At 47 years of age, Sergio Batista finds himself charged with the coaching opportunity of a lifetime: taking the reins of Argentina’s national team. Handed the role on an interim basis, thanks in no small measure to having guided La Albiceleste to gold at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, El Checho is determined to secure the position on a permanent one and coach his country at the 2011 Copa America and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Ahead of his side’s eagerly anticipated international friendly clash with world and European champions Spain, the former central midfielder - a member of the Argentina squad which reached the Final at Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990 - spoke to FIFA.com about his desire to stay in the role, a new-look squad, his approach to the game and his relationship with Diego Maradona.
FIFA.com: Sergio, during an interview at Beijing 2008 you told us you once considered giving up coaching for good, yet now you find yourself at the helm of the Argentina senior side. Quite a turnaround wouldn’t you say?
Sergio Batista: That’s right, that’s what I thought when I was working as assistant to Oscar Ruggeri at San Lorenzo. The craziness and malaise that surrounded the game drove me to feel that way. I couldn’t even take the field, we had to stay locked in a dressing room for six hours for security reasons. “I’m going to find another profession,” I said to myself.
What was it that disturbed you the most?
That malaise, the fact that every three games we were arguing with people and having our jobs put on the line. Everything’s about results here (in Argentina): if you win you’re (tango legend) Carlos Gardel and if you lose you’re worthless. That’s just not right! We need to understand that this is a game and even if you do a very good job you can still lose.
Were you always as laid-back as you appear to be?
I’ve had to work at it. Before I used to be more aggressive, if I didn’t like something I’d say so – I was more confrontational. Now I’ve learned to think more, to be calmer. Football’s not life and death, it’s secondary, and there are other things that are more important. Football’s just a game. Today I’m involved in it, perhaps tomorrow I won’t be, so you have to take things as they come.
Do you not find that looking for a quieter life and taking on the Argentina job is a bit contradictory?
I’ve got things very clear in my head. Before I had 40,000 people watching me and now there are 40 million. I’ve got the opportunity to make an entire nation happy and at the moment I’m enjoying myself. If they end up giving me the job permanently I’ll enjoy it just the same, though of course I’m aware of just how much responsibility this role has. There are whole new pressures involved, which change everything. But I repeat: it’s only a game.
It’s not often that interim coaches admit that they want the job on a permanent basis. Would it not have been easier to come out with the usual non-committal statements?
The fact is I know I’m an interim coach, but I’m approaching the task as if I had the job permanently. I want to be Argentina coach and I feel like I’m up to the task. Ever since I started out in coaching, I’ve worked towards getting this opportunity. I hope they don’t rate me on whether the team wins or loses in friendly games, but rather on the work I’ve done at youth level and the Olympics, as well as my relationship with the players, my working methods and the way I handle the squad. It’s not my decision but I’d like to keep the job, that’s for sure.
How did it feel to receive the public backing of the players?
I’m grateful to them for that. On a personal note it’s hugely pleasing that [Lionel] Messi, the best player in the world, says things like that. It means that he’s here, he’s enjoying himself and he’s happy (with the national team). But I’d like to praise every one of them, for how nice they are as people and how committed they are, just as they showed in the friendly against [the Republic of] Ireland.
How hard is it to handle so many star players?
It’s very difficult. I let the players go about their business and keep an eye on them, then if I see anything odd I call a meeting and intervene. It’s often better having a nice person in the squad rather than a very good player who causes problems. In any case, none of these lads have ever caused any issues and they’re really big-name players aren’t they? But they’ve never shown any ego with me.
Talking of star names, is the national-team door once again open to Juan Roman Riquelme?
He’s a national-team player, who has a lot to offer the side and to the younger players too. When he’s fit he’s sure to get an opportunity, just like I’ve always given him. We’re good friends and we worked together at the Olympics.
There’s been a lot said about Riquelme’s personality. What do you have to say on the subject?
He’s a special person, one whose personality you have to try and understand. He’s not a big talker, he only speaks when he has to. As I said, you have to know how to handle him, because he’s got a strong character.
Let us turn to your squad list for the Spain friendly. What do players such as Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Andres D’Alessandro and Gabriel Milito bring to the mix?
Experience. We have to put a project in place for 2014 but you can’t throw all the youngsters in straightaway. Teams are built using a blend of youth and experience. More and more young lads will be brought in and they’ll learn from the older players, both off and on the field. What’s more, we’ve got the Copa America coming up in a few months. I don’t look at players’ ages, only their physical fitness and footballing ability.
The case of Zanetti in particular has already struck a chord in Argentinian football circles.
He’s a player I really like, the type I want my team to be made up of. At the present time he’s an ideal choice. He covers a lot of ground, is good on the ball and has played a lot of international matches. He can show the likes of Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Angeleri, who are the future, what it means to play for the national team. On the other side of the pitch, [Gabriel] Heinze can teach the same thing to Emiliano Insua and Clemente Rodriguez, for example.
What about D’Alessandro?
He’s in incredible form at the moment! He’s always been a spectacular player while over and above his technical ability he has a very strong character. He can play in a number of positions and is in top form.
Let’s talk about your next match: can you beat Spain?
I think so. I respect them and I love the way they play. They’ve got a lot of skilful players and, unlike us, years of working together behind them. There’s no reason to copy how Spain are on the field, but we should copy their long-term planning. They’ve been working towards winning EURO (2008) and the (2010 FIFA) World Cup for the past ten years, using the same players. We’re no slouches either, we’ve got excellent footballers with highly impressive technical ability and international class, so we're well capable of winning. Anyway, let’s hope it’s a good game to watch.
There has been criticism from some sections of the media of your choice of FC Barcelona as an example to follow. What do you say to those who say that the national team is too important to be compared with any one club?
They’ve got the wrong idea. I’m not comparing it to a club, I’m comparing it to what I like. Given that Barcelona have won seven titles in the last couple of years and play the way they do, what does it matter whether you compare a club with a national team? Whoever says that doesn’t understand what I’m looking for. I like the way Barcelona play football, I love the way they string eight passes together. It’s just a personal preference, it’s not about copying what a club does.
You once said that Diego Maradona is an even better person than he was a player. What did you mean by that?
Just what I’ve always said, he’s a very good person. He can make mistakes like any other human being, but he’s a great person. I’ve had a lot of dealings with him and I’m very aware of what he’s done for me and equally what I’ve done for him. We’ve been through a lot together. I always say that you can tell someone’s a good person when they’re there for you during the bad times without being asked, and he was there for me when I was going through a rough patch.
Have you been able to speak to him recently?
I called him but couldn’t get hold of him. But I understand, he must be feeling down. Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to speak to anyone, he must be having a tough time of it. My concern wasn’t about whether he intended to carry on in the job or not, I just wanted to see how he was feeling because after the game against Germany he looked very low. You’ve got to look out for people on a personal level - whether he stayed in the job or not had nothing to do with me.
And finally, turning to the future of the Argentinian national team: where do you see yourself come July 2011?
Hopefully at the Copa America, in the dugout for the senior side. That’s what I’m working for, to be in the job until 2014. I know it’s not my decision to make, but my dreams, my intentions and my objectives all involve me being at the Copa America and the World Cup.