This has not been a vintage World Cup, so far, for anything or anyone connected to Argentina. The national team, despite the presence of Lionel Messi, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Held to a tie by Iceland, torn apart by Croatia, at risk of a ...and more »
Colombia's coach, José Pékerman, is one of five Argentines leading teams at the World Cup in Russia this summer.CreditToru Hanai/Reuters
By Rory Smith
June 25, 2018
MOSCOW — For a while, even after he had embarked on his coaching career, José Pékerman refused to give up his taxi. He had driven the little Renault 12, given to him by his brother, for four years, after an injury had forced him to retire as a player but before he started work in the youth system at the Buenos Aires club Estudiantes.
In those early days, Pékerman often arrived for training sessions in the car he had painted yellow and black himself. Coaching was his ambition, and he quickly showed he had a gift for it, but he was reluctant to part with the taxi. It was his guarantee that he could support his family, his safety net. In Argentine soccer, he knew he could never be certain when he might need it.
This has not been a vintage World Cup, so far, for anything or anyone connected to Argentina. The national team, despite the presence of Lionel Messi, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Held to a tie by Iceland, torn apart by Croatia, at risk of a humiliating group-stage exit, it is now confronting reports that its players are in a state of open rebellion against their coach, Jorge Sampaoli.
But there is another element to Argentina’s presence in this tournament. Four other World Cup teams in Russia bear an Argentina stamp because each of them — Colombia, Peru, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — has an Argentine coach. That makes five Argentine coaches in all at this tournament, equaling a record set by Brazil in 2006.
None of those five, it is true, has enjoyed an especially successful World Cup so far. Three have already seen their teams eliminated. Two of those three — Héctor Cúper’s Egypt and Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabia — meet on Monday, fighting to avoid departing Russia without so much as a point.
Ricardo Gareca, right, coaches a Peru squad that captured hearts in Russia but was eliminated from advancing after two games.CreditNatacha Pisarenko/Associated Press
Meanwhile, the third squad, Ricardo Gareca’s Peru, has won hearts here with its enthusiasm and its attacking approach — and its vast army of red-and-white clad fans — but has nevertheless lost its two games to date without scoring a goal. Peru waited 36 years to return to the World Cup, but its tournament lasted only eight days before its exit was confirmed.
That leaves only Sampaoli and Argentina and Pékerman’s Colombia with any hope at all of making it to the knockout round. Argentina must beat Nigeria in its final first-round game and hope Iceland does not beat Croatia; Colombia, beaten by Japan in its opening game, thrashed Poland by 3-0 on Sunday and next will face Senegal, knowing it needs to win to guarantee that it will advance to the next round.
In the context of the problems that Messi and his teammates are experiencing in Russia, the fact that some of Argentina’s coaching emissaries are also struggling will be seen as just one more excuse for national self-flagellation.
It is possible, however, to turn that interpretation on its head, to suggest that the number of Argentine coaches now on the sidelines in Russia should be a source of solace and of pride in Argentina — of proof that while there are concerns over player development back home, the country does know coaching.
Argentina has always produced coaches of note, of course, and it has always exported them, particularly to the rest of Latin America. Marcelo Bielsa, Claudio Borghi and Sampaoli himself all have taken charge of Chile in recent years; Pékerman is the fifth Argentine coach to preside over the Colombian national team. Even Uruguay — Argentina’s neighbor and fierce rival — has not been immune: Daniel Passarella, a World Cup-winning captain of Argentina, has coached the national team across the Río de la Plata.
In Europe, the record has been a little patchier: some of Argentina’s brightest coaching stars — Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo and Carlos Bianchi — found success harder to come by in the Old World than in the New, though Luis Carniglia won the European Cup while in charge of Real Madrid in the 1950s, and Helenio Herrera did the same with Internazionale a decade later.
And with five coaches here, and the likes of Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino and Atlético Madrid’s firebrand, Diego Simeone, now among the most highly-regarded managers in Europe, the production line appears to be more prolific than ever.
“We try to make sure our coaches are not missing anything they will need,” Victorio Cocco, the president of the Argentine Coaches’ Association, said when asked to explain the success of its alumni. Much of the focus is on technique, he said, but there are “courses in psychology, sports science, video analysis, too — we make sure they are prepared for everything they will encounter.”
Qualifying as a coach in Argentina is more arduous than in many European countries: it takes four years to be able to coach in the Primera Division, the top league. The first two, Cocco said, must be spent at the youth level, followed by two more with senior players.
“There is no fast-tracking,” he said. “Players just have to play. A coach has to know a mountain of things, from diet to how to talk to players. There are a lot of things to learn. That takes time.”
Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino is one of the most highly regarded coaches in Europe. CreditDylan Martinez/Reuters
It is not just the formal education that explains it, however. It is the fact that Argentina is home to such a confluence of ideas, Cocco said, exposed to influences from “Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden” and all points in between, that make it so easy for its coaches to move abroad. “We are happy to travel all over the world and adapt,” Cúper said.
And it is the hothouse environment of Argentine soccer, so destructive in other ways, that is especially conducive to nurturing high-caliber coaches.
Not only, as Cocco said, are there “hundreds of leagues and thousands of clubs,” giving aspiring coaches a chance to cut their teeth, but even at the youth level, the pressure is immediate, and relentless. Coaches have to learn, and learn fast, or they are fired. That was why Pékerman would not give up his taxi; that is why he is at the World Cup, in charge of Colombia.
“In Argentina, as in Uruguay and Brazil, the youth leagues are of an incredibly high standard,” Pékerman said. “It is the best school for players, and the best school for coaches. The demands are very high: it is not just fathers and friends who are watching. The kids know the fans expect them to win, and that gives us, as coaches, an obligation to work hard.”
Those who do not meet the standard return to their taxis, or some equivalent. Only the very best survive, move on, move up, learn how to thrive under the intense pressure. “This experience gives you an advantage in achieving important things when you go to other countries,” Pékerman said.
“It helps,’’ he added. “Not every league has that type of competition: even with teams that are not that well known around the world, you are not allowed even to draw. It is a great pressure, without many chances to recover, and I think that works to your advantage.”
All five men who are here in Russia know what the consequences of failure will be. It is no different from the pressure they have worked under throughout their careers. The ability to deal with it is what brought them here; it is what has made Argentine coaches some of the most coveted in the world: the knowledge that the taxi is never far away.
Follow Rory Smith on Twitter: @RorySmith.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: Made in Argentina, and Now Coaching Everywhere. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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