Solari: Guardiola? I’d rather keep my hair

We’ve always loved Santiago Solari here at pegamequemegusta, so when we saw this interview, conducted by Claudio Mauri, on canchallena this morning, we decided to translate it for your pleasure and edification.

We miss his fine articles in El País, several of which we translated in the past. They’ve more or less been abandoned since he got towards the more serious end of Real Madrid’s youth coaching system: last week, with Zidane leaving the B-team to become manager, Solari took over the under-18s (table). He coached successive U-16s teams to their respective titles, last winning 26 out of 28 matches and drawing the other two. 

Mauri is quite insistent as to why he hasn’t stepped up to take over a real manager’s job yet, and it is a bit of a puzzler. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez apparently suggested he become Zidane’s assistant, but Zizou already had his own staff from the Real B-team. Yet if Pérez loves him so much, surely he could get a job elsewhere. After all, fellow articulate, loveable, rogue analyst Facundo Sava is even managing Racing now, thrashing Boca 4-2 last night in his debut (albeit a friendly). Solari isn’t biting, though, nor is he eschewing the limelight out of some misplaced and feckless sense of nobility, like a session musician or a blogger. He genuinely does seem to believe in apprenticeship.

There’s also an interesting debate regarding the usefulness of a club like Real’s academy, as per Barney Ronay’s piece today. They process so many players that almost all end up shot out like spores from a thriving mass of fungus. Is this just the inevitable result of searching for the very best? Or are they being groomed as future leverage against other clubs? The transfer ban may see some of Solari’s charges come through. We’ll see. In the meantime, check him out, or pegame, que me gusta.

Solari campeón cadetes

  • I asked around for a take on your work here and they tell me you’re “the most outstanding coach” at Real Madrid’s academy. Are they exaggerating?

  • Most certainly.

  • On the other hand, they say you’re a “slowpoke” in the sense that you like to take things easy, something that doesn’t really fit with a being a manager, given how harsh and unforgiving life in primera can be.

  • I was born and raised in primera. My aul’fella played for 15 years and then managed for another 20 after that. Then I played for fifteen years. It’s all I know. That’s the story of my life. Maybe that’s why I’m pretty relaxed about things.

  • Is it true you were close to becoming Zidane’s assistant? Florentino Pérez has a high opinion of you.

  • I hope so, I’m grateful and every day I do my job to maintain that high opinion. Zizou is with the first team now with the same staff he had at Real Castilla, and I’m working with the Juvenil A. We’ve always got on well, ever since we played together. My dressing room’s 30 metres from his and I’m always on hand if he needs me.

  • Florentino Pérez has changed 11 managers in 12 years in charge. Is there more patience with the youths?

  • At this club the same is required at all levels. The pace of change of the first team is that of elite competition. With the youth team they respect the time needed to develop players.

  • Barcelona’s La Masía is a school with a particular identity. Does Real Madrid have one? If so, what is it?

  • With 114 years as an institution and ten European Cups, Real Madrid is, officially, the greatest club of the last century, not to mention the most important in the world owing to its prestige and stature. I can’t think of a more relevant identity in football terms than Real Madrid’s. And the youth team is the club, a club with a culture of winning that, through humility, hard work and self-control, always aspires to be the best. Now, if you’re referring only to football, of course, we work to produce players and teams who are brave and get forward, who dominate all aspects of the game, have a winning mentality and exemplary behaviour. If you want to talk about style and method, though, they’re going to have to expand the sports section.

  • How would you define yourself as a manager? You’ve been exposed to Argentine, Spanish and Italian schools, but which has made more of an impression?

  • I was in Uruguay and Mexico, too… Every country lives its football in its own way. They’re all equally as exciting, if not always as much fun. The football cultures that have most influenced me were Argentina and Spain, the two places I’ve spent most time.

  • Which manager influenced you the most? What tactical system do you use?

  • All the managers I had taught me something. The best ones are a blessing, the bad ones edifying. With regard to systems, they’re almost always something to aim at, not a starting point. What’s more important is who your players are, their roles, the style the coach wants to achieve; strategy, tactics, the other team, the pitch, etc. The system is the last thing on your mind, maybe the least important thing.

