Carlos Bilardo guided Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 but now the qualified doctor turned coach works as a journalist.
The 65-year-old talks about the decline in quality in modern football, Diego Maradona, his passion for medicine and his short-lived plans to run for the presidency of Argentina.
FIFA magazine: You haven't been in the news much lately. What are you doing these days?
Carlos Bilardo: A few months ago I stepped down as coach of the Argentine first-division club, Estudiantes. Twelve months ago, the club's managers asked me to coach the team, who at the time were bottom of the division. They have since overcome that crisis and so my mandate has finished.
Why did you respond to Estudiantes' request?
Estudiantes is my club. I was league champion with them in Argentina, won the Copa Libertadores as well as the Intercontinental Cup - today known as the Toyota Cup. I have so many glowing memories of this club, after winning several major titles as a player and coach, that I just had to help them out of their predicament. I owed it to the officials and fans of Estudiantes. I was lucky that my employer allowed me to give Estudiantes a helping hand.
Who is your employer and what are you doing?
I have been working for a while in my hometown, Buenos Aires, for a major American media company that owns several television channels and radio stations. I analyse and commentate on football matches for them. I was at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ for instance and the last Copa America; I commentate on the Copa Libertadores and matches in the Argentinian league. I just love my work.
Do you prefer journalism to coaching?
They are two completely different professions, but I enjoy both of them very much. I had already finished the chapter on coaching but then the Estudiantes offer popped up...
You just can't tear yourself away from football.
You're right - I can't. I love it too much. It has given me so much as a person, player and coach. It is my life. I started playing football when I was five. It has had a grip on me ever since.
You could have gone in for much higher subjects...
You mean my academic career. I studied medicine and worked as a gynaecologist for five or six years. Medicine has always fascinated me. I played football while I was studying and working in a hospital. One day I was faced with a decision because I couldn't be here, there and everywhere. I plumped for football.
But you never turned your back on medicine.
No, medicine eventually took a back seat though. It is just impossible to combine a career as a professional footballer or coach with that of a reliable medical practitioner. Nowadays, I have more time to practise medicine again.
How do you manage that?
I go to hospitals and sanatoriums in Buenos Aires regularly to help out. I don't work there officially as a doctor but I try to help patients and doctors wherever I can. I visit one hospital or another every week.
You made your name as the coach of the Argentinian world champions in 1986.
That World Cup title was the greatest moment of my life as a coach. Many people know me from the Intercontinental Cup final between Estudiantes and Manchester United with the legendary Sir Bobby Charlton, not from the 1986 World Cup. Back home I am just a television and radio commentator for young people.
What memories do you have of your 1986 World Cup victory?
By winning the World Cup, I silenced many critics who had said I was mad for changing the national team's system of play to 3-5-2 in 1984 - an almost revolutionary formula at the time. At first it didn't live up to expectations in the friendly matches against Switzerland, Belgium and Germany - just as Franz Beckenbauer had taken over - but it certainly helped us to become world champions. I was also attacked for appointing the young Diego Maradona to the prestigious position of captain, and not Daniel Passarella, team leader in the 1978 World Cup, or Jorge Valdano. The entire nation was up in arms.
Why did you choose Maradona?
I was not only impressed with his talent but I was also convinced of his leadership qualities. I believed strongly in Diego from the start and he never disappointed me. Just imagine - four days before we were due to leave for the World Cup in Mexico, people were sniping at me because of Maradona! As it happened, Diego played a brilliant tournament, led us to the title, dominated the World Cup like no-one else either before or after that - and ended up becoming a world star.
Did the 1986 World Cup title change your life?
No. I still live in the same area of Buenos Aires where my father and I were born and where the Argentinos Juniors club is situated. I have the same friends as I had before the 1986 World Cup and even the same phone number. My 88-year-old mother still lives nearby. My father unfortunately died a few months ago. I'm a down-to-earth person brought up in simple circumstances as the child of Italian immigrants. I am proud of what I have achieved.
You are the only coach who really managed to get on with Maradona. How do you feel about what has happened to your protégé over the past few months and years?
