In the second and final part of an extended exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella spoke frankly about a range of burning issues. Discussing the external pressures impacting on the game, the demands of coaching a star-studded squad and the task of taking the national side back to the top again, the former Estudiantes coach reveals his obsessions, fears and dreams.
To read part one of the interview click on the link on the right.
FIFA.com: You were assistant national team coach to Daniel Passarella between 1994 and 1998. How much is that experience helping you in your current job?
Alejandro Sabella: We’ve got a similar system so it’s been useful to some extent, but many years have gone by and I’ve had to adapt in every respect. Some things have changed, like society, young people, the pressure and the media, and football’s different today as well, but what’s changed most of all is the environment the game’s played in.
What do you mean by that?
It’s something that can take you over, get a hold of you, but you’ve got to control that. There’s more and more pressure now and that’s not good for football in general, and there’s violence out there too, though not when the national team plays. It’s up to all of us who sit in front of microphones, and I’m talking about coaches and journalists here, to calm things down a little. If we took our foot off the accelerator and pressed down on the brake a little, then we’d all feel better for it and we’d have a better standard of football too.
Talking of football and the South American qualifiers in particular, there seems to be less of a gap between teams now. Does that concern you?
That’s definitely the case. Take Uruguay. They’ve maintained their high standards, while Chile are having one of their best spells ever and Venezuela are on the up and up, without question. Peru have come on a lot too and Colombia have raised their game again as well. Maybe Ecuador and Paraguay have levelled out a bit, but that can happen when you go through a transitional phase. They’re all very competitive sides, though, and there’s not much to choose between them.
There were a lot of empty spaces in the stands for the Bolivia game at the Monumental in Buenos Aires. Why was that and what can you do to win the fans back?
There’s a series of factors that come into it, plus the fact we haven’t been getting results for a while. It’s like any sport, though. As soon as the team starts playing well and winning games, the fans will start getting enthusiastic again. If we’d had a game right after the Colombia match, then the expectations would be different for sure, just because of the way we won there. To bring the fans back we need to get results and play better football.
How hard do you find it to handle a team with so many star players in it?
To earn the respect of his players, a coach has to show he knows what he’s talking about, have an appetite for hard work and be a good person. That’s true with every player, from the part-timers down at the bottom to the megastars. Obviously, the difference with the megastars is that you have to show you know more and work harder.
So the key is for the players to value their coach?
Yes, absolutely. They start sizing you up from the moment you walk into that dressing room. That happens in any league and it happened when I was playing. The better the footballer, the greater the demands, and that’s when you have to push yourself harder and raise your game. You also have to remember that there are a lot of players who are in Europe and who like their coaches to be hard taskmasters. That’s not exactly my style. I try to win my players over by showing them what I know, by working hard, by being organised and a good person with it. Every coach has their own style, but I don’t need to shout or pull faces.
How do you explain the fact that Argentina have gone 19 years without winning a trophy?
You have to break it down and look at each competition individually. The World Cup is very hard to win and sometimes the tiniest detail can be the difference between going through and going out. But when you look at Argentina’s history and potential, the Copa America is hard to understand. You shouldn’t forget that we always get knocked out by the big teams, never the minnows. With Diego [Maradona], it was Germany who did for us. In 1998, when I was there, we got the Netherlands, and with Jose [Pekerman], Germany beat us on penalties. With Bielsa we went out in the first round, but we didn’t have any luck. Sweden had one attack and scored, and we had England defending deep in the second half. There’s no explanation for it. There’s just always been a combination of little things that have come together, and always against the big teams.
To earn the respect of his players, a coach has to show he knows what he’s talking about, have an appetite for hard work and be a good person.
Changing the subject slightly, what’s Alejandro Sabella like at home?
I’m very calm and relaxed, though I do find it hard to switch off from my job. My wife often reminds me I’m at home, but it’s like I’m not there (winks). At weekends, when I’m not out in the country, I sit down and watch football from Saturday morning through to Sunday night. I hardly get out of the house. If it wasn’t for mealtimes, I wouldn’t even move (laughs).
You say you’re calm. Do you ever get upset about anything?
I worry about getting things wrong, about forgetting or overlooking something, like missing something out.
So what’s harder for you: coaching the national team or bringing up three girls?
(Laughs) Being a football coach is tough, very tough. It’s a different kind of pressure. Family is very important, but we football folk are pretty strange. Supporters are fanatical about the game, and when you make a living out of football it’s no different. You have to immerse yourself in your job and things that happen outside the game can sort of pass you by. That’s a mistake. Sometimes we don’t give our families the time and attention they deserve.
Moving back to football, what do you make of the standard of the Argentinian league?
It’s dropped a bit and you don’t get great games now. They tend to be more hard-fought and intense, but the situation’s tough. A lot of players have left, and the four most dangerous attacking players from last year have all left: Ricky Alvarez, Erik Lamela, Maxi Moralez and Enzo Perez. [Note: Perez recently returned to Estudiantes]. It's all related and it all impacts on the game, the entertainment level, the game-changers, the goals and all that. In that respect, I think pretty much the same about Italian football. It’s not very pretty to watch but it’s very difficult to play in. You need be there, don’t you? That’s the only way to see how difficult it is.
In an earlier interview you described Lionel Messi as: “The best player in the world, a player who can change a game quicker than anyone”. You saw that for yourself when you were at Estudiantes, in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009.
That’s right. After that final against Barcelona I remember sitting on the beach with my assistants doing some pre-season preparations. A young lad ran by and shouted: “Are you still looking for Messi?” I was really angry at first, but then I just laughed because it was such a good line. Messi made us suffer that day, no question, and he settled the game in style.
Did you tell him that story?
Yes. I told him about it and we had a good laugh. He’s a very laid-back kid and that’s great.
Some people say he has to mould his game to the Argentina team, while others say it’s the other way round. What’s your view?
In the first half against Colombia, for example, our approach to the game left him a bit isolated. After they scored, though, we loosened up a bit and played the way we’d planned. We need to make him feel comfortable and think about what’s best for the team. And what’s best for the team is, first and foremost, to make him feel comfortable. And if at any given time we have to go and take a different approach, it’s our job to get him to see why.