AEK Athens, 2022–
I started with nothing.
I had no qualifications, no training programme and no coaching staff. So my beginning as a coach was very different to the rest of my colleagues.
That story has its origins in 2009, when I was still a player.
I went to River Plate at the age of 35, after having spent four years away from the professional game. I’d quit simply because I got tired of football, training and the relentless training camps.
But in 2009, and after some time playing for Club Fénix de Pilar, a small club in Argentina's fourth division, I decided to return to River. I wanted to finish my playing career at the club where I had lived, where I had worked, and where I had been trained as a footballer and as a person.
It was my wish to finish my career there.
Two years later, in June 2011, we came to a crucial came against Club Atlético Belgrano. It was a two-legged tie to determine whether we would stay in the Argentinian Primera or be relegated to the second division.
The last week before that tie, I was very aware of what was at stake. By then, I had already taken on the role of captain. It was a team with a lot of young players.
I wanted to draw their attention to the strength of being united.
"I never forget that I was a player, because I know that footballers don't want to be lied to"
Unfortunately, we lost the playoff. It was the first time in River's history that they were relegated. It was a very sad time. The night it happened was terrible. We couldn't leave the stadium until four in the morning. We were locked in the dressing room.
After that, I couldn't sleep at all. My head kept spinning, trying to make a decision. The next morning, I called Daniel Passarella, River's president at the time. I told him I wanted to be the manager.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "If you're the manager and you do badly, you'll never coach again in your life."
"I don't care," I replied. "I'm going to do well." I wanted to it make it clear that I was willing to take that risk.
Two weeks later, we started pre-season. In the dressing room, I was the coach of my former teammates. That was difficult.
It was also a difficult situation to manage. Honestly, nobody wanted it. Nobody wanted to coach River in a situation like that.
But I did want that challenge.
As I always say, that one year really felt like seven, because of all the wear and tear, and all the passion that we lived it with.
At the same time as coaching, I was doing my badges. I was given permission to do it that way. I did many hours of work with the team and a lot of studying.
"we were in hiding. we depended on success to live in peace"
I've always been quite obsessive about things like that. I kept drawing systems, doing calculations, creating imaginary shapes in my mind. Mentally, I never stopped working.
I know I didn't have the coaching experience that others had, but I was going to bring to the table everything I had seen in football. What I liked, and what I didn't like.
I never forget that I was a player, because I know that there are things that footballers don't like. Above all, they don't want to be lied to.
And I don't lie in football. I try to be honest, sincere and frank with the players. Based on that, I think that coaching is very much based on psychology.
A strong mentality was very important to survive as difficult a time as we went through at River, that season in the second division. We couldn't even go out to eat with our families or go out on a Sunday off. It was all about training and going home. It was like that for almost a year, to avoid problems with the fans. We were in hiding, knowing that we depended on success to live in peace.
That way of life of the fans was excessive for me because, at the end of the day, it's just football. But I can't take responsibility for how others feel. Even if I don't share it, I have to respect it. And that's what we did.
Throughout that first year at River, and faced with all the pressure we were under, there were many people who told me to quit. "Don't go on with this, Matías," they told me. However, those saying that were the people who didn't really know me.
Practically my whole life has been a challenge, since I was 15 years old. I live in defiance. I push myself to my limit because I like the adrenaline. Now is a better scenario for me as a manager – I have the experience that comes with years on the bench, and I've worked at clubs without the urgency of promotion. But no job I do will ever cease to be a challenge.
"To give you an idea, an election year in Argentine football is like an election for the presidency of the country"
I know that for the fans and many people associated with the club, what I call 'exitismo' – an obsession with success – in football would have made it a sin to celebrate River winning the second division. But that is ridiculous. It would also show a lack of humility. The club was in that situation at that time, and we managed to bring them back to the Primera División.
The feeling when the final whistle blew, and we had secured promotion, was one of release. River beat Club Almirante Brown 2-0 in the final game. I was in tears. I've hardly ever cried over football, but I did that time.
