Thursday 04 August 2016, 14:02

Olarticoechea out to make most of unexpected opportunity

"I want to introduce myself so that people can get to know me a bit better and see how I think, what sort of coach I am." The first thing that Julio Olarticoechea did behind the microphone 28 days ago, after being drafted in as Argentina's Olympic coach, was to introduce himself.

Even though this is a man who should need no introduction in the country – a member of Argentinian footballing royalty, so to speak, as one of just seven players to have both been crowned a world champion and claimed a runners-up finish on the global stage with the Albiceleste.

Yet the public did not know much about him as a coach when he was appointed and that remains broadly the case four weeks on. However, all that will change today when his side open their campaign at the Men's Olympic Tournament Rio 2016 against Portugal.

That is not to say that Olarticoechea is primed for his coaching debut at the grand age of 57. He has managed in the Argentinian third division before and has been working for the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) since 2008 although, as is his nature, he largely shied away from the limelight prior to what has been a whirlwind 2016. First he served as an assistant in the youth ranks, before later becoming the women's national team head coach.

In February this year he oversaw an Argentina U-23 side made up of third-division players, while still at the helm of the women's team. In mid-May he took charge of the U-20s and, following Gerardo Martino's resignation in the wake of the Copa America Centenario, in July he was handed the Olympic reins. Martino had been due to lead the U-23s in Rio, and Olarticoechea stepped into the breach as the only coach under contract in the entire national team set-up.

"They say you have to be in the right place at the right time. Well, here I am," he said after taking up the post. "I feel fantastic. I like tough challenges. We're going to give our all to honour this shirt and the responsibility we have taken on. I am extremely confident that we'll do well." Indeed, such is his confidence that on the eve of the competition, with just three friendlies under his belt, he felt emboldened enough to take aim at the hosts and favourites: "It would be lovely to spoil Brazil's party."

Team-building pedigree and the 'Neck of God' Olarticoechea's passion for the job is plain for all to see, both when he speaks to the press and from the way that he gets into the action in training, bounding after his charges and calling out vigorously as he does so. Watching him, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a player.

Yet he is also an organiser supreme who thinks that coaches have a fundamental role in "helping with the mental side", as well as a fervent believer in attacking football, for which reason he has been striving to drum "the message that I'm a coach who isn't afraid to lose" into his team. Another aspect of his philosophy is that having a tight-knit unit is paramount and that though this may not guarantee success, success is not possible without one.

During his unveiling, he freely admitted to his limitations, half-smiling as he said that he is "no Bielsa or Mourinho". However, this did not stop him from talking up what he views as his greatest strength: "I have an ability to get through to groups. I'm credible and that means you're off to a winning start. After that, it's football and anything can happen."

This self-professed knack for team-building is nothing new. It goes way back. On this note, a wave of collective nostalgia has swept across Argentina in the last couple of months, in connection with the 30th anniversary of the country's triumph at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. There have been special programmes on television and 'home videos' made by the squad at their camp in Mexico City have even been screened.

The VHS camcorder involved belonged to Nestor Clausen, but it was El Vasco Olarticoechea who had the idea of pretending to be a journalist and jokingly interviewing his team-mates to ease the tension. Tellingly, Pedro Pasculli, a forward in that team, described Olarticoechea as "the most important guy in the group" during the documentary 1986. The Story Behind the Cup.

Lest we forget, the former defender also made some vital contributions on the pitch – not least, the miraculous goalline clearance with his neck that prevented England from clawing it back to 2-2 in the most iconic match in Argentinian football history, the game that featured the so-called 'Hand of God' and 'Goal of the Century'.

"I dubbed it the 'Neck of God'," he revealed light-heartedly a short while ago. At Italy 1990, meanwhile, it was from his cross that Claudio Caniggia equalised against the Azzurri in the semi-finals, and he subsequently converted his penalty in the shoot-out – despite kicking the ground before making contact with the ball – to help his team through to the Final.

After hanging up his boots in 1994, he bid the city of Buenos Aires goodbye and headed 170 km away to Saladillo, his hometown. "I left because I was jaded with football and because I wanted my daughters to grow up in the same calm atmosphere that I did." Ten years later, he was back.

"I caught the bug again, the passion came flooding back. And I'm here because of my passion." 'Here' is none other than the big stage, where, unforeseen by all, he finds himself again. The stats say that Argentina did not lose a single World Cup match with him on the pitch, and now Olarticoechea is hoping to seize his Olympic opportunity and cement his talismanic status in the dugout in Rio.

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