The most successful club of all time in the Copa Libertadores and one of the best-supported sides in Argentina, Independiente found themselves at their lowest ebb in August 2013, playing for the first time in their 109-year history in the Argentinian second division. And after going without a victory in their first five games in the B Nacional, Los Diablos Rojos looked unlikely to be making an immediate escape.
Reflecting on that dramatic situation in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Independiente coach Omar De Felippe said: “None of these clubs are set up to cope with relegation, just like River weren’t when they went down. When it happens to them and they don’t win, then things can turn a little bit ugly. We like challenges though, and this was a very big challenge, which is why we decided to meet it head on.”
De Felippe has done just that. No sooner had he taken on the Independiente job at the end of last August than they started to turn their season around, gaining in confidence and picking up enough points to move into third and the final promotion slot at the midway stage of the season. Despite having only four and a half years of experience as a head coach and ten as an assistant – none of them with a club as big as Independiente – he proved he was up to the task.
“I’m at my best when times are tough,” he added, before going on to explain why: “I lost my father to a heart attack when I was seven. We were three brothers and we grew up with my mother working and us on our own at home, doing what we had to do. Needless to say we grew up very quickly.”
Football the lifesaver
De Felippe began working at the age of 12, earning money in fairgrounds and metal factories and even polishing glass ashtrays. It all proved to be a thorough grounding for the most traumatic experience of his life, the Falklands War of 1982, when Argentina and Britain went to war over sovereignty of the islands (known in Spanish as Las Islas Malvinas). He was 20 at the time, having begun compulsory military service a year earlier and spent several seasons in the youth ranks at Huracan.
“It was a case of survival at its most extreme,” he said, recalling the war. “When the conflict began to escalate the most important thing was to eat and make sure you didn’t die of cold. You don’t know if you’re ever going to go back and it was vital to live from day to day, trying to get hold of food and washing your clothes and all that.
“You’re thrown into a lot of situations in which you just try to survive and keep your spirits up. That’s the most important thing and it’s harder than anything else. You have to keep your head together and stop the situation you’re in from killing you because sometimes it can just kill you dead.”
Reflecting on the three brushes with death that he had, he said: “You just think it’s your destiny, that they don’t need you up there. There’s no other explanation for it.”
He prayed that he would not suffer any injuries to his legs, such was his desire to carry on playing football. Those prayers were answered, with De Felippe surviving unscathed in a war that claimed the lives of almost 1,000 people.
“Football saved my life,” he explained. “Firstly because it prepared me physically and mentally. You’re a kid. You go training every day. You fight for something. You have to earn your place. And you look after yourself. But the most important thing football has ever done for me came after the war.”
Huracan earned promotion to the first division as soon as he returned home, and the group of players he formed part of played a decisive part in that achievement: “Players don’t have any boundaries when they get together. You walk into a dressing room after something as tough as that and you need someone to ask you what happened, you want to tell them. It was either that or they made fun of me. They’d say: ‘Watch out, it’s a bomb!’, and they’d all lie down on the ground. I laughed along with them. I understood what was going on and why they did it.
“They made me see the reality of things because when we got back home our people were too scared to ask us about it, which really took you away from the reality of it all. If all the veterans of the war had had the chance to sit down and let out everything that was inside of us, I’m sure we’d have been able to prevent a lot of my ex-comrades from committing suicide. That’s why I say that football saved my life because it gave me a place where I could free myself from the burden I brought back with me from the Falklands.”
Drawing on experience
Explaining why he does not feel especially emotional whenever Argentina face England on the football pitch, De Felippe said: “You can’t compare the two. There’s no way you can tell the country what it was like.”
Though not an outstanding player, he has achieved much since going into coaching, taking Olimpo of Bahia Blanca up to the first division and keeping them there in the same season that River Plate went down. He also took Quilmes up to the top flight and then guided them to fifth place.
De Felippe’s latest achievement is to bring calm to Independiente. Calmness is all part of the make-up of a coach known for his attention to detail and his belief in the team ethic, a belief forged in the South Atlantic.
“When you’re in a war you have to stay alive,” he continued. “You have to be wide awake every day because when happened yesterday is history. I saw some horrible things and had to put them to the back of my mind, keep looking forward and carry on.”
Though keen not to make an association between his wartime experiences and his football career, he has applied that same philosophy to his work as a coach: “In this game you can’t settle for winning just one match. Life goes on and you have to work hard every day to be the best and attain perfection. There’s no such thing as perfection but we keep on looking for it. Football is all about encouraging the players you’ve got to achieve things.”
Thirty-two years on from his experiences as a soldier, De Felippe remains a firm believer in the importance of unity: “There were only a few of us but we wanted to keep on going and that was vital. I’m very demanding in that respect. The secret is for everyone to be together. I like to see a team with just one heart, with everyone helping each other out. I really don’t like it when that’s not the case.”