Argentina Under-17, 2017–
You learn football by playing.
There are good, intelligent coaches, with a lot of sense, who with just a few words can help you and give you advice that will be useful for the future. They do it by questioning you, too: “How do you sort this situation out? Doing what you normally do, or something else?” But young footballers can’t realise any of this without playing.
Today, I feel like I am where I want to be – and I’m enjoying it. Being a national age-group coach gives me the time that top-division coaches don’t have. That, and the fact that I’m still not sure if I want to be one of them. That’s an advantage.
I like working with young players. I have heard, and I still hear, that Argentina isn’t producing so many footballers any more. That might have been the case at some point, but we as coaches have to do something about that. That's why the idea of working with youngsters appealed to me. If things hadn’t worked out with the national team, I’d be doing it somewhere else.
I accepted this challenge because the national team is heaven for working with youngsters. You can go and watch matches, choose the players, and you also have the AFA headquarters at your disposal. It’s perfect: 10 pitches that are like putting greens on two separate grounds.
With Diego Placente (above, standing) and my team, we haven’t set ourselves a goal of coaching professional teams. As I said before, that may or may not happen. It's not clear yet.
The goal, when we arrived three years ago, was that the kids who started responding to our call-ups could, in three or four years, get into the first team at their clubs and complete the selection cycle.
Many of them are now in the Under-20s, and some will probably make it to the senior national team. That’s the job – that these players develop a sense of belonging that makes them want to be full internationals. That’s something that is drummed into them from day one, and this is what has happened with these youngsters.
“We try to make sure that our players don’t see the ball as a problem; they don’t have to get rid of it”
As national coaches, we deal in common sense. There is no set schedule of things that you have to do. The way we lead comes from how we are. Of course, we make mistakes. For example, I was sent off in a South American Under-17 Championships game. I made a mistake and I was sent off. We can make mistakes and be disrespectful, but we know that the only solution is to ask for forgiveness.
We have very simple rules for peaceful co-existence that encourage respect for everyone who works here. We try to take a youngster down the path to becoming a footballer, and remind him that football gives you many things – but that the last thing you should aspire to is being famous. That is not always a positive.
It can be complicated because, in Argentina, if you play good football and you start to appear in the newspapers, you’re going to become well known. You’re going to be popular, famous. But if you have humble role models, you’re going to end up copying some good things.
On the pitch, we try to make sure that our players don’t see the ball as a problem; they don’t have to get rid of it. That’s why we look at and select players who perceive football in that way. Our belief is that this way of playing is going to help them to grow, to become better and more resourceful footballers who can play for big teams.
We want to play with bold centre-backs, for example, because we believe that it won’t be difficult for them to play in a team that operates with a more withdrawn shape. If we do it the opposite way round, it will then be difficult for them to adapt. If we tell them to get the ball away, play it long and look for the result, what happens if they end up playing for a coach who asks them to play in a more daring way? They won’t be able to do it.
The other way around, they can do it. If, at the age of 25, a coach tells them to play long, it’s no problem. That’s the easiest thing to do.
We believe this is the way they are going to develop best, and the easiest way for them to adapt to any way of playing in their career. What we are doing is simply enabling players to become better, seeking individual growth in each and every youngster.
“If a coach can convince 20 players of an idea, that team becomes very difficult to beat”
I don’t know what would have happened if, as a young player myself, I’d have gone somewhere other than Valencia. I had come from River Plate, where we often had 70 per cent of possession. At Valencia (below), I was in a team that played much less with the ball.
I enjoyed the team’s style of play, but I had to grow up, adapt and understand how we could compete – which we did for several years, even winning the league in 2002 and 2004. That was how we competed with the big clubs, so I learned to make the most of playing less with the ball.
I saw that the way we could compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona was by not conceding. It worked, and we ended up building a tough team that competed well with the big teams. I was only 21, 22 years old when I arrived at Valencia, but I wanted to win. For Valencia, defending well was the path to victory. We had very good players, and we attacked little – but when we did, we did so quickly and decisively, finishing a lot of our plays.
I also learned that a coach could convince 20 players that was the way they were going to compete. As a player, that is what you most want: to compete. So, if you have a coach who convinces 20 players of an idea, it becomes very difficult to beat that team. This is the difficult part of a coach’s job, though, and their task is titanic. You have to convince 20 players, but then only 11 can make it on to the pitch.
In the biggest leagues, tactical schemes are important. Even if you don’t realise it, they help you feel that you have something to lean on, that what you have done in training is useful to you. For example, if the centre-back brings the ball out, they know which players will be available to receive.
Not everyone realises it, but this is a big help. That support gives you peace of mind; it helps you communicate with your teammates. Ultimately, that’s what being focused is all about – knowing what you have to do.
In age-group football, we design the system depending on the players we have: if we have two good wingers we want to give time on the pitch, then we find a way for both to play. We might have three centre-backs we want to play, so we let them build up pitch-time, let them add to their repertoire things like playing as a full-back. That’s how we see it – the system has a lot to do with the players we want to give time on the pitch.
“Bielsa and Pékerman have helped shape many people. This is why I say they are influencers”
All those principles have come through some of the coaches I played for. Marcelo Bielsa is someone who has an influence on others. He has left a great legacy to those who were coached by him, and that’s a tremendous attribute. I have a special admiration for him but, if I have to say just one thing about him, it must be the influence he has had on all those who know him and have been coached by him.