It makes me really sad. I always look back fondly on his days as a player and not just because of his genius on the pitch. Not many people know this but Diego is a very generous person with a big heart. He was always giving presents to his team-mates. If he was paid USD 20,000 for an exclusive interview, he used to give it away to the poor. That was Maradona. He himself never asked for anything from anyone else, not even in his darkest days.
Are you still in touch with him?
Yes. We still phone one another and meet every now and again. Diego is a sick person, that's for sure. The only person who can help him is Diego himself. Only Diego can find the right track again.
Has there ever been a better player than Maradona?
I don't know. But I know that Maradona worked like a mule to achieve what he did. He had enormous success but life passed him by.
What do you mean?
Diego was never given enough space. Everywhere he went, hordes of suffocating and demanding people descended on him. Most of his time as a player was spent locked up in hotel rooms. It was impossible for him to leave the hotel or walk about freely. He paid a huge price for his career and success. There was only one public place where he went unnoticed.
Where was that?
In the famous Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. No-one seemed to recognise him there, or else they left him alone. Diego used to leave the hotel in the Bahnhofstrasse, buy a sausage on the corner, devour it gleefully and sip a glass of beer at the same time. You should have seen his face! He used to beam with joy. That would have been impossible anywhere else in the world. Autographs, snapshots - people were always after him for something. Heads of state used to clamour to be pictured with him and even travelled to wherever he was purely for a photo opportunity.
In Maradona's time, football was generally regarded as technically brilliant. How is it nowadays?
The quality of play has definitely deteriorated over the past few years. Not one player, not even in the Brazilian national team or the Spanish team for that matter, could be described as truly creative. Francesco Totti is the only one among the Italians who could be singled out, and Zinedine Zidane from the French side, but he recently announced his retirement from international football. Modern football is all about running. Technique is a foreign word.
You're painting a depressing picture of the modern game.
Unfortunately, it is the truth. Something else is worrying me too. Top-division matches are regularly broadcast on television in Argentina - while youngsters sit glaring at a computer. That was unheard of a few years ago! What's wrong with youngsters in a country where football has such a rich tradition? Perhaps they realise that football is not as attractive as it used to be.
What is wrong with football then?
Nowadays even 12-year-olds are obliged to win. Actually enjoying play is immaterial. Rushing, running, wrestling and writhing are top of the bill; creativity and ingenuity are now old hat.
A while ago, you were thinking of standing for election as president of Argentina. What has happened to those plans?
I was a member of the Partido de la Unidad movement and had the backing of five Argentinian provinces. You need about USD 30 million before you can run for the presidency of Argentina. That is a huge amount of money.
So it's all about money?
No. Many people were prepared to sponsor me, but at a price. They would have financed me if I had promised to create businesses in return. In other words, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. That put me right off; it goes against the grain so I waved goodbye to politics. I have also realised that only those with a political mindset can become politicians. That's not for me.
So President Carlos Bilardo is not a vision of the future?
No. If I were president, I would do something about the health and education services, because a country without health and education is neither good nor strong. Argentina is in a bad way and only young people can lead the way out of the mess.
Born: 16 March 1939 in La Paternal (Buenos Aires, Argentina).
Original occupation: Doctor
Career as a player: 1955-1960: San Lorenzo. 1961-1965: Deportivo Español. 1965-1970: Estudiantes.
Honours as a player: Argentinian league champion (1967), winner of Copa Libertadores (1968, 1969, 1970), Intercontinental Cup winner (nowadays the Toyota Cup, 1968).
Career as a coach: 1971-1976: Estudiantes. 1977-1978: Deportivo Cali (Colombia). 1979: San Lorenzo. 1980-1981: national coach, Colombia. 1982: Estudiantes. 1983-1990: national coach, Argentina. 1992-1993: Seville (Spain). 1994-1996: Boca Juniors 1997: Seville. 2000: national coach, Libya. 2003-2004: Estudiantes.
Honours as a coach: World Cup champion (1986), World Cup runner-up (1990), Argentine champion (1982).
Miscellaneous: A rugged defender in his time, Bilardo was dubbed "Narigon" (Big Nose) by the media because of his prominent nose. Bilardo is married to Gloria and has one daughter, Daniela. Nowadays, he works mainly as a radio and television commentator and is a member of the FIFA Technical and Development Committee.
As at 30 November 2004