  • Do you enjoy the business as much as when you were playing?

  • Nothing compares to playing. I love football; now I enjoy it from another perspective. And whenever I can, I play the odd match with the old timers.

  • What were the strong points of your title-winning teams?

  • Coaching the A & B Under-16s teams [Cadete A & B] in successive years was a beautiful experience. We won the tournament both years, but in the second year you could really see and appreciate how much they’d grown and learned, both as individuals and as a team. The greatest success, without a doubt, was that we didn’t lose any of them: they all made the grade up to Juvenil C (U-17). With the Juvenil B this season we’ve formed a really competitive team, with second place nine points behind us. Since last week [youth teams reshuffle] the challenge is to get to grips with the Juvenil A, who are currently fourth and have to improve. There’s also the question of challenging for the Youth Champion’s League.

  • You’re more dependent on results now, then, with less of an emphasis on development?

  • Football is always about improving, even in the first team. Results always matter, too, even with the youth teams – at least when you’re forming players for the highest levels of the game.

  • Sometimes in Reals’ starting 11 there’s only one youth player, like Carvajal, who even had to go to Germany to get first team football, before coming back and earning his place. Do you feel you’re coaching players for other clubs’ first teams?

  • On the contrary, it’s an enormous satisfaction, and it’s even tough to compete with Real Madrid on that score, too: besides the eight youth players currently in the first team squad, there are more than a hundred players that came through our youth system playing in the first division, and fifty more in the lower divisions worldwide. Almost all the teams in the league have players who were trained by Real Madrid. Those kinds of numbers are a source of pride for us.

  • Often in Argentina youth players are promoted to the first team before they’re mature enough in order to fill the gaps left by clubs’ policy of selling players abroad…

  • Yeah, it’s true. In Argentina often we don’t respect the time players need to mature.

  • How long do you see yourself coaching youth teams? Do you plan to manage in primera, and, if so, when?

  • I believe in learning, not just for footballers but for coaches – and, obviously, for directors, too. Yes, I want to manage in primera. All in good time.

  • Are there any Argentine players that you’ve coached or are coaching now?

  • No.

  • In Argentina’s youth teams, there’s a lack of full backs and deep-lying midfielders. Can you think of a solution to the problem?

  • Yes, several, but asking me that’s like asking for the formula for Coca Cola.

  • There’s a general impression that young players nowadays aren’t as interested in learning about the game, living it, that there are too many distractions. How do you fight against that?

  • I think the opposite is the case. No kid is made to play football. It’s a choice and there’s no other way to become a professional football player than through dedication and sacrifice. A teenager who goes to school for six or seven hours a day and then has to train for another three hours, and who on Saturdays goes to bed early because he has to play on Sunday, is an example of application and dedication. He has too little time for other activities.

  • You’ve always taken a keen interest in cultural matters. Do you talk about those kinds of things to your players?

  • I’d call it a survival instinct… And yeah, I try to explain that not all of them are going to make a living playing football, and certainly not forever.

  • In an interview with El Gráfico in 2011 you said that you liked Barcelona and that Guardiola’s influence on the team was clear. Although your Madrid credentials aren’t in question, you have a guardiolista bent, don’t you?

  • No, I don’t think so. I’d prefer to keep my hair.

  • What do you make of Messi? Is there anything left to say about him?

  • Messi is one of those things that you know you’re not going to see again. There’s nothing original to say about him. It’s him who’s original.

  • What do you think about Argentine football?

  • I follow it as much as I can. With the last championship it was difficult as I still haven’t worked out how the fixture list was concocted…

  • When you were with San Lorenzo in 2008, [proxy president] Tinelli’s contribution was key. Do you see him becoming president of the AFA ?

  • The AFA is in serious need of reform, in both form and content. Tinelli is a self-made man with unquestionable administrative ability. I’m sure he could do a good job, as he has done with San Lorenzo [Libertadores champions 2014].

  • If you could manage a club in Argentina some day, which one would it be?

  • One of the clubs I played for.

  • Gallardo, Coudet, Sava, Cocca, Bassedas, they’re all contemporaries of yours who are managing in top divisions; some have even won titles. Are you on a slightly different wavelength?