I didn’t think he was going to come to my farewell match, playing for my old club Estudiantes de Río Cuarto. When they told me he was there, I thought it was someone who looked very similar to him. It was just so incredible, but so typical of him. I didn’t get to see him afterwards, but it was something I was very proud of. In the end, these are the things you take with you.
When I get together with former teammates, some of whom are very successful, no one talks about their track record. No one mentions it. We remember stories, particular moments, and these are the things that football leaves you with. Stories of friendship.
José Pékerman (above) instilled in us that football was a game based on common sense and peace, which is fundamental for everything that starts to happen around talented young players. That is the age at which things start to happen that can end up being complicated.
I remember one day when José came before the 1997 World Youth Championship (now known as the Under-20 World Cup) in Malaysia. He had won the 1995 tournament in Qatar, along with Hugo Tocalli, but he gave us reassurance. “Don’t worry,” he told us. “We’re going to do well.”
Today, several of us from that team get together and realise that we played well – but that was in part thanks to José’s peace of mind. “Just play and create a nice memory,” he said. Everything was much less dramatic.
Bielsa and Pékerman are human beings who have helped shape many people. This is why I say they are influencers.
“Messi was probably more eye-catching at 22, when he could dribble past even his own shadow”
Jorge Jesus (below) is also someone I keep very much in mind. I use some of his reflections now that I’m coaching young players. For example, they may complain that the ball doesn’t come to them. If they do, I remind them of something he always said: “Great players are not anxious.”
Obviously great players don’t hide, but nor do they get anxious. Those who can achieve that calmness make a huge difference; those who choose well when to move, when to go into a space, when to pass, when to play and not be anxious. All that has to do with patience. I always remember what he told me.
I liked training with Jorge at Benfica. I liked the drills. I liked the explanations. I liked the passion with which he experienced football. I learned with him, and I use a lot of things from him in my role as a coach. He would always tell us: “Whoever invented this drill invented it for a reason.”
Footballers are rarely told why they are doing an exercise, but having an exercise explained to you makes you do it well. You do it well and you go home happy, for sure. That’s why you play football – for the feeling you get both during and after.
There was a day in Jorge’s first year at Benfica when he arrived and saw Javier Saviola and me playing together. He really liked that partnership. We were in a training session, and he finished it when we made a good play. He said: “With these players, now everyone will see I’m a good coach.” I really enjoyed training with him.
Football is accepting of all sorts of different opinions – that’s what makes it so popular. It also has a lot to do with chance, but then a player comes along who nullifies uncertainty, like Lionel Messi. We all believe that, when he plays, Barcelona are going to win. In the past 15 years, he has managed to exhaust all praise.
Nobody even points to the fact that he will play 60 or 70 matches a year. He knows he is going to play them, and he is the best player on the pitch more than 90 per cent of the time. There is no need for any analysis. Anyone who has played at a certain level knows not to bother with discussion of how many metres he runs per game.
I am convinced that football is not about what, but when. The best footballers, beyond the fact that they do everything well, stand out because they know when to do things. Inevitably, I have to talk about Messi. He was probably more eye-catching at 22, when he could dribble past even his own shadow. Now, this latest version of him makes him the best of all; he does everything he has to, when he has to do it.
“Talking to Menotti is like talking to history itself”
Although I never had him as a coach, it’s also fantastic to share time with César Luis Menotti (below, left). I’m named Pablo César after him. It's like one of those tricks life plays on you, to be able to sit with him. My father and one of his friends, who was also my coach, always talked to me about Menotti; today, when they see photos, they tell me they can’t believe I am talking to him. It’s like talking to history itself.
He is simple in his explanations of something that is often complex, because football is a game that can often become messy. Conversation with him is divine, full of sense. He knows everyone and he notices everything. It’s an enormous privilege to listen to him.
One of his virtues is that he spreads calm. Older people in general reassure you. You might have a problem that makes you feel like the world is coming to an end, but someone older will tell you: “Don’t worry, it’s fine.” With their knowledge and wisdom, they can help you with just a couple of sentences. It is very enriching to know him.
If I look to the Argentina senior team, I’m not surprised by what Lionel Scaloni has done because he has always been passionate about football. What I admire most about him is the calm with which he has taken his place, how well he handles it, his communication and the rapport he has with the players.
Beyond the fact that we are partners on the coaching staff, I have no doubt that he is going to have a fantastic career. As the head of the group, he is someone who takes risks; how he is at peace with where he’s at is admirable.
What makes footballers believe in a coach or not? That will always be a mystery. Teams win with more or less technical players; with three defenders or five; pressing high, dropping low. Coaches who manage teams full of stars don’t get results, but then they go to another team with fewer big names and triumph. I have no answer as to what it is that makes players believe in you.
Sometimes, in football, you have a feeling – and the feeling in the two years that Scaloni has been in the Argentina job, along with Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala (all below), is positive.
Diego Maradona gave us those same feelings. He was the greatest inspiration for those of us who were born in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, there were already superheroes: Spider-Man, Batman and others. But we didn’t want to be them. We didn’t want a Spider-Man costume. We wanted to buy Maradona’s boots and his shirt. We wanted to be him.
We wanted to be Maradona, and we aspired to being the one who lifted the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. We wanted to be him at Italia ’90, insulting those who had insulted our anthem. That was Maradona, for all of us.
And like him, we wanted one thing above all else: to learn by playing.
Author: Tony Hodson