African federations need to renew their ideas and improve on their projects.
I had the pleasure to interview Sunshine Stars head coach Rodolfo Zapata. He moved around a few times throughout his career and is now establishing himself as one of the top coaches in Africa.
Rolo Zapata was even in the running to become the next coach of the Super Eagles after their World Cup disaster in South Africa. In the process, Zapata has become one of the hottest coaches in all of African football and I had the pleasure to talk to him candidly regarding all things football.
Rodolfo Zapata: I was a goalkeeper with several teams in Argentina, but my career was cut short due to several knee injuries. I decided to go into teaching as I thought that a coach is first and foremost, a teacher. I studied Physical Education and then I received my coaching certification from Argentine Football Association.
In 1990, I opened up my own sport complex in Bella Vista ( www.rolozapata.com ) and it has affiliate schools in New York and New Jersey. This year we're celebrating our 20th anniversary. I came to the US in 1998 to work with several football organizations in the city of Los Angeles.
In 2001, after one year of teaching courses for coaches in Canada, I signed on to work with the US Olympic Development Program. I was in charge of looking for talent in order to have them play on the various youth national teams there.
I also worked in New York, where I was a teacher over at the United Nations International School.
JA: So how did you get to Nigeria?
RZ: In January I got a call from one of my FIFA representatives to see if I was interested in taking over at Sunshine Stars FC in the Nigerian Premier League. I enjoyed the challenge of working in a culture completely different to that in Argentina and North America. I traded my life in New York for cultural and professional growth in Africa and had great results in the process. In just a few months I was able to help Sunshine Stars to reach the African Confederations Cup.
JA: You were in the eye of the storm when you mentioned to the Nierian press how they had to play in order to beat Argentina. How did you feel being in that position?
RZ: My club officials are members of the Nigerian Football Federation. We always talk about football in general. I always said that the Argentine national teams (much like the Nigerians) were going to depend on individual play and not on preparation or serious work. These flashes of individual play, as was the case with Messi, did not see him shine because there was no true team concept within the Argentine national team. Argentina beat the teams they had to beat, but they lost to the first competitive team they faced. Maradona's team did not have collective functionality and he depended exclusively on the individual brilliance of his players.
The coaches have to show they way in order for the players to follow. A coach can make a mistake when deciding whether to start a Tevez or an Higuaín, they're both great players. The problem lies in not having conrol of the group, of their surroundings, and most importantly- their needs.
JA: What did Nigeria do wrong in the World Cup?
RZ: Nigeria was pure improvisation both on and off the pitch. They made the huge mistake of sacking Shaibu Amodu five months prior to the World Cup. Then they hired Lars Lagerbäck, who took over the team just two weeks before the World Cup. It just didn't seem like a serious plan to me.
JA: Was there something done that you did not think of?
RZ: We all know that with national teams there is little time to do any type of work. The job for a national team coach is to work and selec the best talent he has available. To choose well and set up a team is 80 percent of the job. Lagerbäck turned his back on the players that played in the Nigerian League when he had the time to work on tactics, teamwork, and defensive and offensive movements in some types of training camp.
(Lagerbäck ) trusted in the European-based players, and that's what ended up happening. There are no miracles in football, and anyone who improvises will not be forgiven, especially in a World Cup.
JA: How do you see Argentine football from the outside?
RZ: In Argentina, much like in Africa, the game is a cultural thing. Just like a singer shows it on stage or a writer gathers inspiration through their muse, the footballers does it on the pitch and their tool is the ball.
When I read Paulo Coelho or when I listen to Joaquín Sabina I feel like I am identified and I am represented by them. I always ask myself how Coelho was able to write The Alchemist. It seems like he told my story without getting my authorization. He wrote everything I was thinking, but I couldn't explain it in spoken or written word. The same happens in football.
When I see Barcelona play, I feel like I am represented. They play the way we would all like to play someday.
JA: Can there be any changes made in the football culture in an effort to improve or change the style of play there?
RZ: It's very difficult for it to change for many reasons. One reason is that it's been a few years since a high quality player has not emerged. Based on my criteria, the last two that came out were Tevez and Mascherano. Messi developed in Spain, and the rest are just good players. Inernationally, Spain and Brazil are a cut above everybody else. Argentina are alongside Italy, Germany, France, England, and Holland. That is the second tier.
Argentines should not be conformed with just being an also-ran. We have history and a certain prestige that we have to defend. We all want to win. I don't know of a person that participates in any type of competition and doesn't want to win. Still it's not the same thing coaching Korea or Algria compared to Brazil or Argentina.There are teams that are satisfied with just participating in a World Cup If they get to the second round, even better.
In Argentina's case, they have to always fight for the title or at least get to the final of the World Cup. We have a commitment with history and with football fans all over that expect their stars to reach the Promised Land.
JA: How do you see Nigerian football?
RZ: Nigerian football is very disorganized at the administrative level. I think it's gotten to the point where lots of things have to change. The federations need to renew their ideas and improve on their projects for the betterment of the game on that continent. As far as the product on the pitch, the African sides are not progressing the way we thought they would.
A World Cup was done for the first and only time in Africa. African fans had hopes of crowning one of their teams as world champions. Only Ghana were able to advance out of the group stage and represent Africa; but they were very innocent when it came time to finish Uruguay in quarterfinals.
After several mistakes that were made, the Africans have to come back to their roots; in other words the joy they have for the game, along with more professional organization.
JA: Do you think it's getting better? What is it they are doing to improve?
RZ: I think the Nigerian national team will take an important step in this transition phase. Nigeria need to have players that have the pride needed in order to represent their country. Due to age, several players will have to step aside in order to give these very talented youngsters a chance.
We all know that the typical Nigerian footballer wants to play with style. But playing with style doesn't mean playing well. They are known for their power and pace but tactically they are disorganized. I have the tough task in each practice with Sunshine Stars. I have to even organize them on the pitch during the match. They are very distracted at time. Whenever they do not have the ball, they get desperate and because of their tactical indifference, they don't know how to recover the ball. That is when the fouls begin, and some are even extremely violent.