Alejandro Sabella’s recent appointment as Argentina coach is without doubt the biggest challenge of his career thus far. The 56-year-old, who hitherto has kept a relatively low profile, will need all his composure and astuteness for this famously difficult role, especially with this being only his second job as head coach, having spent the best part of two decades as a technical assistant.
That said, his recent sojourn at Estudiantes de La Plata, where he won a national league title, a Copa Libertadores and even had Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona on the ropes in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup 2009, made him the preferred candidate for the national team job. Never an easy assignment, Sabella has the additional challenge of getting Argentina back on track after a largely disappointing Copa America 2011 in time for the start of their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying campaign in just two months time.
On Saturday 6 August, Sabella was officially unveiled as the 33rd coach in La Albiceleste’s long and illustrious history, and he has this to say afterwards: “To be honest, I never imagined I’d get this chance so soon, but the national team is the ultimate opportunity. It was always a dream of mine to be here, whether as a player or coach. It’s simply the pinnacle of one’s career.”
An admirer of compatriot and former Albiceleste and Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa, Sabella has also expressed his gratitude to the other people he has served under. His own management style is direct with an emphasis on player-relations, although it is rare to hear him raise his voice or speak rashly
“He’s a consummate worker to pays great attention to detail. He gets on well with the older hands and the youngsters because he says precisely what’s required in any given situation. At Estudiantes, he left a strong legacy,” said Juan Sebastian Veron after Sabella’s surprise decision to quit as head coach of the club in February.
Much of what Sabella brings to his coaching work has its roots in his time as a player. Born on 5 November 1954, this Buenos Aires native cut his teeth as an attacking midfielder in the youth divisions of River Plate, for whom he made his senior debut at the age of 20. And while his physique or turn of pace may not have been that impressive, his sumptuous left foot and intelligent play more than made up for it. With an ability to make the difficult appear easy, he routinely shook off defenders with a deft feint and would invariably pick out his team-mates. All qualities, it should be noted, that he has sought to imbue his charges with.
Despite winning three league titles with Los Millonarios, the player dubbed Pachorra (slowcoach) for his languid pace was frequently in the shadow of River icon Norberto Alonso, another left-footer who he happened to share a position with. “You always want to play but you also have to be magnanimous and accept when someone is better than you,” he has said of those days.
So when the chance came to move to Europe in 1978, Sabella took it, enjoying spells with English sides Sheffield United and Leeds United. He left behind not only the club closest to his heart but also a friend and team-mate in Daniel Passarella, with whom he would later collaborate for some 17 years.
In 1981 Carlos Bilardo, in recent months one of Sabella’s strongest advocates for the Albiceleste job, but at the time coach of Estudiantes, convinced him to return home and sign for El Pincha. While there he would pick up another two national league titles and earn himself a call-up to the Argentina squad (then under the management of Bilardo), although he would not make the group that triumphed at the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico.
Such was the bond that Sabella forged with Estudiantes that when he hung up his boots in 1989, he chose to move back La Plata, near the club that would eventually provide the springboard for his elevation to national team coach.
From player to coach
When in 1990 Passarella invited him to become part of his coaching staff at River alongside fellow Mexico 1986 star Americo Gallego, Sabella jumped at the opportunity. The pair worked together at River for four years (1990-94) before taking up the reins at the national team (1994-98), who they would lead to the quarter-finals of France 1998.
Following the departure of Gallego, Sabella became Passarella’s first assistant at the helm of Uruguay (2000-01), Italy’s Parma (2001), Mexico’s Monterrey (2002-04), Brazilian giants Corinthians (2005) and River for a second spell (2006-07). “That year Daniel told me he wanted to become President of River so I focused on working as a head coach,” Sabella said after the duo had gone their separate ways.
His chance would come in March 2009 when he stepped into the hot seat at Estudiantes – at the time sixth in the league and struggling in the early stages of that year’s Copa Libertadores. Yet, without seeming to adhere to a set tactical formation, Pachorra would famously lead the team to Libertadores glory that year and to league success the following season. All told, he was in charge for 60 games, winning 37 and losing just nine (91 goals for, 36 against), a record that earned him critical acclaim at home and abroad.
Sabella was on the verge of taking the coaching job with United Arab Emirates when the Argentina position was offered him. ‘Balance’, ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘role models’ were just some of the key words he mentioned on taking up the position. It was another principle, however, which he said he hoped would underpin his tenure, that of “putting the common good before that of the individual”.
If his players can show the same self-sacrifice and dedication that Sabella has shown in his career, who is to say he cannot get Argentina back on the road to glory once again?