Javier Aguirre's life in football: coaching Salah, managing in Spain, his desires to move to England
LEGANES, Spain -- "And then he hit it bloody brilliantly, so I ended up looking like a champ."
Javier Aguirre bursts out laughing, and not for the last time. He's reflecting on Manuel Negrete's superb, acrobatic volley at the 1986 World Cup -- and Aguirre's "assist" for the goal, if that's not too generous a word to use, which he's sure it is. Aguirre played for the hosts, Mexico, that summer and was a key player in a team that had been together for an entire year, travelling the world to play games in preparation for the tournament only to lose to Germany in the quarterfinal.
That day in 1986, Aguirre was in tears. Not so much because of the defeat or the red card he received, but because it was The End.
"I was sad because I couldn't help thinking about the fact that that group we had built together was going to break up and it wouldn't ever happen again," he says. "The manager, Bora Milutinovic, said 'Javier, don't try to replicate this, don't try to make 25 players friends.' And he's right. I learned a lesson that day, one I still apply as a coach: you try to build a good collective, real unity, and you get rid of the rotten apple if needs be, but it's not that easy."
He also concedes that there are few friends in football. Not even in that team. "I'll go for a coffee and have a chat with Negrete, but real friends, I don't know. Some, but ..."
Football does that to you, Aguirre says. And few know football like him. He scored 13 in 59 games across nine years for Mexico, but that was his last World Cup as a player. Soon after the tournament, he joined Osasuna in Spain, a journey he would take again 16 years later, this time as coach. Aguirre's half-century in the game, 25 of them as a manager, have taken him to four continents and three more World Cups: once as assistant, twice as coach. Aged 61 but as full of life and entertaining as ever, he is back in Spain via Japan, Abu Dhabi and Egypt.
Aguirre is back in La Liga on a familiar rescue mission, the likes of which he has successfully pulled off before. Leganés are bottom of La Liga. Sitting together at the club's training ground before the coronavirus pandemic would bring such meetings to a halt, a fascinating hour flies by, an exploration of a life in the game spent here there and everywhere. Well, just about everywhere: there is one place, it turns out, he still really wants to go. There are also lessons at every turn delivered by a personality who fills the room, the English he speaks fluently sprinkled through his characteristic Mexican Spanish, packed with slang and swear words, with which he communicates throughout the interview.
More to the point, he's somehow still smiling. The grin is still there. There's no way of wiping it from his face.
"I'm at Leganés: how do I look to you?" Aguirre asks, answering his own question: "I look happy." He does. There's something almost untouchable about him. It's almost like after all these years and all those teams, he's beyond all that. "Yes, totally," he says. "Totally. Absolutely right."
ESPN: After all these years, you didn't need this either, so why come? You could live a life with zero pressure.
Good question. Pressure always affects you because [when] you generate a connection with the lads, you think "I'm not going to abandon them." I could make more money commentating games on television -- double, triple [the money] -- and I wouldn't care who wins.
When Felipe [Moreno, Leganes vice president] and Victoria [Pavón, Leganes president] came for me after five years away in Japan, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, I said to myself, "Is it worth it at 61?" But then I said, "I'll take the challenge."
Why? Because I like it. I like feeling that I'm helping people and able to say: "Come on, we can do this." It's my passion. And if on top of that, I'm 20 minutes from home [Aguirre has a house in Madrid] and they put money in my account every month... haha! It's not bad. Thank God every day.
Do you have anything to prove?
No, nothing. I don't care. My career in Spain and in Mexico has been... well, average [in English]. People say "a relegation here might affect your reputation, the way you're seen by fans in Mexico." But I can't think about that: I have to think about the 25 [players] who are here, to help the family.
Twenty-five are here; two aren't. [He's referring to the January sales of forwards Youssef En-Nesyri and Martin Braithwaite, to Sevilla and Barcelona respectively, for a combined profit of 30 million euros.] En-Nesyri and Braithwaite were so important and a good partnership despite the fact that they seem very different: one's a bit hot-headed, the other very sensible ... we were winning games with them and then, pfff, En-Nesyri goes. Next, Martin does.
Publicly, you can't say "we're screwed" but you must be thinking "this isn't the team I took on"?
Of course. Deep down. I'm saying to my wife, "I signed for one team, now I have another." Guido [Carrillo] was my sub for games when we had to hit the ball long, high. Now he's my starter. It's not just the players; it's the formation, the approach. I can't play with five at the back anymore; it has to be four [at the back] with two forwards, looking for crosses. If they're slow [up front], I can't play on the counter [like before], waiting, ready to spring ... We have to go tumba abierta ["all out"]: press, rob higher, [risk] leaving space, try to play in the opposition's half. I have to convince them, win them over.
