A leading figure in a group of up-and-coming South American coaches, 44-year-old Argentinian tactician Gerardo Martino has built a formidable reputation both at home and on Paraguayan soil. The straight-talking strategist won titles aplenty at Guaraní club sides Cerro Porteno and Libertad, his low-profile approach and dedication to his chosen profession key to his success.
A stylish attacking midfielder and Argentina international during his playing days, El Tata made the move into the pressure-cooker world of coaching in 1998. True to his playing style, Martino unhurriedly yet successfully worked his way up the ranks, spending four years coaching in the Argentinian second and first divisions before heading across to Paraguay, where he led capital side Libertad to their first-ever Copa Libertadores semi-final. Now, five years after touching down in Asuncion, the Rosario-born supremo faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his career so far: guiding the Albirroja through qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Six weeks ahead of his side's opening qualifier against Peru, Martino sat down with FIFA.com to cover a whole host of footballing issues including: Paraguay's chances of a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup finals appearance, his approach to this most demanding of professions, his goals for the future, and the return of his coaching idol, Marcelo Bielsa, to the international scene.
FIFA.com: Senor Martino, you've been at the helm of the Paraguayan national team for six months now. Has everything gone as you hoped it would?
Gerardo Martino: The working conditions couldn't be better. Of course, you have to endure certain difficulties that are common to every national team coach: problems surrounding national team call-ups, dealing with injuries that arise once your squad list has been submitted and not having much time to work with the players.
In general terms, when you see problems like this arising with other national teams, you tend to see it as a natural course of events. But when it happens with your own country's side, people are quicker to criticise and less objective. It all depends on what your perspective is.
On those lines, what would you say were the best and worst things about being a national team coach?
The best thing is the opportunity to compete at the world's biggest tournaments, as well as being able to select the best players from an entire country. One of the worst things is that you don't get to work with the players on a daily basis, which makes it harder to get the team to gel. Players mix up your ideas with the ones they're told at club level and, in the long run, you don't feel as if you've got the same influence over what happens out on the pitch. But it's nothing I wasn't aware of before taking the job, so I can't complain.
*By now you must know Paraguayan football inside out. * I feel very comfortable here. People have treated me very well and with a great deal of respect. However, I must admit that before taking the national team reins I was able to say that I was working in a field I enjoyed, which was football, and I was happy. That's practically impossible: working in football and being happy. Now it's not the same, the change has been automatic.
Could you explain that a bit more?
Before I was only responsible for a section of the population, but now I've got the hopes of an entire country hanging on my work. I thought that this change would hit me later on, when qualifying was already underway, but not so soon.
I must add that results have a huge impact on my life. While I feel incredibly happy when we win, I feel a great weight of responsibility after we lose. So much so that sometimes after a poor result I can't look people on the street in the eye. Look, I'll define the situation as follows: when I was a contender for the job, I was on cloud nine. Once I'd been given the job, I suddenly became public enemy number one. That's how drastic the change was.
Let's talk about the Paraguay team. Why have they found it so difficult to cap their good performances with silverware?
You have to take into account that teams, when they are starting out, can progress a great deal in a short space of time. Venezuela are a good example of this. But after this point, it's comparable to a sprinter trying to get their personal best down from 9.90 seconds to 9.89 - it takes a lot of time. How many teams have joined the list of World Cup winners in recent years? Only France, right? And how many former winners are currently out of contention? Uruguay, perhaps, and not many others. Isn't it true that it is always the same teams that win the Copa America and World Cup? It's not just Paraguay that have struggled to break through that invisible barrier. But don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean that we don't dream of winning something.
Are Paraguay going through a transitional phase?
Definitely. At the moment we're trying to bring in new players and maintain all the success we've had over the last 15 years. And I believe that the guys coming into the squad are capable of doing that. That's our main objective.
Which player will you be pinning your hopes on during the forthcoming qualifiers?
That's a tough question to answer. I'm fortunate to be able to call on strikers of the calibre of (Nelson) Haedo, (Roque) Santa Cruz, (Salvador) Cabanas and (Oscar) Cardozo, which isn't something every coach can do. We also have five of the best central-defensive markers in the Mexican league, a class player in (Claudio) Morel Rodriguez, and (Ruben) Maldonado over in Italy. It's a very interesting bunch.
What can we expect from the qualifying phase in general?
I expect it to be very evenly balanced, more so than many people imagine. Even so, it goes without saying that Argentina and Brazil will stay in their rightful places. Will a good home record be vital? I've changed my mind as far as this is concerned, and I think that times have changed. These days, you need a very strong character to bear the burden of responsibility of playing in front of your own fans.
*Is long-term planning the surest way to achieve success? * You need time, of course. Take my time with Libertad as an example. For four years we were the best team in the country along with Cerro, but we couldn't get past the first phase of the Copa Libertadores. At the fifth attempt we not only got through that round but we reached the semi-final. You need time and the right people, the kind who are hard-working and determined to improve.
Talking of hard workers, what does Marcelo Bielsa's appointment as Chile coach bring to South American football?
To South American football? To world football you mean! The huge stir that was caused when he was mentioned as a potential candidate only happens with the very best coaches. I have to admit that I'm not too pleased about having to battle wits with him during qualifying (laughs). Unselfishly speaking, and putting professional rivalry aside, I must admit that he has a great deal to offer the world game.
I've always been a big fan of his, right from when he was starting out as a coach, which was around the time my playing career was drawing to a close. Straight away I warmed to his working methods and personality. Do I liken myself to him? Only physically!
*Really? The way you confound established ideas is also very similar to his. * Well, if people liken me to an irreproachable and honourable person like him, then they are bound to go in my good books. I hope that continues.
Within the world of football, honourable people tend to stand out above their peers. Is that because they are few and far between these days?
Not just in football. It's difficult to find people like that in life in general, which has turned into one giant jungle. On a personal note, I don't even try to find people who are that genuine and with such moral values. If they appear in my life, then great. But the people I want to be by my side are already there. Without doubt, it makes me very proud when people say I'm an honourable person.
You started a tactical debate that has extended across the world, in particular regarding the midfield linking position, a role you performed for many years. Does that type of player still exist?
They're still around, the things is that today's midfield link players have more responsibility than back then. And faced by such demands, the only ones able to survive are those who show a level of quality on the ball that far exceeds normal players. One of those is (Juan Roman) Riquelme. Here in Paraguay we have (Julio) Dos Santos and (Jose) Montiel, and we can start to bring them on once they start getting more match time at their clubs.
You appear to have very high hopes for the squad of players at your disposal. Can you see Paraguay qualifying for South Africa 2010?
Yes, totally. There'll be difficulties along the way and national teams that'll cause us problems but we're equally capable of causing other teams problems ourselves. We've got enough talent to be very optimistic.
What would reaching the FIFA World Cup mean to you?
It would be the ultimate. After that, I think I could die happy.