Batista: Argentina are dreaming of gold

  • Fernando Batista guided Lionel Messi to gold at the Beijing Olympics

  • His brother Sergio will now coach Argentina at Tokyo 2020

  • Reveals the advice given to him by his brother Sergio, an Olympic champion

Whenever Fernando Batista drops by his brother Sergio’s house, he takes one look at the Olympic gold medal on display and is lost in a dream. “I look at it longingly and say to myself, ‘I hope I get one to hang round my neck’,” Batista, Argentina’s coach at the upcoming Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020, told “It’s a way of telling myself that we can do it and of reminding myself of how hard we need to work to get it.”

Now 50, the former fullback, who played at the FIFA U-20 World Cup™ in 1989, is the younger brother of Sergio, who coached an Albiceleste side containing Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero to gold at Beijing 2008. By that time, brother Fernando had been coaching club youth teams for eight years. He joined the national U-20 team set-up in 2017, travelling to that year’s global finals as an assistant.

After leaving for a brief stint with Armenia’s U-18 and U-19 sides, Batista returned to Argentina’s U-20s in 2018, this time as head coach. He led the team to second place at the South American U-20 Championship in 2019 and to the Round of 16 at the world finals in Poland later that year. He was then promoted to the U-23 job, steering them to victory at the 2020 CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament and the Pan American Games. With their Tokyo 2020 opener in Sapporo approaching, caught up with him.

CHOFU, JAPAN - MARCH 26: Head coach Fernando Batista of Argentina is seen during the U-24 international friendly match between Japan and Argentina at the Tokyo Stadium on March 26, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images) It’s been 16 months since the qualifiers and there’s been a lot of uncertainty around the Olympic Games. How have you handled all the anxiety? Fernando Batista: I’m an anxious kind of person anyway. The qualifiers feel like five years ago. In football terms, it was a shame not to be able to play four months later, but now that the uncertainty’s over, the anxiety starts eating away at you because you’ve fought so hard to get this far. It won’t be your normal Olympic Games, though, and we’ll be remembered for having taken part in the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic. How have you been able to plan with all this going on? We’ve just had to adapt and we’re still adapting now, because you know which players you want but you have to wait and see if they’re going to be available. So there’s a Plan A but there’s also a B, C, D and E. We had to put our plans to one side for a while and wait, but I think we’ve made the most of the time and all improved individually. How have you managed to get your ideas and tactics across to the players? I’ve got an advantage in that most of them have already played under me, in the 2019 U-20 South American Championships, which were the qualifiers for the World Cup in Poland, the Pan American Games in Lima, and the Pre-Olympic Tournament. They know me. They know how I work, how I manage things and what I expect on and off the pitch. Though that doesn’t guarantee you anything, I have got to know them and I know how to get through to them and get them to produce their best. And we’ve kept in touch throughout all of this.

Si yo pienso en cómo jugarle a Egitpo o cerrar con España, no me irá bien con Australia. Esa es mi final hoy. 
Fernando Batista

Is there anything you would have liked to have had more time to work on in the lead-up to the Olympic Games? More time to play games, because it really helps clear up the doubts you have and it also gives you a chance to give more opportunities to the new boys. It doesn’t guarantee you results, but it does make the job easier in this last phase. The pandemic brings its own mental challenges, with players having to be careful and the fear of catching COVID-19. How will you handle all that? We were in Tokyo a couple of months ago for some friendlies and the protocol was strict. We couldn’t even go down to the hotel lobby and we had to use a separate lift. We’d like to give the players some free time so they can clear their heads, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to. So we’ll be going with a specialist who’ll be working with the players, and with us too! You’ve got Australia, Egypt and Spain, in that order. Are you happy with the draw? I’m not one of those coaches who likes to pick and choose opponents, because in football two plus two doesn’t always equal four. It’s true when they say that if you want to win big trophies then you have to be prepared to beat anyone. If you’ve got what you think is an ‘easy’ draw but then you’ve got Germany up next, what are you going to do? Do the draw again? I like to analyse the first game closely, because I can take a closer look at the other two teams when I’m there. I can have all this information on Spain or Egypt and even know which sides the centre-halves cover and which is their striker’s stronger foot, but neither they nor we have played much football because of the pandemic and it’s hard to assess teams. If I think about how to counter Spain’s threat, it won’t work for me with Australia.

Argentina coach Sergio Batista talks with Lionel Messi during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Some people don’t have anyone to talk to about the significance of the Olympic Games but you’ve got your brother Sergio. Tell us about your chats with him... It’s an advantage to be able to speak to him. As well as winning Olympic gold as a coach, he’s also a World Cup winner and runner-up. The last few chats we’ve had were about the squad. I wanted to know, for example, how many players he would have taken for each position, specific things like that. What advice has he given you? The main thing is to be sure of what you want. That comes before the experiences of others. He also said I should enjoy the Games, because he didn’t. They spent a couple of days in the Olympic Village and he bumped into [Rafael] Nadal, Kobe Bryant and a few others. He was really absorbed with his own stuff, though, and he didn’t think about it all until later. It’s going to be different for us because of the pandemic, but that stayed with me. If I can, I’d like to get some photos with all the Argentinian athletes. They’re unique memories. Perhaps he didn’t enjoy it because he had a team featuring the likes of Messi, Mascherano, Aguero, Di Maria and Riquelme and was under the obligation to win. What do you think? It’s hard to just go out and say, ‘I’m going to enjoy it’, especially in Argentina, where you always have to win. It’s happened to me. We won the Pan American and Pre-Olympic titles, I got the medal, and you don’t think it’s anything special, but it is. You get to the dressing room, you take it off, and it’s only later that you realise what you’ve done. It’s not easy being a champion, especially in a tournament like this. How do you deal with the demands of having to win? I don’t go around thinking it’s a matter of life and death. I’ll do everything I can to put the best team together, the best squad, and try to win the gold medal. Not because of that we’re-Argentina-and-we’re-going-to-beat-everyone mentality, but through hard work. My first aim is to be in the mix for the medals, and when you get that far you want the gold. That’s the dream.

TYCHY, POLAND - MAY 25: Fernando Batista, head coach of Argentina looks on during the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup group F match between Argentina and South Africa at Tychy Stadium on May 25, 2019 in Tychy, Poland. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)