Although a product of the River Plate youth academy and a championship winner with Los Millonarios, Alejandro Sabella’s career took an upward turn when he returned from England in 1981 to sign for Estudiantes. Under the tutelage of Carlos Bilardo, Pachorra shone in the side that won the 1982 Metropolitano and 1983 Nacional league titles, becoming a confirmed Pincharrata idol in the process.
Sabella ended his playing days elsewhere, but maintained strong ties with the La Plata outfit, so much so that during the 17 years he spent as Daniel Passarella’s faithful coaching assistant he would go and see his beloved Pincha whenever he could. It came as no surprise then that Sabella should take up his first solo coaching job at Estudiantes. Settling into the hot-seat in March 2009 and adopting a low-key approach based on a clear message and simple ideas, he revived the team’s ailing Copa Libertadores hopes and guided them to the pinnacle of Latin American club football.
For his next trick, Sabella is now aiming to lift the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, where his side will step out in next Tuesday’s semi-final against the winners of the tie between Korea Republic's Pohang Steelers and TP Mazembe of Congo DR. With just days to go before their UAE 2009 debut, he spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Alejandro, with just a few days left before your tournament starts, how are you feeling?
Alejandro Sabella: I’m starting to feel a little nervous, mainly because this is a very important competition for the club. You try to do your job properly and leave nothing to chance, but football is football and you can end up with any one of three results. It’s been 39 years since we were last here, though, and this is a wonderful opportunity that we don’t want to pass up.
How is the team shaping up?
In general, they’ve been responding well. They’ve been playing with a lot of authority and character and they have a definite style. We haven’t been behind in many games and even when we have, we’ve turned things around, just like we did in the Libertadores final against Cruzeiro. We’ve found things a bit tougher in recent games but I’m still happy.
Are you worried your recent form might affect the players’ confidence?
As far as results are concerned, no. If it had been down to our performances, then it might have affected them but that’s not been the case. We’ve lost games we’ve played well in and deserved to win. Like I said, I think we’re doing just fine.
What do you know about your potential opponents?
We’ve got information on both the Korean and the African teams and we’re still looking at that. We’ll also have the chance to see them in action and that will give us a clearer picture of things. One thing I do know though, is that it won’t be easy.
Most people have already got Estudiantes in the final along with Barcelona...
We haven’t. Keeping your feet on the ground is part of the ideology of this club and we’ve got to respect that. When we went to Belo Horizonte to play the second leg of the Libertadores final we noticed that a lot of the Cruzeiro fans were already celebrating because of the 0-0 draw they got in the first leg. Things didn’t turn out how they expected though, and that’s the best lesson we can learn.
Does the fact that you are favourites to win put extra pressure on your players?
This is a team that enjoys pressure and I can call on players who are cut out for this type of game. That’s the kind of people they are. I’m honestly not worried about that.
What’s your take on Barcelona?
They’re the best team in the world. They play from memory, they’re versatile and they double up really well in attack and defence. They’ve got players who are so comfortable on the ball, and if you’re lucky they might even give you it for a while. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. They’ve got the lot.
If you do end up playing them, how will you approach the game?
At Estudiantes we always look to dominate and play our game, although the pace of the match usually ends up dictating what kind of approach we need to take. If we have to, we’ll just adapt to the situation, though that’s something we’d do against Atlante or any other team.
What do you think of Pep Guardiola?
He was a magnificent player who played the game in a very simple way. When you watched him you knew he was going to end up coaching just because of the decisions he took. He’s absorbed a lot of things over the years and he uses his own brain as much as those of the people around him. That says an awful lot about him.
What does it mean to you to have taken Estudiantes to UAE 2009?
It’s an honour, especially as it’s such a big club, one that I’ve got so much affection for. The importance of the competition also makes it a big responsibility for me.
Given that responsibility would it be a failure if you do not make the final?
It’s a failure when you don’t do your bit, when you don’t play with honour or give 120 per cent or fail to do justice to the history of the club. But if you can do all those things then even if you lose, you can’t call it a failure.
Do you see Estudiantes winning?
Estudiantes have a special feeling for tournaments like this and like any Argentinian team they always command respect, especially when they’re not the favourites. On paper Barcelona are the team to beat, but we’ll do everything we can to reach the final and, if we make it, to win the title.