It is full speed ahead for Argentinian Ramon Angel Diaz as he embarks on his latest coaching role at the helm of the Paraguay national team. The former striker, who terrorised defences in the colours of River Plate, Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Monaco, among others, is determined to restore the Albirrojos’ fortunes after their surprising failure to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
The 55-year-old takes on this challenge almost 20 years after making his debut in the dugout. It seems a strange move, given that he has been accustomed to almost instant success throughout his trophy-laden career. Diaz, however, told FIFA.com that “this comes at the right time for me”, and described himself as having “the necessary peace of mind and knowledge”, after enjoying a dream 2014 which included winning the title with River Plate and the arrival of his second grandson, Adriano – or “the heir”, as Diaz likes to call him.
After his arrival in Asuncion earlier this month, the most decorated coach in River’s history immediately set to work and has already made widespread changes: he spoke to the press, met with his predecessors in the role and even changed the hotel where the Albirrojos will be based during the 2015 Copa America in Chile. “We want the players to feel at ease and up to the task of representing the national team,” he added during an exclusive interview in which he revealed what attracted him to this new challenge, what it means to face Argentina next year, and the changes he faces away from the day-to-day work involved in club management.
FIFA.com: You weren’t short of potential suitors after winning another title with River Plate in 2014. What attracted to you Paraguay?
Ramon Diaz: Getting the call to coach a national team confers global standing. It’s a great challenge, the biggest that was on the table. I feel Paraguay has the players to field a very strong side, which is why I made this decision in spite of having offers from certain clubs.
How did a team that are so used to playing at World Cup finals fail to qualify for Brazil 2014?
It’s hard to explain why they finished bottom of the qualifying group, but we’re not here to go over that. We’re focused on the future and the plans we’re putting in place. We need to take advantage of the experience that Paraguay’s players possess. Personally speaking, I’ve already met with many people to ensure I’m well-informed, not only in terms of football, but also in terms of customs and adapting to the country. We’re on the right track; things will turn out well.
It is often said you’re a great motivator, but the time spent with the group differs from club to international level. How will you deal with that challenge?
We’ll be in constant contact with the players. We’ll send them videos so they understand what’s required of them, how we want them to play. Nowadays, technology means we can constantly monitor them, and our coaching staff will ensure that the players understand even before they arrive what we want from them and why they’ve been called up.
Which Ramon Diaz will we see in your dealings with the press? Will you maintain your fiery demeanour or keep a lower profile?
No, no... this is completely different to club management. Here you’re representing a country and you need to calmly shoulder this responsibility.
Historically, Paraguay has been famed for being strong at the back. Given your goalscoring record, will you be looking to make the side more attacking (Editor’s note: Diaz scored over 220 goals in his career)?
Football has changed a lot. Nowadays, we work on all aspects of the team in order to ensure a strong formation and performance. That’s what I am looking for – a strong and reliable team. And, given the amount of players we have in Europe, we’re sure we will achieve this.
Can you give us a few names?
There are lots playing overseas, but for now we’re just weighing them up. The important thing is to build a structure not just for now, but for the future. There are many talented youngsters who will be involved in the U-20 South American Championship and Olympic qualifiers. We’ll monitor and support them, in the hope that they’ll have a great tournament.
You just referred to the changes that football has undergone in recent years. Will you be looking to play with three at the back again given the lack of time with the group?
If you look at the last World Cup, almost no teams played with three at the back. It’s hard to use that formation nowadays due to the constant movement and pressure in games. It takes time and a lot of work – training with the players on a daily basis. This rarely happens with the national team. I hope to have the players for 35 to 40 days before the Copa America, however, so we should arrive in good shape.
The Copa America where you’ll face Argentina, no less. Does it represent a special game for you?
They’re one of the best teams in the world, but it’s still six months until we play them. By that time we’ll have a strong formation and done lots of work. It’s an important game and we’ll be aiming to qualify for the next round.
But isn’t it something special to come up against your own country’s national team?
It’s going to be eagerly awaited, mainly due to the involvement of one of the most decorated coaches in Argentinian football. Imagine the anticipation. Not only for us, but for Argentinian football to see what we’re doing.
What is your priority? You’ve got two Copa Americas and the qualifiers for Russ...
(Interrupts) Qualifying for the World Cup. That’s the main goal for everyone, for the whole of Paraguayan football: for the players, the coach, the directors... We’ll certainly be working hard to achieve this.
You’ve achieved amazing results in your homeland, but you haven’t been able to repeat this overseas. Is this the right time to take that leap?
Certainly, both on a personal and a family level. I have the experience and peace of mind, and things are going as we had hoped. 2014 has been an incredible year. It has been one of the best times of my life, not just for me but for my whole family. All this is reflected in my work.
Given all that, what will you be raising a toast to this New Year’s Eve?
Firstly, that Paraguay qualifies for the 2016 Olympic Games. We’re going to do all we can to make sure this happens. Secondly, that we all remain healthy. That’s all I ask for, to continue working in something that I love and that excites me. There’s nothing like football.