A fierce competitor during the course of a 20-year career in which he has run out for Argentina, Boca Juniors, AS Roma, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, Walter Samuel is a very different animal off the pitch. Habitually shying away from the cameras and the trappings of fame, the veteran central defender is reserved and reluctant to voice his opinions freely, a facet of the relatively few interviews he has given over the years.
“I’ve always been a man of few words. I prefer to do my talking on the pitch,” said the 37-year-old Samuel, who, whenever a microphone is placed in front of him, does justice to the nickname he picked up in Italy: Il Muro (The Wall).
History has seen many a wall has come down, however, and the Argentinian is no exception. Now playing for Basel in Switzerland, far removed from the spotlight and the front pages of the top sports dailies, he is preparing for the final six months of his career. FIFA.com caught up with him to discuss his decision to retire, his future away from the pitch and his views, as a fan, on Argentina’s bid to reach Russia 2018: “They’ll qualify. I’m pretty sure of that.”
FIFA.com: A lot of people were surprised to learn that you’d signed for a Swiss side after 20 years with some of the biggest clubs in the world. Were you surprised by the move too?
Walter Samuel: It was an opportunity. Some Italian teams came in for me but I wanted a change. A friend said to me that Basel was an option, and I liked the idea because they’ve always had good runs in Europe. I wasn’t sure if they were going to be interested in me, but it sort of happened overnight. I’m very happy with the decision and I’ve got no regrets. To be honest, I think it’s come a bit late. I’d have liked to have arrived in a bit better shape and enjoyed it even more.
For an Argentinian who’s spent 15 years in Spain and Italy, life in Switzerland must feel a little strange.
It’s a lot more peaceful (smiles). But I’m having a great time with my family and they’re enjoying it too. They can get around on their own and it’s a great experience for them, a chance for them to grow. My children are learning another language that’s going to come in very useful for them. I don’t understand a word (laughs), but German is going to be great for them.
You announced in October that you’d be retiring at the end of the season. When did you make that decision?
It came about because of my age and because it had to happen. I’d never said it but I had thought about it. I’d had doubts about renewing last year, and I knew from the start that it was the last one and that all I had to was make the announcement. It’s all good. I feel good when I’m playing and I love training and joking around with my team-mates. I wouldn’t change any of that for anything, though I do have the odd physical problem, which wears me down mentally. It’s all coming to an end in June, though I feel alright about it. I feel privileged and I just want to enjoy what’s left.
Are you concerned about the day after you retire?
No! Everyone talks about that but I’m not worried about it. I want to do something with my life and I want to prepare for that. I’d like to be a coach and to start out with youngsters. After that, we’ll just see. I’m not scared. My family is with me and in that sense I’m relaxed.
You had a long international career. Can you pick out a high and a low during your time in the Argentine shirt?
Let’s start with the low. The saddest thing was going out early at Korea/Japan 2002, not just because we got knocked out but because of the squad we had and the coach (Marcelo Bielsa), because of everything. If we’d got through that first round, we could have gone a lot further. That team made a mark on the fans and got them excited. It was the toughest thing I ever went through in the Argentina shirt.
And the high?
The U-20 World Cup in 1997 (held in Malaysia and won by Argentina) was my happiest moment because I didn’t win anything with the seniors afterwards. Winning that title gave me so much joy because it was a big tournament and because of the lads I shared it with.
You said you’d like to coach at youth level. What do youngsters need when they’re learning the game?
You have to be honest with them. Kids need help and they need to have things pointed out to them. It’s the time in their lives when they learn the most. Then, when they get to the first division, they’re going to need to have a lot of preparation behind them. When we were with the U-20s there were a few things drilled into us, like discipline. I don’t want to be too bossy or too protective or anything like that, but these are things that are going to help them in the future, like eating well and training properly. They have to know that playing for the national team is a privilege, something you dream about, and not just a springboard for your career. The ideal thing is for them to stick around: to play for the U-17s and try to make the U-20s and beyond. After that should come a move to Europe or a big team.
And what of the national team? Did you follow the start of the World Cup qualifiers?
It’s not easy because of the time difference, but I watched them online. I think the team did really well in the last two games. Argentina struggled a bit in the second half against Brazil but they deserved to beat them. The Brazilians are a really good side, though. I like what Tata Martino’s trying to do. You could see it with Colombia. You need to go step by step. I was lucky enough to play in the preliminaries and they’re really tough. There are no easy games. Ecuador went to Buenos Aires and got an excellent win. Things have really changed.
You were pretty calm as a player. What are you like as a fan? Do you get nervous?
A little bit, yes. I got wound up the other day because they had some good chances against Colombia and couldn’t seal the game, which made me nervous (laughs). Luckily we got the win, though.
Argentina’s biggest asset at the last World Cup was the defence. There’s been a generational handover since then, though. What’s your view?
I thought Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori both played well in Colombia. (Ezequiel) Garay had a great World Cup too. I think Otamendi is an excellent player and a cut above the rest, but he’s going to help Funes Mori to keep on improving. What I like most about him (Funes Mori) is that he always wants the ball, he can bring it out and he can score too. He’s not scared and that’s important, especially at international level. From what I’ve seen, and especially in these last few games, Argentina have got plenty of central defenders to call on.
Will they make it to Russia 2018?
Yes! I hope so. I’d like to go to see the World Cup and enjoy it. I don’t think they’ll have any problems, though the qualifiers are really tough. I watched their last two games and I’m pretty sure they’ll do it.