I’m not ashamed of it at all. It was a release of all that rage, at everything we had heard from those who said we wouldn't be able to do it and that I was not ready.
It had been a very tough year, but it was a year in which we were all able to achieve something special together. And the support of the people of River was amazing.
Many don't want to remember the moment we had to win promotion back to the first division. But my coaching staff and I, those of us who lived through it, do want to remember it. Because our families suffered. Wives, children, fathers, mothers – everyone really suffered.
So, how can we not remember, and how can we not enjoy the fact that we came back to the Primera so quickly?
When we went up, however, the team could not be strengthened. There was very little money to make signings. So, it was practically the same squad we had in the second division, but with a few departures. This, in a year with the elections for the presidency of River taking place.
"I don't change my ways any more, because at the end of the day you end up getting sacked anyway"
To give you an idea, an election year in Argentine football is like an election for the presidency of the country. There is talk of one candidate, there is talk of another, and whether you like it or not, it creates a toxic atmosphere around the team. This is reflected on the pitch every day, and generates divisions in the club.
It also divides the team.
It was painful how they removed me from the club, because there were only a few dates left before the end of the first phase of the season. I was left with a lot of pain from River because of the way I left. "You don't win, you're no good any more," I was told. It didn't matter what we had done before.
But that first part of the season was a professional and personal apprenticeship that has shaped me ever since.
When I started to hear the rumours that they were going to kick me out, I changed the team's system. I switched to playing with four central defenders to protect myself, but that was the worst mistake I could have made. It’s something I still regret, and something I would never do again in my life as a coach.
My love for River was so great that I wanted to stay. I wanted to do everything to stay, and it was a great learning experience. I don't change my ways any more, because at the end of the day you end up getting sacked anyway.
So, it's better to stick to your principles and leave with your boots on, isn't it?
"The players also started to enjoy themselves, which is one of my main objectives as a coach"
I arrived at Banfield the following year, in 2013. It is a club in the Argentinian second division, which is historically used to playing on the counter-attack. But I wanted to break with everything from their past. I changed the 4-4-2 they were using for a 3-3-1-3.
Yes, it was a strange and risky system, but I had studied all of our opponents and most of them played with two strikers. I played with a libero and two more centre-backs to get the ball out wide and attack from there. It took time to convince the players, but we did it. We managed to be dominant by controlling the game.
The team played very good football and made huge strides, with a record number of points in the second division. We were crowned champions several games before the end of the season. Then, we were able to transfer that form to the Argentinian Primera.
We also had success at Chivas in Mexico. It was a competitive team that, like Banfield, sought to control the ball. My tactics and the incredible work of the players led us to seven finals in the three years I was there, from 2015 to 2018. We won five of them.
At the end of 2018, I got the job as San Jose Earthquakes manager in MLS. We tried to do the same thing again, although this time with a team that had barely won at all in the recent seasons. It was certainly a much bigger challenge for me.
But I was drawn by the involvement of the general manager, Jesse Fioranelli, who hired me and offered me all the tools to grow. That's why I decided to go to the USA.
"Passarella was probably right when he told me I was crazy to take over at River in my first job"
We worked with the players on the build-up phase, ball receptions, all sorts. Things that I came to realise had never been done before there. We started off losing the first few games, but I persisted until the team got going. And that team, which had finished last the year before I arrived, started to dominate matches.
The players also started to enjoy themselves, which is one of my main objectives as a coach. We went into the final day of the regular season with a chance of making the playoffs. In the end we lost that game, but we had changed things dramatically at San Jose.
That's what I am also looking for at AEK Athens: my first club as a coach in Europe. It’s a place where I really want to test myself.
Passarella was probably right when he told me I was crazy to decide to take River in my first job as a manager. With nothing yet achieved as a coach, and facing such a dramatic situation as the one I told you about.
But that decision was what got me started, and made me what I am now. So, if I had to go back and choose a new start, I wouldn't change anything.
I would do it all over again.
Author: The Coaches' Voice