Mauricio Pellegrino on how to beat Barcelona and why soccer is great: 'It's the only moment we're all equal'
LEGANES, Spain -- On the wall of the new building that looks over the two, pristine pitches at Leganés' training ground where they've been preparing for Real Madrid this weekend, is a slogan in huge blue capital letters. It delivers a message seen every morning.
"Train, compete, fight," it says, "but above all, enjoy and dream."
This poses the question: can you? In the midst of all the pressure of the professional game, with the threat of losing your job hovering and the day-to-day demands seemingly unrelenting, can a coach actually enjoy this? Does anyone?
At the end of a morning session in a small white room where a printer spews out training plans, Mauricio Pellegrino pauses for a moment, which he does often. His playing career took him from his small hometown in the Argentine Pampa -- an expansive, fertile grassland covering nearly 300,000 square miles boasting fields full of rabbits and wildlife -- to Buenos Aires to join Vélez Sarsfield and from there, to Barcelona, Valencia, Liverpool and Alavés.
Now he's coaching Leganes, his sixth stop as manager, and they're comfortably midtable after narrowly avoiding relegation last season. His team has taken points from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid already this season thanks to his thoughtful approach to coaching.
"I was 6-foot-5, not fast, not strong. Technically, I was limited," he says, "but there was something, that other part, that I did have, which is why I could play at a high level." It is something that comes across clearly in his company and perhaps helps explain why he became coach -- a job that's never just about coaching -- at Valencia, Estudiantes, Independiente, Alavés, Southampton and now Leganés.
"I tried to help. I listened," he says. He listens now, too; he's not just a talker. There is consideration in everything he says. Conviction, too. He thinks about each question, carefully in our long, often profound, conversation.
"That's very personal," he says, answering my comment about the slogan at the training ground. "It depends on each individual ... today I can tell you that I find a space for enjoyment. Today. Now. But when I was a player, I suffered a lot. We had a lot of obligations as footballers then; now footballers have a lot of rights, there's been a change. As a coach I enjoy [life] more than I did as a player."
ESPN: Why? What is it that fulfils you about coaching?
Pellegrino: I love being on the pitch: the training, talking, designing a session, speaking to players I had three, four years ago that I helped to improve and witnessing that [improvement]. All those things that are to do with teaching and education, I really enjoy.
So it's about learning almost more than sport? About people as much as players?
Sure, but they can't be separated. A coach's role is to be an educator. You have rules, build habits. Our children are a product of habit. You have loads of your father in you, without realising it. Me too. It's not that I tell them what to do: what I say goes in one side and comes out the other. Now, if we do it, that's different. You enjoy seeing that development, that process.
The concept of experience is sometimes mistaken, for example: it's about learning from what you did. It's not simply about getting older. You can be 60 years old and have learnt nothing. There's a teacher who wrote a book called "Hombres Para el Fútbol" ("Men for Football"). Men. But because footballers earn a lot of money these days, we treat them like machines. [Gareth] Bale has to score because he earns a lot and because he earns a lot, they have to win. Those that earn the most have to come first ...
Money changes everything, sullies everything?
Without doubt. It's a huge business that loses sight of the game, but the essence of it is a game. There's a museum of board games and there's a sign there: "If you don't want to lose, don't play." But there's a part of business that won't accept defeat or the idea that you can lose. Business is important, but it can't own everything. Some of enjoyment -- the game itself -- gets lost.
When a club changes coach it's not because he's not a good coach; it's because of the millions of euros at stake. There are clubs that [are] dependent on getting into the Champions League, the Europa league or staying up: without that, the budget can't be met. They're at the mercy of that [dependency] like a dragon that eats its own tail.
That must load pressure onto players, too. Do you think depression rates are unusually high in football?
I don't know about depression, but players experience anxiety; the doubts about dealing with the pressure, the fear. We all have fear. Football is a bit perverse now in that behind every player, there are 20 people who depend on them: the family, friends, coaches, directors, assistants, teammates, the teammate who also plays in his position -- we're dependent on what they do.
Opponents, referees, agents, media: they're all pressure points. These days, most clubs have psychologists. I saw that as a player. With some, as you get older, the anxiety is greater because it's hard to stay at the highest level. Those who win the most have the most to fear. Yet the body declines [over time] so how do you maintain that level?
How did you handle that pressure when you played?
It was very hard for me. I enjoyed football when I was young, when I played to play. But as I got to 27, 28 years old, the more important I got, instead of enjoying it, it was like I wanted more, more, more ... and I got on this conveyor belt that went round and round. I learned, but the hard way.
Football left me; I didn't leave football.
At Alavés, I spent the last six months out of the team, pushed aside by [owner Dimitry] Piterman because of a couple of things I said. I didn't play anymore, I trained alone, which made me even more determined to keep going: I didn't want it to end like that. I called everyone because I had no agent. I called all these presidents and they said: "How old are you?" I had a brother who played and they thought I was ringing them to offer them him. "No, no: me." "You're 35, 36? No."
I fought to carry on until the last day of August and my wife said, "Look, you played for 14, 15 years, that's it. It's time, a sign: leave it." It was very hard. I didn't decide -- football did. Well, the market did.
So, you became a coach. Was that that always likely? There was a day when Louis Van Gaal looked at you at Barcelona and said: "This guy will be a coach." Why?
Because he was surprised. I like to talk on the pitch. I was always very observant. I was always shy, but on the pitch, I was always telling teammates, "You go here, you go here." I was a defender who relied on the others. I needed the team to be well positioned; I was a team player and Van Gaal was surprised by that. We talked a lot about football, I asked him things...
