jersey has a special significance that inspires some people but weighs heavy on others. It's for all these reasons that Boca will always be among the favourites."
Such is Boca's status that some are even suggesting a place in the final against Milan is a foregone conclusion. Whatever the pundits say, Russo knows what his objectives are. "We're aiming for the final but it won't be easy. We'll take each game as it comes. If Pachuca come up first, then we'll think about them. If we play Milan next, then Milan. We know how strong they are and they know how strong Boca are. They respect us."
It was the Argentinian side who prevailed when the two sides met in 2003, and if the Italians do head to Japan with revenge on their mind, the battle-hardened Russo will not be losing any sleep over it. "Whether they want revenge or not is up to them. We've got our own objectives to think about."