Carlos Salvador Bilardo can rightly claim to have presided over a golden era in Argentinian football. A qualified gynaecologist who earned a reputation as an astute midfielder with Estudiantes in the 1960s, he went on to coach La Albieleste during a glorious six-year spell in which they reached the Finals of the 1986 and 1990 FIFA World Cups™, returning as champions and runners-up respectively.
Bilardo is also employed by the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) today, working as general manager of his country's national teams - a role that makes him ideally suited to analyse the current state of the game in his homeland. FIFA.com caught up with the 71-year-old at last month’s UEFA Conference for European national team coaches in Madrid, and asked him about Argentina's 17-year wait for a major title, their process of appointing a new coach and whether he had any plans to return to the dugout.
FIFA.com: Carlos, now that you’ve worked for some time as general manager, would you say it’s more stressful being in the stands or on the bench?
Carlos Bilardo: I actually suffered less when I was coaching because at least I could shout at someone. You can’t do that in the directors’ box. Having said that, perhaps ‘suffering’ is not the best word to describe – it can be enjoyable as well. The job of a coach is difficult. When you win, it’s all joy to the world, but if you lose… That’s not to mention your family, who can also have things difficult. When I was boss of the national team, sometimes I just didn’t go out in public. That aside, it was all good (laughs).
Can you tell us a bit about your new responsibilities at the AFA?
We’re restructuring the whole federation and opening training centres. It’s something I’d previously done when I was coach of Estudiantes in 1972 and in Colombia in 1979. It’s interesting if you look at the change that took place in Colombian football after those centres came along. Coaches began coming through after that and their players became very sought-after. That’s something we want to replicate in Argentina.
Is there any chance we’ll see Carlos Bilardo working as a coach again?
No, I’m in a different role now, with different responsibilities. The board of directors put their faith in me and I believe there’s no going back now.
As a coach, you were the first to use the three-man back line, which is much less common nowadays. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because coaches don’t have players capable of deploying it at national team level. Nowadays, the normal thing is a line of four, as that’s what they’re used to at club level, and international coaches don’t have enough time to drill them on new tactics. Going with only three at the back is very risky, but it looks great when done well. However, without the right training, it’s complicated to pull off.
You coached Argentina at two FIFA World Cups, reaching successive Finals. What do you treasure most from those experiences?
At Mexico 1986 we were very good and played how we wanted to. Four years later in Italy, however, we did the best we could, as we had a lot of injuries and had to adapt. Furthermore, our win over the hosts in the semis proved costly, denying us the use of four first-choice players for the Final. The biggest loss was that of [Claudio] Caniggia. He was in magnificent form and his absence undoubtedly had repercussions in the decider against Germany.
Is the story true that you didn’t want to touch the Trophy after your triumph at Mexico 86?
It is true, yes. The day we won the World Cup in Mexico I never laid my hands on the Trophy, as I was sure we’d win it again four years later in Italy. When we lost the Final there, however, and I saw [Lothar] Matthaus with it, I felt like asking him if I could touch it. Embarrassment prevented me from doing it though. There are photos of all the winning coaches with the Trophy but not of me, except for one later when it was brought to Argentina on tour. I have no photos like that nor do I have my World Cup winner's medal, just my runners-up one. I gave my winner's medal to a colleague who worked with me in '86. These are things I really regret now.
Moving on to today, why do you think Argentina have been unable to get past the quarter-finals of a FIFA World Cup since your time in charge?
There have been many problems that could have been solved before. We’ve never lacked good players, but perhaps they weren't used in the right way. That said, I don’t want to go back over past performances. What I’m certain of is that we can do better, and that’s what we’re striving for here. Now we’ll have to see if things work out. Argentina simply cannot go so long without winning a title.
Do you think La Albiceleste have been affected by their only having an interim coach at present?
No, not all all. I was named Argentina coach in February 1984, just two and a bit years before we won the world title. There’s no rush, that’s just people clamouring for an appointment. For me what matters is making the right choice, not a quick one. After that the key will be for the new coach to choose the right players. In that respect we already have a base, although youngsters still need to be brought through if we are to arrive at the next World Cup with a good average age, which for me is 27 to 28.
Sergio Batista is temporarily in charge, but a lot of other people have been mentioned for the position. Is there anyone in particular you think would be especially suited?
I’m not at liberty to say. There is a list of names, which the selection committee will evaluate. When that work is done the appointment will be made. As I said before, the key will be to get it right, so it must be a careful decision.
Turning to you, you’ve done so many different things in your life, from practising gynaecology and coaching footballers to acting on TV and getting involved in politics. Will there be any new incarnations?
No, no. I’ve been very lucky and have achieved more or less everything I’ve set out to do. In this life you need a measure of good luck – in football even more so. Whether a ball hits a post and goes in or comes back out can permanently change a coach’s career. In other areas of my life, I can’t complain. I have a wife who puts up with me, which is far from easy given that football dominates every day for me. It’s difficult for a couple in that kind of situation, but we’ve been together more than 25 years and are very happy.
Finally, talk to us a little about the team closest to your heart, Estudiantes, who look to be back on the glory trail again.
It’s so good. They became continental champions and then came very close to winning the Club World Cup against Barcelona. That success was much needed as the current generation of supporters, unlike their predecessors, have had to endure many trophy-less years. Now the youngsters are experiencing it for themselves. After winning the Libertadores, some 100,000 people came out to greet the team. Those kids present will stay Estudiantes fans forever, as they now understand the stories their parents and grandparents told them. It’s been a great few years and a lot of credit must go to the likes of coach [Alejandro] Sabella and his staff, as well as [Juan Sebastian] Veron for the help he’s given them on the field.