Martin Brignani, calling the shots via WhatsApp
Stranded in Argentina by the pandemic, the coach is directing proceedings over the phone
His main assistant has had COVID, while he has had to deal with internet problems
Despite these challenges, his Estudiantes side beat Alianza Lima and are now gunning for Nacional
"The players were winding me up, saying: 'You just coach from there and we’ll win from here!' I'm going to get them back for that..."
Martin Brignani laughed heartily. His players know that, for now anyway, they are out of reach: the 10,000 kilometres that separate the Venezuelan city of Merida from Mar del Plata in Argentina are a safe distance from which to rib their coach, stuck in Argentina because of the pandemic.
However, that distance was bridged last week, when Brignani, using WhatsApp from the living room of his Mar del Plata home, guided Estudiantes de Merida to a magnificent comeback from two goals down against Alianza Lima on the return of the Copa Libertadores last week. Moreover, his side’s 3-2 win has put the Venezuelans back in the qualifying mix in Group F.
"Everything that happened to us before the match was totally crazy," the 48-year-old told FIFA.com from the same living room where he oversaw the fixture. "What I never imagined, though, were the repercussions it would have. In a sport where the result is everything, we are being hailed for our process," he added, even as his phone keeps ringing.
It is a process with the kind of plot twists normally reserved for the movies, and which almost ended with Brignani flying back to Venezuela with his side’s next opponents, Nacional of Uruguay.
One trip yes, the other no
It all started in May. "After two months confined to a hotel, I came to Argentina to see my family. I flew in on the tenth, my birthday in fact, imagining I could return whenever I wanted. And I’m still here!" laughed the only person to win silverware with Estudiantes as both a player and coach.
For the former playmaker, it was difficult to know how to deal with his predicament. "The federation planned to restart training in July and the tournament in August, but then they postponed everything, so I was thankful I didn't travel. Then when CONMEBOL announced that the Libertadores was restarting in September, I thought I had enough time. I was wrong!"
With no flights operating between Argentina and Venezuela, the options were to depart from Chile or Paraguay, but both those countries denied him entry. "Days passed and when the game came around, I was still here," he said with an air of resignation.
Team training was not really a problem. "My coaching staff are Venezuelan, and my main assistant since I went there in 2018 is Jose Torrealba, a former Vinotinto international who also played with me at Estudiantes. They filmed the sessions, put them on YouTube and then we discussed everything via Zoom."
Torrealba was set to play a key role against Alianza. "He was going to wear a headset and be in contact with me, allowing me to get my instructions to the players on the pitch. Then the Sunday before the game we had 70 COVID tests done, and on the Monday the doctor called to tell me that one had come back positive – that of Jose.
With his trainer also unavailable following a red card in their previous game against Nacional in Montevideo, the only person left to go on the bench was our goalkeeping coach Jose Rodriguez. "In the end we decided that Rene Maldonado, an assistant who had only been with us for a year, would be the one to get my instructions out on the pitch. To take pressure off him, I planned to communicate directly with Jose, who’d then pass on my comments to Rene."
Brignani was able to give the technical brief the day before the game, but not the pre-match team-talk. "The internet connection at the stadium dropped and I could only reconnect a minute before kick-off," he explained.
At home, in front of his 43’’ TV, "were my wife, my daughter and my son, who helped me with some stats, and a coaching friend, who I requested only to talk to if I asked him something," he recalled with a laugh.
Within five minutes, during his first call, he realised that there was a 50-second delay between the action and the images he was seeing. "How could I quickly react to passages of play if by the time I’d seen them they had already ended? So, instead I focused on general directions."
The Zoom call scheduled for a half-time chat with the players was not necessary in the end. "It was 0-0, but the team were fine. Rene and Jose thought the same, so we cancelled it."
The second half would be a roller coaster of emotions, however. "I was talking to Jose when he told me we’d given away a penalty, which they scored from. But we decided to wait and see how the players reacted. Three minutes later they scored a second, so we had to intervene."
The changes bore fruit: one of the players he brought on provided the assist to cut the deficit, while another scored the equaliser. "The funny thing was that the first person to scream goal when we levelled was my daughter, who, seeing my sour face when we were two-down, had gone up to her room. Her TV there didn’t have the time delay!"
After it went to 2-2, Brignani noticed his players risking less. Indeed he himself was calling for the final whistle when, deep in added time, he heard his daughter shout, "PENALTY!!!." As his TV was showing an attack by Alianza Lima at that precise moment, he almost had a heart-attack. "I asked for whom, and when she said 'for us', I went up to watch it with her," he revealed of the strike that secured the 3-2 win.
The coach explained that the chance to fly back to Merida with the squad of Nacional, currently group leaders with three wins from three, ultimately fell through because of health protocols. Now he is fine-tuning operational logistics ahead of another night of long-distance coaching.
"I'd like a live camera feed to be able to see the whole pitch and some other observer in the stands," said the Argentinian, who has discovered "a calmer home-version of myself, as I am often very intense when it comes to coaching".
In the meantime, all he can do is trust his team to produce another result, which would certainly let them dream of progressing in the competition. "When we found out we’d been grouped with Racing Club, Nacional and Alianza Lima, the goal was simply to compete, and we’ve managed that. Now, though, we want a little more. Whatever happens, we've already earned respect."