After four years of retirement, to say Matias Almeyda’s return to top-flight football with his beloved River Plate in 2009 was a surprise would be something of an understatement. Deepening the sea of scepticism surrounding him was the fact that River were struggling in the lower reaches of the table, with few seeing the arrival of the then 35-year-old former Argentinian international as a viable solution.
However, the man who transferred from Los Millonarios to La Liga outfit Sevilla in 1996 for an Argentinian record fee was not to be denied. “I’m going to eat these young lads for breakfast,” said the former Lazio, Parma and Inter Milan midfield warrior. Two years on, his confidence has proved well-founded.
With River battling it out near the top of the Clausura 2011 and their veteran skipper linked in some quarters with what would be a remarkable return to international duty, the 37-year-old told FIFA.com about early retirement, depression, therapy and “making the most of every minute”.
FIFA.com: Matias, you’re not the only outfield player pushing 40 who is currently shining at the top level, with Brazil's Rivaldo another stellar example. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Matias Almeyda: It comes down to your level of desire, to your approach to the profession. When you’re getting older and you realise your time in the game is coming to an end, you want to make the most of every minute and enjoy yourself as much as you can. The cases you mention are players who’ve been in European football and have played for good clubs, and we still know what to do with the ball. That’s what makes the difference.
How much has football changed over the years?
It’s not just football, life’s changed too! The other day was the 19th anniversary of my professional debut. I was 18 years old and we had a different kind of hunger for the game. The business side wasn’t so ingrained back then: we just wanted to play in the first division and then break into the national team. Now there’s more emphasis on money, which is counterproductive. The thirst for glory disappears, and so does the desire to stay on after training to keep on improving. Football is a faithful reflection of modern life.
When you first started out at a footballer, you said you wanted to retire young...
And I did! I hung up my boots at 30 to go and work in the countryside. But over time I realised that it wasn’t making me happy. I didn’t know anything about working in the country, I just used to go and have barbecues and enjoy myself with my friends and family. I came to my senses after a few years though, and ended up selling all my cows. Most players retire when they’ve physically not got anything left in the tank, but when I gave up I knew I could have carried on. Fortunately I got the chance to come back and I’m enjoying every moment.
Why did you want to retire so young? What was it that got to you?
Lots of things, such as the results culture. That’s not something I want in my life, and football is purely about results. If you play well one day then the next day everyone’s talking you up, and people on the street go out their way to say hello to you. It starts to be totally false and that made me sick.
Even so, retirement didn’t bring you the release you were looking for, did it?
I fell into a well of depression, I couldn’t find my place in the world. I missed football and I couldn’t understand why, because before retiring I used to rail against anything to do with it. My head was in a mess and I didn’t have any energy. I was stuck in a rut, until fortunately I started a course of therapy.
What made you decide to take that step?
As you’d expect, I'd started to pass that negative approach to life onto my whole family. One of my daughters was having problems at school and the child psychologist gave her an exercise to do. She had to draw something to symbolise each member of her family. She drew her mum as a queen, her sisters as flowers but she drew me as an old lion: lying around, bored and toothless. It really shook me, because it made me realise that I was hurting my family. That’s when I decided to go and see a psychologist.
Would you say that football’s not particularly open to things like therapy?
I analyse everything, and I’d say that football is like politics. Keeping footballers ignorant is in the interests of a lot of people, that way they can have the wool pulled over their eyes. They don’t want to stir up the youngsters, let’s say. Without wanting to generalise, there are a lot of people in football who aren’t good for the game and players don’t realise this until they reach a certain age. It’s not in a lot of people’s interests for us to have our eyes open.
In what ways can therapy be useful for footballers?
Football is a stage in life’s journey, but there’s so much living still to do afterwards. Footballers need to be taught to be well-rounded individuals, so they can stand on their own two feet. You can’t expect someone to sort out your bank accounts, for example, for the rest of your life. It’s easier but it doesn’t do you any favours, because when you finish playing you realise you don’t even know how to buy a plane ticket. It makes you feel ignorant. That’s why I think we need to develop players as people as well as sportsmen.
If you had the chance to chat with your younger self, the one who decided to retire early, what would you say to him?
I’d clip him round the ear a couple of times! (laughs) Seriously though, I think that there were reasons behind the decisions I took. I don’t regret it, even though I know I gave up years of happiness. During the depression I suffered, I hurt myself and those around me. That’s something I’d have liked to avoid, but I took those decisions for the right reasons.
Speaking of decisions, you once said that Sevilla were wrong to sign you. Do you really feel that way?
I think they got my video mixed up with [Ariel] Ortega’s! (laughs) It was for an Argentinian record fee, and blew the market wide open. They’d seen me in the Copa Libertadores and the Olympic Games, where I’d pulled off a couple of impressive moves. They must have thought I played like that all the time! They even played me in an attacking-midfield role in my first few games, so you can imagine how bad Sevilla must have been... (laughs again) After my second game I was getting abuse from every man and his dog, but it did get my feet back on the ground pretty quickly.
How frustrating was Argentina’s failure at the two FIFA World Cups™ you took part in? Do you have any regrets?
The way I think about and see life, I’d say it was meant to be. There can be only one champion at a time, and Argentina have only ever won twice: once as host nation and the other with [Diego] Maradona, who was like [Lionel] Messi is today. He made a huge difference. So aside from those, the history books would suggest that we’re not winning material. Everybody wants to win, losing is painful for us all and it does leave scars, but that’s not the same as failure. You’ve got to be able to accept things.
Are you enjoying your football now more than you did first time around?
I’ve never enjoyed myself as much as I am now. If you asked me how I felt on my professional debut, I couldn’t tell you much. But I remember everything about my first match after coming out of retirement [Almeyda came on for River as a second-half sub in a 4-3 win over Chacarita Juniors on 30 August 2009]. I was staring at the people in the stands, the sky - I could see so many colours! It affected me very deeply, I was awash with feelings.
What goals would you like to achieve before your career ends?
I’d like to go out as a champion, I’d enjoy that enormously. If it doesn’t, I’d like to help River qualify for a continental competition or at least help them rediscover the type of the football that all the club’s fans enjoy.
Does hanging up your boots for a second time hold any fears for you? Would you like to work as a coach?
I’m not afraid of it, not any more. I will become a coach, I’ve made up my mind about that. I’ll stay involved in football.
Could you see yourself taking over as Argentina coach one day?
Of course, I’ll fight to make that happen. You always have to aim high!