Pizzi: 'Bobby Robson Led Barcelona Through the Hardest Era in 20 Years'
“Most of the time, you fail; there are many more defeats than victories,” Juan Antonio Pizzi says. He is right, even when it comes to his peer group – possibly the most successful coaching class in history – but it is still an unusual reflection for a man who was La Liga’s top scorer and, as a player and manager, won the league in three countries. All the more so when it is a reflection prompted by the time he led Chile to the 2016 Copa América. Minutes after winning the final, Pizzi sat before the press – and started talking about failure.
He laughs now but there was a lesson there. “It’s true: when you take over a team, most of the objectives you set, you fail to meet,” he says. “And however much you try to console yourself with your style, methodology, some improvement, what you want is to win and when you don’t, which is most of the time, disappointment comes. You lose more than you win and your mind is occupied more with defeat than enjoying victory, which is gone very quickly.”
So, why do it? Pizzi laughs again. Because. As he looks over his career there is plenty of chance; as he looks at that team, the one that may have been the origin of his coaching career, it can feel like fate. Alongside him as Barcelona kicked off the 1996-97 season were Julen Lopetegui, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. In fact, of that XI only two didn’t become coaches – and both stayed in football – and only five members of the squad didn’t become managers or sporting directors, and that includes a scout, a president and a candidate to head Fifa. Even the translator became a coach. You’ll have heard of him.
“José Mourinho was very, very intelligent; he absorbed knowledge and methodology very fast,” Pizzi says. “But no, no one imagined this. In fact, he was very respectful, very aware of his role, although he was astute in learning from both managers.” The first of those was Bobby Robson, the second Louis van Gaal, and Pizzi learned from them too. They all did. So much so that when Pizzi is asked whether there’s an explanation for that team producing so many managers, he responds swiftly: “Yes.”
“Robson would get names wrong and we’d be there shooting looks at each other, going along with it. But he was fundamental: he had to lead Barcelona through the hardest era in 20 years, making that post-Cruyff period as trauma-free as possible. That was his great virtue. He was old school, close to the players, and the lessons from him were not just about football, they were human. He was an exceptional person and whenever we meet up, we remember him fondly.
“He and Van Gaal used different means, let’s say. One was emotive, human; the other, Louis, based his work more on tactical knowledge, structure. There was respect but it was ideas and his ideas were genuinely different. Barcelona came from a Dutch footballing culture with Cruyff and Van Gaal shared that but it was very theoretical, very methodical, analytical. I’ve been lucky with the coaches I played for and you take things from all of them.”
Not that those things necessarily added up to managerial material. After retiring, Pizzi and his wife opened a shop selling Argentinian polo gear but that didn’t go well. He advised agents on the signing of players. It wasn’t until later that he went on a coaching course with former Spain and Barcelona teammates in Las Rozas, northwest of Madrid.
“At times your personality opens a pathway and, even if you don’t realise it, you end up being what deep down you really want to be without even knowing it,” he says. “There were 20 or so of us – Pep, Luis Enrique, Nadal, Alkorta, Salinas, Ferrer – and we went in part because we had time to fill, but you start to feel ideas forming, you learn, begin to wonder if you can do this, if you can sit in a job interview and convince.”
One colleague and friend was already convinced. “Pep had such conviction in his footballing vision,” Pizzi says. “He has brought those to England; football there had already evolved a lot but he represented a change and you can see his identity on that team. He doesn’t need to win the Champions League for people to appreciate that. A coach doesn’t need a title, which depends on so many factors, to express his virtues; the analysis has to look beyond that. It’s like Messi: he doesn’t have to win a World Cup to prove he’s the most transcendental player in history.”
Pizzi speaks as one who denied Messi an international title. Having coached in Argentina, Peru, Chile, Mexico and Spain, Pizzi got the Chile job in 2016. He was not first choice, he knows, and talks openly of coincidence and chance, of luck, of opportunity arriving out of the blue, but he led them to the final with players such as Claudio Bravo, Eduardo Vargas and Arturo Vidal – “a completely different person to the perception that many have of him because of the way he looks, the image that he projects: super professional, super respectful, a very good teammate, a man of solidarity”.
Alexis Sánchez, too. “Alexis was in a perfect place at Arsenal,” Pizzi says, “and suddenly he changes city, coach, teammates, fans [by joining Manchester United] ... sometimes that adaptation happens quickly, sometimes it takes longer. In Alexis’s case, I think it took too long. He didn’t seem to be able to connect and emotionally he dropped. The consequences of that state of mind were translated in his performances. I don’t know what destiny holds for him but I think this experience in Italy [at Internazionale], away from English football, might be good for him. I really hope so. I’m sure that if he can find tranquillity and his form, he’ll be very important for United.”
In the final Chile beat Messi’s Argentina. Pizzi’s Argentina, too. As a player he had made his Spain debut against the country of his birth; now as a manager he had denied them. “The truth is, I didn’t enjoy it fully. Of course I was happy my team had won but I couldn’t rid myself of my feelings for Argentina. That’s a risk you take on when you work for another national team; It’s not a pleasant situation to play against the country where you were born, where your friends are, your family ...”
Maybe that touch of melancholy was there in what he said at the end? Maybe, but Pizzi sees it as realism. As he celebrated, he knew losses had led him there and more would follow. That’s about all he knows for sure, all any of us do. Like everyone, he is in lockdown, back in Argentina. There, he waits. And then, there is no plan. Is England an option? “Of course. It’s a great league, the best in the world, an aspiration for all coaches. But football takes you: it’s the game that decides. Football leads you down the path football wants, not the one you map out.”