The Weight of the Armband
The Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella explains why he made Lionel Messi national captain
"There are different types of leaders," explained Alejandro Sabella. "You have the ones who lead by sheer ability and others who lead because of their personality. In rare cases you have someone who brings together both of those. You could say that is absolute leadership."
Sabella is wearing his tracksuit at the national team's training facilities in Ezeiza outside Buenos Aires on a rainy midweek afternoon. It is where he sees out the interminable periods of inactivity between matches with his coaching staff, studying his players and future opponents, as well as granting the odd interview with the press. His English is still good from his time at Sheffield United and Leeds, but he prefers to speak in Spanish.
The question of leadership was at the heart of Sabella's appointment as Argentina coach in 2011, though he admits, "I don't know if I did enough to deserve this chance," a short — but successful — stint at Estudiantes having been his only experience as a first-team coach. He inherited a squad of top international talent that was rudderless, and far more damning than the way they scraped through the World Cup qualifiers for South Africa, or that they played with four centre-backs in losing 4-0 to Germany in the quarter-final of that competition, or even that they failed to beat Uruguay despite playing against 10 men for most of the match in the Copa América, was what had happened to the most important player. Leo Messi had not scored in 16 matches.
The introverted and softly-spoken Messi clearly does not tick Sabella's two boxes to qualify as an "absolute" leader, or at least not in public. Yet selecting the Barcelona forward as captain was Sabella's first decision on taking over the national team. Just as the new coach was a departure from previous profiles, so too was the new captain. Diego Maradona's leader was Javier Mascherano. "My team is Mascherano plus 10," he'd say, before that soon evolved, or descended, into "Mascherano, Messi, Jonás (Gutiérrez), plus eight."
Sabella shies away from offering the press catchy headlines in press conferences or interviews. But having been Daniel Passarella's assistant coach for 13 years, and a contemporary of Maradona, he knows Argentina's two World Cup winning captains well. Both Passarealla and Maradona demonstrated "absolute leadership", as Sabella defines it. So why change his captain? "Messi is accepted as the leader," said Sabella, "and Argentinians always need a leader, the father figure who does something for us. Our society is like that. In Leo's case, the captaincy has done him good and he has taken on that responsibility. And what is good for him, is good for the team."
Ever since Messi began to wear the captain's armband, his form for Argentina has flourished. Racking up a goal-per-game strike rate and equalling Gabriel Batistuta's record for goals in a calendar year — 12 — have silenced the complaints that he doesn't sing the national anthem. Yet Messi is necessarily playing a different role for Argentina from the one he does with Barcelona. "We are lacking creative players," said Sabella. "We are lacking those more cerebral players who make things happen, players like Iniesta or Xavi Hernández. Historically we had those players, or at least that style of player. We had Aimar, D'Alessandro, Riquelme, Verón, Gallardo, Ortega… that kind of player with great skill and technique, and who created play, from deep or closer to the area, but who fulfilled that role. We are losing those kind of players."
Messi scores a different type of goals for Argentina. "We can't forget that Messi will play one way with us and one way with Barcelona," Sabella said, pointing to the national team's more direct style. "We have scored a lot of goals on the counter, but most of his goals with Barcelona aren't like that, because they dominate possession and play in the other team's half."
Together with the creative DNA of the players he has at his disposal, continuity from club to country is something that concerns Sabella. "Spain is made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid players, with the odd player from another side. The same [template of a national side largely made up from two clubs is true] for Germany. On top of the quality of those players, you have the understanding among them. Also, Del Bosque continued the work of Aragonés, and Löw continued that of Klinsmann." He did not need to underline how that contrasted from the situation he was in.
Months after he had taken the job, with Argentina comfortably top of the South American World Cup qualifying table, Sabella walked into a packed conference room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Buenos Aires. He was the last speaker at an event that had seen the Argentina volleyball and basketball coaches, Javier Weber and Julio Lamas, explain their vision of what leadership is. Guillermo Vilas spoke of how he and Björn Borg shaped tennis. The event was unusually slick and corporate. "See! Things can be done properly here," said one Argentinian journalist who was still adjusting to life back in Buenos Aires after years in Spain.
Sabella was given an ovation as he walked out. "I recently met with Pochettino," he began, speaking of a recent trip to Spain before the younger of the two had swapped Espanyol for Southampton. "He told me that for him the most stressful part of the job was the team talk. I told him I felt exactly the same. I dread giving that talk."
Despite the nerves, Sabella went on deliver what is his blueprint for leadership. It was as far removed from the old-school superstition or tub-thumping that his predecessors had espoused as is imaginable. "The relationship between the coach and the players is sacred," he said, stressing the importance of brutal honesty. "You have to earn the respect of the players, you can never lie to them." He admitted to having once done so and then feeling so bad that he apologised every week until the player in question asked him to stop. He outlined how he builds that respect with his players, through knowledge, through ability to work and through the personal relationship and bond with the squad.
He recounted stories of how he handled situations before the Estudiantes-Barcelona World Club Championship match, but stressed that the key, no matter the match, is motivating the players. The power point presentation brought up a slide entitled, "The Team Talk and Me" — an eight-point plan of what he drills into his players before a game. It hit on what he expects of his players, from "emotional balance" to the virtuous circle of "encouragement-support-help" that his players must show — in Spanish it is a more catchy A-A-A (Aliento, Apoyo, Ayuda). Forgiving mistakes is key. He paraphrased Kennedy — "ask what you can do for your team," and although he forgot the exact Gandhi quote about humility he was looking for, he had made his point. He said the better person is the better professional, and hammered in the notion of Success Equals Team, and vice versa.
Finally, he brought up what is a constant theme in Sabella's discourse — regardless of where he is speaking — the sense of belonging and the honour of representing the shirt. In his first press conference as Argentina coach, he said they must follow the example and generosity of the Argentinian independence hero Manuel Belgrano, the man who "gave everything for his country" — an absolute leader.