  • I don’t know. I hope they’re all enjoying themselves as much as I am.

  • Why haven’t Argentina won anything since 1993?

  • With a reformed AFA I hope the answer will come of its own accord. In any case, I hope we win something with El Tata [Martino] in charge. He’s a great manager and a great guy.

  • Lots of people continue to question Messi. What do you think?

  • No point arguing with fanatics.

Santiago Solari & Facundo Sava – Great Budgies

Fresh meat, flavour of the month, new blood, firm-buttocked, ogle-worthy Adonis – all epithets that tend to be standing somewhere out back enjoying a woodbine, dusting off their well-worn polo necks when pegamequemegusta is being discussed. The new, pshaw, we’ve never been too fond of it – especially all these blog posts on up-and-coming players, which only take off when driven along by a particularly smooth scribeToo often it’s an over-enthusiastic exercise in cradle-gazing, almost always without any real, first-hand experience or knowledge (hence its appeal for pretend journos, perhaps). Moreover, it involves too long a wait for what is ultimately a rather trivial pay-off, little more than an eventual smug bar-stool diatribe ending in the words “[…] profitable nor popular.” What’s more, in South American football, in particular, while somewhat unlikely, it can potentially lead to the very sales of young players bloggers tend to deplore. After all, foreign clubs have proven over and over again that their scouting policy is about as sophisticated as pegamequemegusta’s grooming techniques.

When it comes to new managers, though, we become quite energised. A couple of reflective, articulate respected men slowly asserting themselves on the scene gives us real hope for a Jota Jota-less day. A change from the same old faces on the managerial sorrow-go-round that make up Argieball could bring about some change, could (indirectly) bring some stability, could lead to thoughtful, timely critiques of the many avoidable ills that continue to undermine the game here.

Hence we were delighted to discover some of the finest prose being written about the game coming from ex-players such as Facundo Sava, who retired last year after a 17 years lanking around Ferro, Boca, Fulham and Racing among others, and Santiago Solari, the dreamy left-winger who was part of del Bosque’s glorious Real team ten years ago before getting bogged down in the torpor of Zanetti’s Inter. Crucially, neither seem content to merely add further bulk to the dangerously overstocked punditry pulpit, like the admittedly precise and loveable Diego Latorre. Rather, reading their pieces, one gets the impression that for now they are biding their time, that they have a real vocation for management, that this is a period of meditation – albeit public – as they prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they put their theories and experience into practice.

Santiago Solari, indeed, a magnificent piece of whose we translated a while back here on pegame, states as much in his latest column in el país. Titled ‘The simple Life of a Footballer’, he lists with great rhythm and style down through his opening paragraphs many of the difficulties that beset the modern footballer: having every minute of the day accounted for, the constant changes in schedule, the travelling, missing one’s family, never being around for holidays, birthdays, school plays, etc., the rigorous diet he must follow, the injuries, taking five minutes just to make it to the bathroom, the relentless competition throughout one’s whole (short) career, not to mention the threat that one’s career could end at any moment “in any match or any training session”.

In the final paragraphs, however, he turns this Hobbesian catalogue of horrors on its head. He recognises that, despite being the son and nephew of football managers, and despite his own vast experience in different set-ups, he had forgotten how everything surrounding the footballer, even the organisation of what he regards as his own trials, essentially depends on others. At a coaching course organised by the Spanish FA the previous week, he finds his mind opened “to a new dimension where everything that happens on the pitch is but a fraction of the responsibilities that the position [of manager] entails.”

“The life of a footballer is really easy. No Anatomy, Pschology, Sociology or Law. No Training Theory, Team Management or Teaching Methods. Coaches, managers, physios, doctors, psychologists… These were the people who were thinking of every detail of every day of every year so that I, the player, didn’t lack for anything and could devote all my attention to achieving the objective: put a few crosses in and, if I could, score the odd goal.”

Much of this is ‘obvious’, of course, but it’s the depth of thought that strikes us like a slap from an aggrieved mother on one of our blind bumbling careers through the park. 

