The man behind Costa Rica – memories of Jorge Luis Pinto

The Pascual Guerrero Stadium, Cali, was the home ground for both America and Deportivo Cali.

The Pascual Guerrero Stadium, Cali, was the home ground for both America and Deportivo Cali.

 

One evening in the early 1990s my son Ned and I found a free table at Pascualitos café in the centre of Cali, awaiting the ‘classico’. It was hot and humid evening and the café, right across the street from the Pascual Guerrero Stadium, was doing good business. The café was run by true brothers. The elder brother served us cold drinks, telling us that America were to once more overcome their local adversary Deportivo Cali (typically referred to as ‘Cali’). The younger brother would hardly have agreed, being a Cali fan. The evidence of the split in the family was plain to see as the walls of the little café were adorned with both the red of the  ‘Diablos Rojos’ of America  and the green of the ‘Azucareros’ of Cali.

We sat there for half an hour, listening to the tango music that they invariably played there, watching supporters bedecked in green or red, passing by. There was a carnival atmosphere and not a hint of trouble as the rival supporters intermingled. There was talk that Cali’s controversial new coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, was going to bring back the glory days to the club. The previous decade had seen a shift in power within the city and Cali had not won a championship, being beaten three times in the final of the playoffs by America. America had started to dominate the Colombian league and had reached three Copa Libertadores finals.

pintoThe volatile Pinto was not a universally popular appointment for Cali fans at the time. He had never played professional football and had started out as a fitness coach for Millionarios in Bogota. Following a sojourn in Brazil he joined the coaching staff of Union Magdalena, in the town of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Pinto was then to embark on a degree course in Cologne, Germany.  His dedication to professional advancement was to pay dividends for him in 1984 when he returned to Millionarios as their Director Tecnico (DT), head coach. He was to also become DT at the other big Bogota team, Santa Fe, and at his old club, Union Magdalena, before arriving in Cali.

Pinto had inherited a difficult situation at Cali. It was a big old club on its way down, but the fans maintained their expectations for the kind of football they had seen during the reign of that most elegant of Colombian midfield players, Carlos Valderrama. Under the influence of Pinto, Cali were to become more physically competitive, but were to lack the class of previous teams that had worn the green jersey. They could not overcome the stranglehold of their city rivals. Pinto lasted a year before moving on.

Over the 20 years since leaving Cali, Pinto was to become the ultimate journeyman, changing his job 14 times.  Returning to previous clubs has been his forte. Following his departure from Cali he went back to Santa Fe, then back to Union Magdalena. He was national coach for both Costa Rica in 2004-05 and Colombia in 2007-08. Given his previous pattern it was no surprise that he came back to lead the Costa Rica national team in 2011.

Gabriel Ochoa Uribe, manager of the highly successful America side of the 1990s, once said that Pinto has one obvious weakness: his personality. There is no doubt that Pinto is a prickly character to deal with. However, his travels and studies have left him with a wealth of football knowledge in his head.

Costa Rica have been the surprise team in the current World Cup. Pinto has welded together a group of players who play for unfashionable clubs in Europe and the Americas into a highly organized outfit, showing no mean level of skill. Playing a back line of three central defenders they play a high pressing game which stymies their opponents. To play at such a tempo makes physical demands on the players but given Pinto’s background we can expect his team to be as fit as any in the competition.

On Sunday Costa Rica play Greece in the knockout phase. Can the Central American team continue to punch above its weight under the guidance of its colourful coach?

Only time will tell. But while Pinto could not produce miracles a couple of decades ago at Cali, he has shown he can come close to doing so on a world stage. His tactics have been spot-on up to this point and it will be interesting to see if he tweaks them in the Greece  game. His side have won a lot of support from neutral fans and deservedly so.  They will continue to be backed by a strong Tico contingent who have made the journey to the south. That crowd support could make a difference in what is going to be a tense affair in the steaming heat of Recife.

Pinto is in his third year as coach of Costa Rica, equaling the longest stay he has had anywhere during his turbulent career. The 61 year old Colombian, who stands at 5’5”, has come so far over these years. To win a group containing the likes of England, Italy and Uruguay was beyond belief, but can he now take it a stage further?

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Latics’ Young and Global Fanbase

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In the early 1990’s we lived in Colombia.

Friends in England used to ask why we would choose to live in a dangerous place like that. That was a hard question to answer.

How can you explain what a country is really like to someone who has never been there? I would mention the warmth of the people, the climate and the countryside – part coastal paradise, part jungle, part Andes mountains –  so colourful and diverse. It never seemed to convince people that it was a good place to live. They probably thought I would catch a stray bullet and that would be the end of me.

My son, Ned, started watching live football when he was six years old. We were living in Mexico City at the time.  Twice a week I would take him to a match – usually to watch America, Cruz Azul or Necaxa play at the huge and impressive Aztec Stadium. Sometimes we would go further afield to the Olympic Stadium to watch Pumas or to the stadium in the centre of that vast city, where Atlante played. We went to two playoff finals at the Aztec Stadium with crowds in excess of 120,000. The stadium capacity was 105,000 but counterfeit tickets added extra people to the crowd.