Is that so unusual?
I came [to Europe] from Argentina in 1998, and it was all new, a whole different footballing culture. Teams worked defensively there, but I'd never worked on how to attack, how to open passageways, create space, learn positional play. I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to understand. Along with Rafa Benítez, Van Gaal was the person I took most from on a practical level. Later, working with Rafa helped me grow: he gave me freedom to contribute, space to learn and to put forward ideas; he could see straight away that I liked this. It's a profession that if you don't like it, it's very hard to do.
Because of the commitment? How many hours a day does it take from you?
As many as you want it to.
And how many do you want it to?
There are days when at 6 or 7 p.m., I'm still here. There are days when at 3 p.m., I'm tired and I leave. I heard [Eibar manager José Luis] Mendilibar say: "I have a lot of free time," and I think that's good. There are people for whom two hours is enough; there are people who need eight. But it's like being a school teacher: I remember hearing someone say that's the most difficult profession because you're never entirely up to date.
I got my coach's licence in 2008, but football is always changing and players are different. You'll always find some element you can improve, something else you can do. I have a personal protocol, which is probably worthless, but if I don't fulfil it, I feel as if there's something missing, something I haven't done. But I can tell when I no longer have energy, when I lack lucidity...
I stop. I go and run or go on the bike. I try to disconnect. But I like watching football, too, and there's football on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday ... it never ends. And when the Champions League ends, the Copa Libertadores starts. I can watch endlessly. I enjoy that, eh, but sometimes I just have to turn the television off. Stop. Read the paper, go for a walk. I think I'm learning to cut off.
Does it frighten you that it takes over your life that much?
It frightens me, yes. It frightens me because it's not good for you; I listened to Xesco Espar, a former handball coach, who said that he left the sport because it held him hostage. And I feel like that. [Atletico Madrid assistant manager] Mono Burgos said once that we live in a tunnel, and it's true. You can be eating with your kids and you're thinking, "What am I going to say to Nabil [El-Zhar, a Leganes player] tomorrow?" But it's all a learning process.
I appear to be a calm, relaxed person, but I'm an anxious one. I live the build-up [intensely]. I get calmer when the games start. I am nervous before the games, although as a player, I was worse. As I player I was ... pfff...
So, tell us about that build-up, about preparing for a game where Leganés are about to face a bigger club. Earlier this season, you defeated Barcelona. That must make it all seem worthwhile?
Team sports, far more than individual ones, allow you to take the game where you want, to make it hard for [opponents]. When the No. 1 seed in tennis plays the No .20 seed, [the lower seed] has very little chance. Or in basketball, because it's more about precision. But in football, people go to the ground and dream that they can win -- and it's true, they can.
In my case, there's something cultural too. In Argentina, there isn't one fan who doesn't think they can beat Boca Juniors or River Plate.
Is that different here?
Maybe. In Spain, and I felt this in England too, it's sometimes as if only some teams have the right to win. There's a phrase used here that annoys me: "bueno, no es nuestra liga." Literally, "it's not our league." That's passing off the responsibility.
People who say that don't believe in themselves enough. It's like saying: "I can't run that far." Yes, you can, but you don't want to. The moment someone says "it's not my league," they're already losing. You say: Why did Alavés win that time? Why did Málaga win? Why did Celta win? What did they do? And that's when you say: is it possible? Yes. How possible? Very difficult. [We might have a] 3 percent [chance]. OK, let's go for this 3 percent.
How do you try to make good that 3 percent?
The mentality is the most important thing. There are a lots of things in team sports that are abstract but are important. These days we measure the speed, the metres covered, the passes, the times the ball is lost, and I think all the details matter, but who knows what a couple of leaders are worth? How do you measure that? How do you measure the value of the respect between players, that they love each other? That's priceless.
These days, any first-division player, anyone in the youth system, can play: they all have ability, every one of them. What sets them apart is their mentality. And the smaller the team, the better your mentality has to be because most of the time, the other team have the ball. Most of the time, you lose. Most of the time, they're attacking you more than you're attacking them.
Some have [that mentality] naturally, some have to be pushed, some held back. It's about them: without students, there are no teachers. If a student or a player doesn't want to learn, you can't do anything.
Do fans and journalists appreciate the level of talent from the outside, the complexity of it all?
[Legendary Argentina manager Cesar] Menotti used to say that people -- and he meant journalists -- watch the game from the sky, from seats high in the stands. When you see it from there, it's impossible to have the perspective the players have. You see a space where I see a man. The pass doesn't make it and from up there, people say: "What a donkey! He's free..." But down there and all I see is opponents.
Menotti said, "People who watch football from up there have no bloody clue what's happening on the pitch." He'd ask [journalists]: "Have you ever played to be able to know what that space looks like [down there]? You see a space, a player open, but he's 60 metres away! And players move."
But you have to play for that. You have to show them those spaces, how to beat better teams...
Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't. Someone once said to me after a game that we won, "Mister, you planned this game well." I said, "I plan every game well." But the theory ... well, as a friend of mine says "el papel aguanta todo." Everything works on paper. I beat Barcelona once, sure, but I lost eight times.
But the chance is there. Once you're on the pitch, is football still football? There's that famous line "la pelota no se mancha." ("The ball's the one thing that doesn't get stained.") Is that still the case?
I think so. That's the only moment that you feel like we're all equal, that it's democratic, the spirit of football ... the rules were written to play in Africa, in the USA, in England, in Argentina, anywhere.
In society, there's a huge disparity in rules, behaviours, possibilities and opportunity, but in that moment, 11 against 11, you go out there and you can fight with equality, on the same level. That's why football is wonderful.