“People told me to be careful as sequels can be disappointing,” said Bolivia’s new coach Xabier Azkargorta in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. The 58-year-old Spaniard, who is embarking on his second spell in charge of La Verde, was quick to add that “Oscar Tabarez might have something to say about that, don’t you think?” The reference to the latter’s hugely successful second stint in charge of Uruguay perfectly illustrates Azkargorta’s philosophy.
The coach first took up the Bolivian reins back in 1993, a stewardship that culminated in the team’s qualification for the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ in what was only their third participation at the showpiece event and first since 1950. That success gave El Bigotón (the Moustachioed One), as he is affectionately known, hero status among Bolivian fans, who called en masse for his reappointment following the departure of Gustavo Quinteros in July.
“Those closest to me advised against taking the job, saying I’d be jeopardising my reputation and standing in Bolivia if I didn’t reach the World Cup in Brazil,” Azkargorta told FIFA.com. So why did he accept the job? “On one hand, I’d be a coward to have turned it down just so I could stay comfortable, resting on my laurels and reminiscing about past glories. On the other hand, if I don’t get the desired results, something that no one can guarantee in this game, and I lose my reputation, then that’s a sign that maybe my standing wasn’t all that high after all. So I simply couldn’t turn down the call,” he explained.
There were certainly no shortage of doubters 19 years ago when Azkargorta first took on the Bolivia job following spells as head coach of top-flight Spanish sides Espanyol, Real Valladolid, Sevilla and Tenerife. “At that time there were also those who tried to discourage me, telling me that Marco Etcheverry and Julio Baldivieso had lost their way, that Milton Melgar didn’t even have a team, that Carlos Trucco had already decided to retire… The only guy at the time playing overseas was Erwin Sanchez, and even he hadn’t had the best of seasons with Boavista. Now though, they’re household names,” said Azkargorta, who has not held a coaching position since a brief spell in charge of Guadalajara in 2005.
For all that, the comparison isn’t a fair one,” insisted El Bigotón. “That was a group of players nearing the end of an era, while this group is only starting out. I’d even go as far as saying we have even more quality now than back then. Bolivia has an inexhaustible supply of footballers. Lift a stone around here and you’ll find one. The problem is a lack of infrastructure to make the most of that talent. So, while you can’t put aside the need for immediate results with a view to a possible berth at the next World Cup, we need to think about shaking up the foundations of football here and how we develop young players. That’s the starting point you build from,” he insisted.
All of which explains why, despite having reaped just four points from their first six qualification games for Brazil 2014, the coach remains hopeful. “Yes, we’re at a disadvantage in terms of points; that much is obvious, but what worries me more is the air of disenchantment around the team. That’s the first thing we’ll be attempting to change. It won’t be easy in the short-term, but we’ll try.”
The first piece of the jigsaw will naturally be the players. “In terms of tactics, most other teams [in the region] play a similar game, so what’s important now is for the Bolivian players to believe again in their chances. I watched the game with Chile and, although we lost 2-0, we could just as well have won 2-0. If you don’t you work on player confidence, it’s harder to put into practice the tactical side of things,” explained Azkargorta, who also coached the Chilean national team (1995-96) as well as J-League side Yokohama F. Marinos (1997-98).
Bolivia’s next Brazil 2014 qualifier will be in September away to Ecuador. “They’re physically impressive but also handle the ball well. Just look at [Felipe] Caicedo and [Cristian] Noboa, two experienced and much-improved players who bring a great deal to the side. As a team they’re progressed a lot without compromising their character. The players work together well and know the system, which means that when someone new comes in, he knows what he’s doing,” said this avowed fan of South American football.
After their trip to Quito next month, La Verde will have a free matchday before two potentially decisive home games against Peru and Uruguay in October. “The extra time to prepare will do us good. This competition is a stairway that needs to be scaled one step at a time. However, if you slip on the way up, you can do so much damage you might never get to the next step,” he said with a wry smile.
The coach draws some encouragement from the format of the preliminary competition, with qualification “more accessible” than back in 1993. “At present, four of the nine get automatic berths with the fifth earning a play-off. Back then, it was groups of five with only the top two progressing. Moreover, we found ourselves with Brazil and Uruguay in our section. I believe games are won and lost out on the pitch, not beforehand, so we’ll be giving each opponent the respect they deserve, but no more.
Azkargorta wound up our interview by calling on everyone to rally behind the team: “The last time we made it to the World Cup everyone was united – the players, fans, officials, media – and I do mean ‘everyone’. It’s easy to find fault but what’s important is to highlight the values we have and that help us grow. Together we stand a greater chance of making it.”