Are you a seducer when it comes to management?
Totally, totally. Seduction is a good word. All managers have that power of conviction. You have to be able to reach them. I'll give you an example: I speak English and in Abu Dhabi it was OK, but in Egypt and Japan ... grrr ... body language helps a lot but it's not totally effective.
There are two great managers that [Spain] has given us, maybe the best, and they're Vicente del Bosque and Luis Aragones. Both failed in Turkey. They failed. Because they're both about talking, about reaching players and [in Turkey] they couldn't. Even if the translator is perfect, it's not the same. In Japan, when I arrived, they said "Mister, don't shout at the players a lot." And I said, "What did you sign me for, then?"
You say "act" -- is being manager an act? Is there a touch of pantomime about it?
Absolutely. Look at [Tottenham manager Jose] Mourinho, [Man City manager Pep] Guardiola, [Liverpool manager Jurgen] Klopp. It comes out naturally -- it's not something that you learn at [coaching] school -- but there's a role played. Look at what [Atletico Madrid manager Diego] Simeone does: he's a conductor [of the crowd].
There are lots of "classroom" coaches [with] videos and stats, but then on the pitch, you have to have the power of conviction, the ability to seduce, to have that smile. Nowadays there are so many stats and this [points at his nose] doesn't get used anymore. But that will be [my tool] until I die; I get told things, I can have 17 assistants telling me to do something based on the data, but I still trust in it.
It's our obligation to have all that information, to know it and understand it, but not to only use that or to weigh players down with it all. You have to reach them.
When you see Klopp, what do you see?
Personality, character, closeness ...
Exactly that. And on top of that he's tall. With that guy, you'd go to war.
Or to the pub.
Haha! Exactly that. And then you'll see coaches who for the whole 90 minutes are sitting there, noting things down alongside their assistant. What does that guy say to you?!
The example is Barcelona assistant Eder Sarabia, who cameras caught swearing on the bench during the clásico. This is just a guy doing his job, isn't it?
Of course. He's doing his job, and that's it. The man doing that has to have a feeling for how far he can do that, where the limits are. And that's not easy.
Players "smell" the manager: they look at how you dress, how you talk, how you write, how you teach. They're looking at you with a magnifying glass. "This guy doesn't even know how to control a ball, what's he going to teach me?"
You became a coach when you were still a player: what did they see in you?
I had leadership; what I didn't have was quality. I talked a lot. I had a coach, a Chilean -- and Bora [Milutinovic] later did this in the World Cup with me too -- who had worked out that the rules said that if you asked a referee for permission to leave the pitch, he had to let you go. "I'm going to change my boots," or "I'm going to the toilet." So I would go and sit with the manager. "Look, Rodri has to go here, Gabri there ..." and I would go back onto the pitch: "Right, [you two] swap positions." I went on as a coach. I did that at the '86 World Cup. Instead of Bora shouting from the touchline, you go and listen, then deliver that instruction.
As a player, I had an ascendancy over others. It was natural, I hadn't studied it. I had studied business and finance at university; what I was on the pitch came naturally. I never gave up, and if you made a mistake I was never on you. I was all: "Come on, we can do this." I was a good example: I would be the first to get there, I would leave last, I never asked anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself. I was never captain, but I was always there on top of everything.
I'd let others play: the ones who knew how. But I had vision, leadership, a mouth.
Do you see players now who are like you were?
Yes, of course, but it's also true that we have lost a bit of that love for the shirt that used to be there.
I remember at Osasuna, we had 14 or 15 youth-team players and it was wonderful. The other seven or eight saw their behaviour and, bam they followed. Work, respect, hierarchies, love for the badge: you [love] it or they don't let you into that group. You need players with that ascendancy.
When I went to Zaragoza, I had players from 15 different countries and it was impossible. You can't work like that. You don't reach them. There was a Hungarian who spoke no English, Spanish or even French. How do you talk to him? How do you reach him? He was a good player. I was saying: get yourself a Spanish girlfriend, go to the university of Zaragoza, do some classes, find some Hungarians who can help, find a translator. I told him things as best I could with pictures and arrows, but it was impossible.
Why did you end up with Japan's national team, then? It doesn't make sense.
You're right: it doesn't make sense. But you know what happened? I reached a point that I realised I had been in Spain for 11 years. There were young coaches, talented, ready, handsome, their hair like this ... [Aguirre gestures as if he had luxuriant locks]
Did you feel past it?
