Ever Hugo Almeida could not have dreamed of a better start to his career as Guatemala’s national coach. After only a few months in charge, the former Paraguay international has already achieved an historic first qualification for a FIFA U-20 World Cup and led the senior side all the way to the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-finals before falling to eventual champions Mexico.
In just a few weeks’ time, Almeida faces arguably his biggest managerial challenge so far with the start of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011. With it comes the opportunity to write a glorious new chapter into Guatemala’s football history books. The Uruguay-born coach discussed this and much more in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The opening question of the interview is perhaps inevitable: how are Guatemala’s preparations for the FIFA U-20 World Cup going? “After the team qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, they had 12 days off,” Almeida explained. “We’ve already played nine friendlies against local teams, as well as one international match. Now we’re about to go on a tour of South America, where we’ll play top-quality sides such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Cameroon.”
Guatemala’s encouraging on-field build-up for the competition is not Almeida’s only cause for optimism. “The U-20 result created a renewed sense of hope among the fans,” he said. “It was the same with the Gold Cup performance. People started to believe in Guatemalan football once again.”
Despite his side’s impressive progress, Almeida knows there is still a lot of work to be done: “Nearly all of the teams in the region have been to FIFA World Cup finals except Guatemala. Now we have prove that there was nothing lucky about our qualification.”
Almeida’s success to date has been based on the bold and unusual approach of modifying the blueprint for the classic Guatemalan footballer. “I always said we had talent, but that we needed to train our players in a different way,” said the 62-year-old. “We travelled the country and picked out lads from different cities and villages. In some cases we turned down boys who already had good ability, because we knew exactly the kind of players we were interested in.”
So, what style of player was Almeida searching for exactly? “We wanted a very fast, aggressive and dynamic team with a direct style of football,” he explained. “In general, Guatemalan football tends to be technical but slow. We’ve taken away three or four touches from the players, so now they get forward very quickly and are well-organised in defence. They’re very strong on a tactical level.”
Before he became a coach, Almeida enjoyed a long career as a goalkeeper and had successful spells with Cerro in Uruguay and Paruayan outfit Olimpia. His wealth of experience between the posts has proven to be a valuable asset, and has helped him change the profile of Guatemalan goalkeepers.
“Generally speaking, Guatemalans are not very tall,” said Almeida. “But there are boys who are born to be goalkeepers, and who have all the right physical attributes. We’ve put a lot of focus on this aspect and we’ve found a number of interesting players. We've assigned them a goalkeeping coach, and together with my assistant Gustavo Bobadilla - who was also a keeper - we’ve tried to help them acquire the necessary technical knowledge.”
Almeida says that he and his staff are now reaping the rewards for their thorough approach. “We’ve managed to train up three very good goalkeepers, who are physically different from most boys of a similar age in Guatemala,” he said. “The first-choice keeper is Jose Garcia, who is 1.85m tall. We got him from Nueva Concepcion, a team from the second division. The other two, Jose Morales and Maynor Padilla, are a bit shorter. With them, we prioritise the technical side.”
It will soon be just a month until the main event gets underway, and Almeida appears to have everything in order. All that remains is for his players to get out on to the pitch and do their country proud. “We’ve been handed a very tough group. Nigeria won the African zone and Croatia had a very good qualifying campaign.”
“We’ve changed our mindset and now we’re full of hope," Almeida concluded. "We’re not going to say we expect to be champions or anything like that, but we do hope to get through to the second round.” For Guatemala, the word ‘hope’ is fast becoming synonymous with success.