As well as being the motto of the British Special Air Service, the words “he who dares wins” could equally be applied to the career of respected Uruguayan strategist and current Peru coach Sergio Markarian. Comfortably employed as a general manager at a large fuel distribution company in his homeland, in 1975 he took the somewhat risky decision to abandon his well-paid post and dedicate himself full-time to football coaching.
“I had to endure ten very difficult years. When I made that decision I got flack from most of those around me, including my friends and colleagues,” Markarian told FIFA.com. “At a personal level I lost both status and spending power: I had to sell my Mercedes Benz and start catching the bus!”
One person who did not doubt him was his wife, however, and there can be no doubt that her unconditional support and Markarian’s bravery have borne fruit over the course of his 35-year coaching career to date. Known as ‘El Mago’ (The Magician), the well-travelled tactician has enjoyed spells in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Greece and Paraguay, winning a host of honours along the way and guiding the latter’s national side to a place at 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
“What matters is that I followed my heart and I can now say that it wasn’t a mistake. I think it’s a great life lesson for my children and grandchildren: they must pursue what they’re passionate about without thinking so much about the risks.”
There are those who would say taking the Peruvian national team reins is just such a risk, not least because it could jeopardise the prestige he holds in the country after championship successes with Universitario and Sporting Cristal in the 90s. Markarian also led the latter to an unlikely runners-up spot in the 1997 Copa Libertadores, though the challenge of returning Los Incaicos to the FIFA World Cup stage after missing out on the last six editions could be even greater.
“The truth is we’ve worked really hard in the two months we’ve been in charge,” said Markarian of his coaching team’s early tenure. “We came into the role with an ambitious plan that featured very clear goals: observe and follow domestic-based players; meet up with coaches; hold training camps even outside of FIFA-stipulated dates; visit our European-based players; and have meetings with football administrators, state representatives and private firms to secure support for the sport. We’ve managed to do all of that! Next up is the nicest part of the job, which is training and matches.”
On the playing front too all seems to be going well, with Peru’s preparations for next year’s Copa America getting off to a promising start after friendly victories over Canada, Jamaica and Costa Rica since the Uruguayan’s appointment. “Those teams that went to the World Cup in South Africa clearly have an edge,” said Markarian on the forthcoming continental showpiece in Argentina.
“But it’s our duty to show respect and battle our way back to the top. Our plan is to recover the lustre that Peruvian football once had and strengthen the squad ahead of (Brazil 2014) qualifying.”
Bucking the trend
Along with the likes of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, Markarian belongs to a select group of successful coaches that never played football at the highest level, a factor he believes has given him a different perspective of the beautiful game. “I’ve always acknowledged that those who played professionally have a big advantage over us,” said the Montevideo-born coach.
“But for those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to do that, because obviously we weren’t the best players, we have to adopt a different and more global view of the game. In my case for example, working as a manager in business helped me a lot.
“That job equipped me with important tools such as how to manage a group of people, and I even took part in courses on decision-making and utilising motivational theories. At the end of the day it’s all related, so you could say I turned a disadvantage into an advantage,” continued a man who during his time with Panathinaikos created the tactical system that Greece employed when winning UEFA EURO 2004.
That said, the largely defensive strategy behind the Greeks’ shock victory on Portuguese soil differs vastly from Markarian’s current approach with Peru. “That (Greek system) is not something we’ll be copying, it was about understanding their limitations and working around them. Peru, meanwhile, have always had very skilful and flamboyant players but they haven't always been very effective. Our job will be to encourage that creative side while adding a dose of hard work to help us dictate the flow of matches, defend properly and punish teams when we attack.”
And should El Mago’s plan come together, it will be further vindication of the decision all those years ago to set off on a new career path, a journey that has led all the way from office worker to international coach.