I didn't feel past it but I did feel that the jobs weren't there to be offered for our generation any more. So, the job offers were always to replace people [at clubs in trouble].
And from there, to the United Arab Emirates?
I was [at Al Wahda] for two years, I won two cups. I liked it as a life experience because I began to understand the Arabic world better. I think the information that reaches the West is skewed. You go there, and you see for yourself. You think: they have their culture, their prayers, it's different, yes, but they're good people, noble people. Talented, kind, friendly people. And you feel bad about your lack of knowledge.
Thanks to football, I've travelled around the world with my wife: Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas. Ignorance might make you think, for example "imagine [how bad it is] living in, say, Nigeria or Vietnam" but you go and they are wonderful places; everywhere I have been has been great.
Would you call it racism?
I'd call it ignorance more. People think of Mexico, say, and think "people get killed, there are narcos and yes, there are. But it's a country with many different dimensions: a wonderful country, with great food, I invite you there and you have a great time, gloria bendita... there are bad people everywhere. And good people too. [These experiences were] very good for me, I think: they opened my mind. It was also good for me because I've been married for 37 years and I have been with my wife for 41 and one day when we started out, very young, 18, 19, we said: 'one day we'll live in Paris.' And with what I earned in Abu Dhabi, we went to Paris for a year.
You worked with Mo Salah when you coached the Egypt national team?
It would surprise you what a good lad he is, how noble: he's the first to the team talks, the first in the gyms, the most serious. There's a question, though: he's the best player in Africa, with Sadio Mane, and he's Muslim too. And carrying those two labels, with the pressure that brings, is very, very hard. He has no breathing room.
In England, he can be happy: there are 17 other players. But he sets foot in Egypt and it's madness. He's a lovely lad, delightful; the difficulty is everything that goes around him, the pressure. He has to be careful about the tiniest thing. He's so pure, so innocent too; he doesn't have that touch of picaresque that Argentinians or Uruguayans have. He's transparent, honest, straight. Like English football, in fact.
You like that?
I love English football because of that. You see two players clash: carry on. They jump, they compete and the game goes on. English fair play is something I love. Here in Spain, it's become viciado, polluted. In the 80th minute suddenly the players on the winning team have all got cramp. Why don't the players on the losing team ever get cramp? There are 7, 8 minutes that don't even get played. Players on the floor, looking around like this [gestures]. Down they go.
In England, it's cleaner, there's more fair play. And Salah is like that. He's pure. The question is that he has such a huge weight of responsibility on him.
Why did you never go to England given what you're saying and the fact that you speak such good English?
Good question. I think I never had an agent ...
I don't know. There was never anyone who said "OK, I'm going to get you that [job]..."
I got a call once from West Brom. It was Boxing Day, 2013, and I was at Espanyol and they asked me to come to England. "Please, come tomorrow: we'll pay Espanyol." I spoke to my wife and my assistant, and we decided it wasn't the right thing to do to Espanyol. I almost had tears in my eyes.
It's my dream to go and coach in England. Even the Championship. I'd go to the Championship tomorrow. But we said we couldn't; we said it wouldn't be right, we couldn't leave Espanyol [while they were fighting relegation]. I said "I can't" with a heavy heart.
Is going to England still something you'd like to do?
Absolutely. Still. Of course. If I coached in England, I could retire happy, fulfilled.
I have coached at World Cups. I have coached in Africa, Asia, Spain, Mexico. But I'm missing the top-top. I would go to the Championship tomorrow. Well, not tomorrow, I have a job to do here. But
Who invented football? [The English.] The essence of football is there, the fans are there, the respect for the manager and the clubs is there. My son was at Blackburn Rovers for two years and I went to watch them play and it was wonderful. There's a respect for the winner, the loser, the referee, the kids. It's wonderful. Sure, there was an era of hooligans, direct football, but that's over now. You go to a game with your kids and there's no problem.
But when I have been on the market, nothing has come from England, no offers at all.
You came to Leganés when you weren't really in the market either; it felt as if you had gone, that coaching was behind you.
I agree. But I am here again now. If I save Leganés, there will be people thinking "This bastard has a good record." Over 12 years in Spain, my numbers are good. I think I'm qualified.
Are you worried that you'll be seen always as a fireman? Someone called in for a short-term fix, not a man to build a project?
Not at all. I'm not scared of anything. If they want a project, they can see what I did at Pachuca, the three years there; the four years at Osasuna; the three at Atlético. I can work for three years, I can work for 20 games, no problem. As long as if I've got work, I'm a happy man.