We were similarly impressed with a piece by Facundo Sava that came out on Wednesday. Titled ‘Boca, team play’, it discusses the triumph of Falcioni’s men in the Argieball Apertura with two rounds left to play. The merits of Falcioni’s Boca are clear – solid defence, pressure on the ball, always a man in support, patience – and while their play may have been somewhat prosaic at times, they’re worthy champions for the simple fact that no other team in the division had the wherewithal to emulate such elemental virtues. El colorado Sava, however, who we always thought of as a dull-looking journeyman of a striker, spins the Orb of Power and inflects the story nicely. 

For in the run-up to the title-decider against Banfield last Sunday, the dominant media line was whether the oft-crocked Riquelme was going to play or not. Updates, worry, exasperated murmurings, the impression was that without their talisman Boca could still mess up the championship. This, Sava asserts, was completely wrong-headed. Indeed, the real secret of Boca’s success, he argues, was that such media speculation must have seemed as foreign to the players as it did to him, a disinterested observer paring his fingernails coolly observing Falcioni’s creation from afar. For the players were united, Falcioni had instilled in them such conviction in the validity of their play that they “had no need to even look to the bench during a game.”

This quality reminded us of Coco Basile’s Boca, whose consistency saw them crowned bicampeones in 2006. The team they remind Sava of, however, were Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, under the management of Phil Jackson. Facundo insists that Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops is obligatory reading for any coach in any sport. For the ‘Zen Master’, he says, managed (the key word, Mancini) to get a group of superstars to prize the collective over the individual. He convinced them that there was something larger than themselves to play for – avoiding the distressingly common occurrence whereby a team’s most gifted player can mutate into a burden, like being gifted four large ducks when you don’t have a freezer – thereby achieving a kind of synergy.

Gah, ugly word! Fair enough, a lot of this is obvious. Moreover, words like the offensive one just used smack of the wisdom of auld handmaidens, suspicious Brent-speak. Sava’s right, though. His point is timely, original and savvy shrewd. Having a keen analytic grasp of the game, or being an intellectual for that matter, is no guarantee of success, of course. However, it bodes well. Moreover, the cristaline quality of Solari and Sava’s prose, and the generousness of their opinions in general, make us think they’d have no problem conveying their points to a group of pampered, overly-developed men-children. Both both weigh their words judiciously, both appear to be independent thinkers, neither have any problem taking a stance contrary to the prevailing opinion, nor do they squirm when the obvious needs stating. 

Of course, neither are managers yet. Nor are they alone in their field. Abroad, too, there are several more reasons for hope in the future of Argiemanagement in the satellites orbiting the mad moon Bielsa (there should be a moon named after Bielsa), the Genghis Khan of coaches.

At home, though, there’s a dearth of such folk: Diego Simeone should be one of the luminaries but his glib, blind bumbling at Racing, forever haughtily sniping at the short-sightedness of the pueblo whilst ignoring his own shortcomings, is but a blueprint for despair. Simeone is the Man Who isn’t Here. The very title of Solari’s blog, El Charco (‘The Pond’), on the other hand, implies a connection to the auld country, that he’s not an eternal ex-pat; it reveals a sense of commitment, of duty. Likewise Sava, who keeps an even lower profile far from the fanfare of Olé. Nationalism is such a dirty concept, but we’ve come to believe that some of its cleaner qualities, namely a sense of solidarity, far from cheap xenophobia or base self-congratulation, ought to be rehabilitated – especially in such an outward-looking, insecure nation such as Argentina (or Ireland, for that matter). 

Yet, as we said, we’re not heralding a footballing revolution here. After all, the man who just won the Apertura, Falcioni, is a gnarly old-timer whose face looks like a chewed up slipper. Novelty, indeed. However, in the absence of justice, Batman cometh; and in the shadow of the AFA’s neglect, strong, well-spoken personalities with a respectable record are what are needed. As Wenger said in an interview mark Arsenal’s 125th anniversary,

the development of a football club depends on individuals, who take the right initiative [sic?], take the right decisions, have the right dedication for the club […]

Whether they bring anything inherently new or not, Facundo Sava and Santiago Solari, so far, look well on course to make a positive contribution to Argieball. They are distant stars whose light has yet to reach us. In the meantime, Real-Barca, eh?