In ensuring La Albiceleste earned qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Alejandro Sabella achieved the first objective set for him when taking on the Argentina job in August 2011. Lying ahead of him now is the even tougher challenge of bringing to an end to the two-time world champions’ 21-year wait for a major international trophy.
With just two months remaining before his side steps out against Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Maracana, Sabella was his usual calm and thoughtful self as he spoke at length to FIFA.com. In this, the first of a two-part interview, the coach shared his views on the strains and stresses of the job, his contingency plans should Lionel Messi suffer an injury and the selection issues he has to face as Argentina coach.
FIFA.com: Hand on your heart, are you more or less nervous than you thought you would be about the upcoming FIFA World Cup?
Alejandro Sabella: I don’t tend to think too far ahead. I focused on the qualifiers first of all, then on reaching Brazil, then on the last two games against Peru and Uruguay, and then on the friendlies and the Final Draw. It’s hard to give an answer, though I can say that I am getting more and more nervous as the tournament draws closer.
Do you talk about the World Cup with your family and friends?
Not that much. I try to stay off the subject at home and my family help me with that because they know the pressure I’m under. Though you work from home more than you do when you’re coaching a club, they leave you in peace. At weekends, for example, I’m in the living room watching one match after another. I’m really wearing the armchair out! (laughs). With my friends it’s more or less the same. They know that I like to relax when I’m at home.
I’m going to quote to you a couple of things that people are saying a lot right now, just to gauge the mood in the camp: ‘Argentina have got an easy group’ and ‘there are no easy teams at the World Cup’. Which of the two best sums up that mood at the moment?
(Pause) Well, I’m going to give you a third option, which is in between the two: we are our own biggest enemy. If we’re on top of our game, we can make the group easier than it is. If we’re not 100 per cent and as focused as we should be, then every team will make life hard for us and it could become a really tough section.
We’ve played a few games without Leo, but the fact is that he’s irreplaceable. There’s not a club or national team in the world that could play the same with or without Messi.
How do you feel when you watch your players in action for their clubs?
Nervous! Sometimes I have to share matches out with my team because a lot of games are played at the same time. We all think exactly the same thing when we watch them though: that none of them are going to get injured. It’s not as if I get a headache or anything, but I do get worried if I see one of the players go down. If they get up quickly, that’s great. And if they have to go off, we try to find out why as soon as we can. I do suffer a little bit with them. You’re looking for them to be playing well, but the most important thing is that nothing happens to them.
Is it hard to enjoy games with that kind of tension in the background?
I only enjoy watching matches when none of our players are involved (smiles).
The risk of injury is always there and there’s a question that always gets asked: do Argentina have a Plan B for players like Lionel Messi?
You always have to have a Plan B. The thing is that we’re talking about top players here. You have to have some kind of list in your head and have some possible replacements in mind. The thing is, there are times when Plan B is pretty similar to Plan A, and there are times when it isn’t. That’s when you have to adapt.
Have you got one lined up for Messi?
We’ve played a few games without Leo, but the fact is that he’s irreplaceable. There’s not a club or national team in the world that could play the same with or without Messi. We rely on him so much that when he’s not there, we notice it. If it did happen, we’d have to see how we’d handle it and look at the match in question. We do have an idea, though. In fact, he wasn’t there when we played Italy in Rome and neither was [Sergio] Aguero and yet we still managed to adapt to the situation. We’re never going to be the same, but we’d do it again if need be.
What was it like for you when he was recovering from his last injury?
Well, it wasn’t as bad as when he started playing again. He was here for a month and I was able to keep a close eye on him. It was when he was back in action that I got all jumpy again.
Two years ago you told FIFA.com that you didn’t have a problem with being criticised because it “opened your mind”. How do you feel, though, about the criticism that’s been levelled at the Argentina defence, which was the second best in the qualifying competition after all?
It doesn’t upset me and it’s understandable. When you compare the potential we have up front with that of the defence, then the defence is always going to come off worse. I have to analyse every piece of criticism and see which of it I can use to come up with a temporary solution. I can say: ‘That’s useful. That isn’t,” but I can’t read or listen to everything. I’m just like anyone else and I’ve learned to pay more attention to some opinions and less to others.
Don’t you think that some of things said about your team are a bit savage?
That’s a very strong word. This is the Argentina team and the same thing happens here at club level. What happens at River or Boca tends to get reported on more than events at other clubs. There’s a whole country behind the national team and everyone’s got an opinion. Those are the rules of the game and I knew them before I came in.
Some sections of the media have been campaigning for Carlos Tevez to return to the side. How do you assimilate that?
In the same way: everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And like I said before, I read, listen and watch and then I draw my own conclusions.
Is he not putting forward a good case with his form in Italy?
I don’t like talking about the players who aren’t in the squad. I think it’s better for everyone that way. That goes for Tevez and for anyone else, though I understand why they’re talking about him more than others.
What are the fans in the street asking you?
I don’t go out much and when I do I see the passion of the Argentinian people, who think we’ve got it won already. I grew up hearing how we were the best in the world, even when we hadn’t won anything. But that’s normal. It’s just the way we are. Sometimes we think we are better than we actually are and then reality brings us back down to Earth. It’s no good being over-confident. You have to work hard and keep your feet on the ground.
What are you more scared of: people getting carried away or the team failing at the World Cup?
The possibility of failure, obviously. That said, the danger with getting carried away is that you can lose sight of things, which can cause you to fail or to go only so far and to be seen by some as a failure and by others as a success.
Are you scared of success?
Success can be dangerous. You have to keep your feet on the ground. I’ve always tried to keep my cool in defeat and stay humble in victory. Obviously it’s better to be successful and learn how to handle it than to have to deal with failure.
Have you stopped to think at all about the best possible scenario?
I should do, but I don’t think I have. Maybe there’s been the odd time when I’ve thought about us being in the Final, but it’s only been for a few seconds. I’d say I’ve hardly thought about it at all. The fact of the matter is that my mind has to be on other things right now.