- Gustavo Alfaro speaks exclusively to FIFA.com
- Argentinian discusses his career and how he came to coach Ecuador
- Also analyses opening games of South American qualifiers and the challenges ahead
Following his appointment as Ecuador coach, Gustavo Alfaro had less than two months to prepare the team for the start of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup 2022™ and instil in his charges a belief that they could reach the finals in Qatar.
The Argentinian, in charge of a national team for the first time, opts for restraint when summing up the task ahead. “The challenge over the next year and a half is to make that hope a reality,” he tells FIFA.com, in his first exclusive interview since taking up the reins on 26 August.
Following a short playing career as a midfielder with Atletico de Rafaela from 1988 to 1992, Alfaro moved into coaching just a few months after his retirement. Since then, he has worked exclusively in Argentinian football, except for a brief stint in Saudi Arabia, interspersed with work as a TV analyst, which has taken him to the last four World Cups. All this and more was up for discussion in a wide-ranging interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Your spell as a professional footballer was relatively short. Why was that?
Gustavo Alfaro: Football was always my passion. As well as playing for Atletico Rafaela, you could say I grew up there, as my parents were club officials. I dreamed of one day playing in the top flight, avidly listening to football on the radio and updating my own cut-out league tables. However, from Rafaela that seemed a long way off, so I started studying to be a chemical engineer.
Then one year we entered the regional tournament, and from there we got promoted to the B Nacional (second division). I promised my father that I’d play for a while and then resume my studies, and three years later that’s what I did. However, football won out in the end, and I decided to seek out as a coach what I’d longed for as a player. By the age of 30, I was already coaching professionally.
How much of Alfaro the player is in this Ecuadorian team?
A great deal. For starters, there are the values, which you cannot compromise on. Secondly, the determination never to settle and the knowledge that you can always go further. Something I tell my daughters and my players is that it’s okay to have dreams, but don’t sit around waiting for them to happen, go out and seize them. I had to make some difficult decisions, but I was, and am, lucky that they worked out.
Do you think this opportunity has come at just the right time for you?
I’m 58 years old, and, rightly or wrongly, I’ve had to struggle for things. Things don’t just happen overnight. At 34, I was coaching in the second division and convinced that the top flight beckoned, but a year later I was down in the third tier. Sometimes reality knocks you for six and puts you in your place!
Has your work as a television analyst at the World Cup been any help with your current role?
For me, covering a World Cup is like doing a master’s degree. Not only did I watch games, but I discussed football, especially with coaches. I analysed performances and offered tactical explanations: what was such a person hoping to achieve by that decision? I studied the profiles of successful coaches, looking for patterns that I could use one day if I found myself in the same position.
Can you give us an example?
At Brazil 2014, Argentina started with a line of three or five at the back, but at half-time in their first game, [Alejandro] Sabella switched tactics to two lines of four and went on to reach the Final. At that same World Cup, Algeria gave Germany no room out wide and made things so complicated for them on the break with a fast striker that [Manuel] Neuer had to play like a sweeper. Low found the solution in extra time by getting his midfielder [Sami] Khedira to play more directly through the middle. Then there was [Netherlands coach] Louis van Gaal, who changed his goalkeeper just before a penalty shoot-out and it paid off. I want to make decisions like these, which can change the outcome of a match or tournament.
Were there any of your previous clubs that especially prepared you for international management?
Being offered a national team job was the culmination of a long process, but I know I’m here because of my time at Boca Juniors. More than once I’d hoped for this kind of job but, as I didn’t meet certain criteria, people doubted that I had the right profile to take charge of a national team. Boca is not an easy job – it places daily demands on you and everything gets funnelled up to you. That kind of experience puts you in another category, which of course is not to diminish everything that came before, which I greatly value.
What excited you about the Ecuador job?
