“I was exhausted and excited, and I went to celebrate in a corner. I had my eyes down, but when I looked up I saw him coming. There he was, thin and ungainly and with that beard on him. He looked like Jesus, walking towards me with his arms outstretched.”
In his elation at scoring the goal that secured the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ for Argentina, Jorge Burruchaga could have been forgiven for mistaking team-mate Sergio Batista for a celestial figure.
Twenty-four years on from that memorable celebration, and shorn of the beard that made him a distinctive presence during the South Americans’ glorious campaign, Batista has just made his return to the Albiceleste fold, taking over from feted former team-mate Diego Maradona as the country’s national coach.
An unheralded figure at Mexico '86, whose unglamorous midfield foraging allowed Maradona the freedom to weave his beguiling patterns, Batista’s appointment as El Diez’s successor represents the pinnacle of a coaching career that almost came to an end five years ago.
As he explained in an interview FIFA.com recently, the pressure of being Oscar Ruggeri’s assistant at San Lorenzo was proving almost too much for the ex-central midfielder to bear. “I couldn’t take it any more,” commented Batista frankly. “I wanted to go off and do something else. It just wasn’t worth it: the fans going crazy, the insults, waiting in a locked dressing room for five hours before it was safe to go out.”
The personal touch
A grafter in his playing days with Argentinos Juniors and River Plate, Batista took up his first coaching position in Japan, his decision to move there inspired by a need for a quieter personal life. And even though he had previously said he was unwilling to make the transition from player to coach, it was in his first post with Tosu Future that he began to develop the man-management skills for which he has become well known.
As he explains, his methods are simple: “I like to see what’s going on but I try to make sure I don’t on top of players. I’ll only say something if I really have to.”
That approach paid dividends when Batista took charge of the Argentina U-20 side. Bringing his attributes to bear at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, he steered a star-studded side featuring the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Lionel Messi to the gold medal, a run that included a memorable 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the semi-finals.
That achievement proved instrumental to Batista taking up the reins of the full national team on an interim basis following their quarter-final exit at South Africa 2010. Even though the caretaker repeatedly stated that he did not want to be judged on results, his chances of taking on the job full-time only increased following a 1-0 win away to Republic of Ireland and a stunning 4-1 victory over world and European champions Spain.
A new dawn
Though those results were followed by a sketchy 1-0 loss in Japan, Batista had done enough to impress his employers and was confirmed in his position last Wednesday, his brief being to rebuild a team that has not won an official title since the 1993 Copa America.
“I’ve followed a logical process up to now because I hadn’t officially been named the coach,” he says. “But now that I have been, we’ll start to do things our way, and our thoughts are on the last game at Brazil 2014.”
Batista has made a point of that by recalling Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, with Riquelme certain to renew his international career in the near future.
“He’s a fantastic player with bags of character and we get on extremely well,” says Batista, who is also committed to an enterprising style of play. “There will always be room in my teams for players whose job it is to attack and not defend. We’re going to be holding on to the ball too. That’s something I won’t be compromising on.”
In bringing back the old guard and nurturing Argentina’s exciting crop of youngsters, the new boss, who enjoys an excellent relationship with key man Lionel Messi, is hoping to mould a team that can win next year’s Copa America on home soil.
“Argentina really needs to win a title, we all need it. There’ll be a lot of pressure on us,” says Batista, who invariably tries to handle that pressure by puffing on a cigarette.
On the point of quitting the game five years ago, Maradona’s unassuming successor has accepted the fact that, for the foreseeable future at least, he will be enjoying anything but a quiet life: “What can I do? When you love football you end up doing things like this. It’s all I’m thinking about right now. I’ve got the chance to make 40 million people happy, and it would be impossible for me not to enjoy that.”