Portanova: I get goosebumps just thinking about being offered the Argentina job

21 Oct 2021
  • German Portanova took up the reins of the Argentinian women’s team in July

  • The former player won three women’s league titles as a coach in Argentina

  • He chats to FIFA.com about his career path and targets

The challenge faced by German Portanova, just two months after being appointed as the coach of the Argentinian women’s national team, was daunting, to say the least: two matches in a row against Brazil, the side sitting seventh in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking and the principal powerhouse in South America. It begged the question: were there not less challenging opponents he could have picked for the opening games of his tenure?

“That’s not how I look at it,” Portanova, selected for the job by his predecessor Carlos Borrello (now general coordinator of women’s national teams at the Argentinian Football Association), explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “To be coach of the national team, you have to think differently from your average passionate football fan.”

The new man in charge – who celebrated his 48th birthday this week in Mexico, where his charges will lock horns with La Tri on Saturday – continued: “I’m also passionate, but we have to take a new approach with our women’s team. Before, we sometimes refused to even turn up for those types of games, but the way to learn and develop is simply to play them.”

The matches versus the Brazilians both ended in defeat (3-1 and 4-1), but he is keen to provide more context. “I’ve got no problem with receiving criticism for those results; I’m thick-skinned,” he said. “We’re pretty clear about what we want and what we’re doing. For those who look at nothing but the scoreline, maybe it appeared as if we had done badly during the last international break. But as far as we’re concerned, it was all very positive.”

These kinds of statements offer an insight into the footballing approach adopted by Portanova, who steered UAI Urquiza – providers of several players to the current national squad – to three Primera Division Femenina titles between 2014 and 2019.

“The first aim was to start to unite the squad and make sure that everyone is comfortable with each other, which is key,” he said. “Next, we needed to adopt our own style of play, one that does not necessarily depend on who we are playing. At times, despite Brazil’s pressure and their obvious advantage in one-on-ones, we took the game to them. We lost, but it wasn’t the end of the world."

He added: “We played it out from the back 18 to 20 times. We tried to put Brazil under pressure, and there were times when we stole the ball from them – even Pia [Sundhage] gave us praise for that. I know we were a bit too exposed, though, and that cost us goals. We made mistakes; I’m aware of that as well. But it was against a strong team. That’s why, even if I’m asked if I want to play against USA or Canada, I’ll always say yes.”

From boots to shoes

Portanova’s meandering path to La Albiceleste has certainly been a little unorthodox. During his 15-year playing career, the former midfielder plied his trade for a number of modest clubs in his homeland, and he also enjoyed spells abroad in Chile, Paraguay and Spain, before dropping down into semi-professional football in Italy.

So just how much of an influence do his playing days have on his coaching? “A massive one,” he said. “I’m quite religious, and I think that God was preparing me for this moment. In Italy, I ended up captaining the last few teams I played with, applying leadership skills that didn’t stem from the game itself, because I was always a rather limited player, but from an understanding of everything that leadership actually entails.

“I played until the age of 36 after four knee operations because I looked after myself, because I understood what it takes to be responsible when it comes to training, diet, self-care and rest. I would say that I picked up a lot of little points that led me to become the detail-oriented coach that I am today.”

Portanova returned to Argentina in 2011, not for football reasons, but because of the nostalgia he felt for the country of his birth. What did he do for a living? “I made shoes. A friend of mine had a factory, customers, the whole lot. It went well, but I wasn’t happy.”

Then came the call from UAI Urquiza to work with their youth team. “I agreed straight away,” he recalled. “It involved a big drop in earnings, but I didn’t care. The idea was for all the club’s various teams and levels to play good football, for them all to stick to the same style. And we achieved that.”

In 2014, he was asked if he would be interested in taking the helm of the women’s team. “I trained with the girls for an hour and a half, and I remember thinking, ‘this is up my street’,” he said. “I realised that women have a real inclination to improve; they paid more attention. And there were some talented players there.”

Instant club success

Indeed, the players were of such high calibre that he won his first league title that year. “We had Belen Potassa, Florencia Bonsegundo, Laurina Oliveros and Miriam Mayorga, among others,” explained the Buenos Aires native, who spent a season with the men’s team prior to returning to the women’s side. “Then came the likes of Mariana Larroquete, Milagros Menendez and Dalila Ippolito. They, and a few others, ended up making it to the Women’s World Cup with Argentina.”

Portanova watched with interest as Argentina performed creditably in their three matches at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™, where they picked up the first two points in their history. “I watched the games as a coach, because I try to catch as much women’s football as I can, but also as a fan – a fan of the team and of the girls with whom I have a good relationship,” he said. “I even spotted some UAI Urquiza-style moves!”

Nevertheless, he refused to watch the team with the eyes of their future coach. “I couldn’t really stop to think about that. Even when my name started getting mentioned, I didn’t want to lose the focus I had on my work. When I think about the moment Carlos Borrello offered me the job, it gives me goosebumps!”

The principal objective now is obviously to qualify for the next Women’s World Cup in 2023. “That’s the dream,” he admitted. “During our last international camp, we worked on strengthening things with an eye on the 2022 Copa America Femenina. Although Brazil are on a different level, there’s not much between all the other teams.”

As far as Portanova is concerned, form is a crucial factor: “Our form will come, first and foremost, from being a united team on and off the pitch. That even influences how you deal with each ball. Beyond that, it’ll be based on hard work and our style of play. We want to play a starring role, we’ll take risks, and we’ll go looking for results. With a bit of luck, we can do really well at the Copa America and qualify for the World Cup.”