The potential. I’d watched the development of the young players in the youth teams, and they are a very good crop. There’s also a group of interesting players around 23 years old, but not many between those and the likes of [Christian] Noboa, [Alexander] Dominguez and [Antonio] Valencia. In the rebuilding process, if I can give the team the imprint of Argentinian football, without losing the essence of what makes an Ecuadorian player, then the national team can get back to where it was six years ago and also think about a ten-year development plan.
What was your first challenge in taking on the role so close to the start of qualifying?
Balancing the lack of available time with the need for results while forging a team and group identity. It was almost a case of introducing myself to the players as I sent them out on the pitch, hoping for a good first impression and to quickly establish a rapport. They responded superbly and made things easy for me. I felt like they believed in me and tried to assimilate the advice we gave them.
In your opening two qualifiers you lost narrowly to Argentina and comfortably beat Uruguay. On balance, how would you sum that up?
On the whole it was positive, because we were up against two of the best teams in South America. We played well, especially against Uruguay. We’ve created some expectancy now that we have to deliver on, without believing our own hype. Ecuador won their first four games in the last edition but didn’t qualify for Russia. Anyone that doesn’t know their own history is doomed to repeat it. Our work is just beginning, so we all have that advantage.
The team seemed to throw off their inhibitions against Uruguay. What changed?
I sensed a different performance in the second half against Argentina. I told the players to forget they were facing Argentina and their big names, as that would only make it harder to compete. They had to leave aside any preconceptions – just as with the issue of altitude.
What do you mean by ‘issue of altitude’?
Before the Uruguay game, I pointed out that I was tired of hearing that the real opponent in Ecuador is the altitude. I said to them: ‘Let’s show them that their opponent is the one wearing the shirts and built around football not geography.’ After that I saw a freer more giving team. For me there are three things Ecuador needs to close the gap on higher-ranked sides.
The first is aggression, in the good sense. Due to their biotype, they’re strong, fast, dynamic and technical, but how you contest a ball can sometimes dictate who wins it. This also influences the tactical side of things – they shouldn’t be afraid to defend higher up the field, further from our goal. With their speed, they can regroup quicker.
The second is concentration. My aim is for the players to be able to perceive situations or spaces to take advantage of at any time, because details like that can make the difference at this level. Against Uruguay we gave away two unnecessary penalties because of lapses in concentration.
And third, tactical discipline, and understanding why we do everything. Talent is a pre-requisite, but not enough in itself. All three factors can make us the team I intend us to be.
The three goals conceded in those two games were all from the spot. You could say that’s both a positive and a negative, right?
On the downside, all three were unnecessary: two for sliding tackles in the era of VAR, although the one against Argentina I didn’t agree with, and another for a hand raised in a set piece. Here, small differences can have huge consequences.
Tactically, Argentina prevented us from playing the way we’d hoped: if we’d gone in 0-0 at half-time, the idea was to deploy our fastest players and take advantage of their need to push for a result. Also, these qualifiers are decided not just by points, but often goals, so a better scoreline against Uruguay could have been worth an extra point.
On the positive side, it means that we’re serious in defence, but I have to view the glass as half empty.
How are you planning to face Bolivia and Colombia?
As a whole, we’re thinking about how we’d like to start and finish the game in Bolivia, and how to do likewise in Colombia. For Bolivia, not winning would diminish the progress they’ve made, so we expect them to contest that one like it’s a final. For that reason, we need to be mentally prepared.
After that, Colombia will be very intense, as they have an identifiable style beyond the subtle changes made between the Pekerman and Queiroz eras. Besides, they know what it’s like to win in Quito, so we’ll have to be smart to make sure the game is played in the areas we want it to be.
How do you feel about the early optimism surrounding the team?
Right now, Ecuador is more a handful of very good intentions than a [finished] team. As I said before, the challenge is to convert hope into reality. I’m not here to manage a team but rather to win. For example, who says we can’t win the next Copa America? With my feet firmly on the ground, I have to admit that it’ll be a disappointment if we’re not at the next World Cup, so I’ll be putting my heart and soul into getting Ecuador to Qatar.