Colombians and Mexicans  loved football as much as we did in the UK. The difference was that in both countries attendances could be sparse for run-of-the-mill games, but the big matches would fill the stadia. But then again football filled the air waves – there was always football to watch on tv.

Our visits to England in those days were limited by the cost of flying. However, whenever we got there we would visit my father in Wigan and take a trip to Springfield Park. Ned probably cannot remember watching Bryan Hamilton’s Latics team in a visit  to England from Colombia. His most impressive recollection is later – watching the Three Amigos play in a pre-season friendly, with Roberto Martinez scoring a well taken goal.

From an early age, Ned had become a Latic fanatic. Every week my father would send us cuttings of match reports and features on Latics from the newspapers.  It helped to keep us updated in those pre-internet days.

Ask a Colombian in their thirties which Italian team he likes best and he will probably roll out the usual suspects – AC, Inter and Juventus. But you will also find Parma high on the list. Why Parma?

Faustino Asprilla joined Parma in 1992 and helped them win the European Cup Winners Cup in his first season. The following season they signed  Gianfranco Zola. Practically every Parma match was shown on Colombian television and people were glued to their sets, watching their footballing hero Asprilla. The combination of Asprilla and Zola was to tear defences apart and little club Parma was to win the UEFA Cup in 1994-95. It was the era when those people who are now in their thirties were in their teenage years.

A lot of people get hooked on a team when they are in their early teens. Last May when I was living in Jakarta most teenagers in Indonesia liked Man U, Chelsea or Man City. Fake replica shirts of those clubs were rampant on the streets. However, the expat enclave had a high proportion of Liverpool fans. Hardly any of them were actually from Liverpool – many were Scandinavians in their forties. The successes of Liverpool in the 1980’s must have impressed them as teenagers, let alone that Liverpool have had a fair share of good Nordic players over the years.

In January 2010 the Daily Mail quoted Latics manager Roberto Martinez saying that: ‘In terms of the future we have the highest number of youngsters as season tickets holder in the Premier League. I think it is about 20 per cent of Wigan’s population at under 16 are season ticket holders, so there are many, many positive signs.’

Even kids on the street  in Indonesia are likely know the name of Wigan Athletic right now. Winning the FA Cup has put Latics on the global map.

When I was on holiday in Saigon in January I saw a young Asian man wearing a Wigan Athletic shirt. I went over and asked him if he was a Latics fan. He was Vietnamese and had taken a liking to Latics after seeing them play on television. He had been looking for a replica shirt for some time and managed to find one when he went to Singapore for a holiday.

Some of the young Indonesians would probably buy a Latics shirt too, if they were available in their country.  Indonesians are crazy about English football and with a population of 250 million there are huge marketing opportunities. Once Manchester United signed Park Ji-Sung they won a lot of followers in Korea, selling lots of expensive replica shirts in the process.

Football continues to adjust slowly to the modern world. Video technology has still not been embraced as it has in all other major world sports. However, clubs have started to realise that they have not just a national, but a global, audience. Being relegated from the Premier League means that Latics’ overseas fans have much less access to watching games now. Surely the day will come when all their matches are streamed live overseas through pay-for-view internet? There is money to be made there, let alone in following up on the interest created by selling club merchandise.

Making contact with the local community is becoming more and more important for English football clubs. There was good news last week that the Wigan Athletic Community Trust has been given a £270,000 grant to help up to 70 local primary schools with their football and PE programmes. Latics have  a lot to gain from such an arrangement, building up an early bond with potential young supporters and in providing further links for the club’s Academy to identify young local talent for the future.

19 year old Tim Chow. Thanks to Wigan Athletic official club site for photo.

19 year old Tim Chow. Thanks to Wigan Athletic official club site for photo.

Wigan Athletic have not been particularly successful in nurturing young players from their own back yard, more often than not relying on picking up youth players released by big Premier League clubs in the north west. It is good to see Wigan lad, Tim Chow, currently coming through the ranks in the under 21 team.  There need to be more like him.

Year by year while they were in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic were gradually building up a global fan base. When Ben Watson’s header went in at Wembley it magnified the club’s image on a global level. Being in the Europa League is also giving them more exposure.

Wigan Athletic have turned the corner as far as support is concerned. Their potential fan base is far greater than it has ever been before.

There is a young core of supporters who will remain fans for years to come.  As the club steps up its involvement in the local community more and more people will be drawn to the DW Stadium.

Moreover it now has a global following, that if nurtured, could reap dividends.

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Chile and Latics’ Identity

Above: Owen Coyle, Marcelo Bielsa and Roberto Martinez.

To beat England at Wembley is something to savour.  The look of joy on the faces of the Chilean players after beating England 2-0 on Friday was memorable.

Chile had beaten an experimental England team. Things would have been much harder against the first choice home country lineup. In contrast with England, Chile put forward a team that had played together throughout the demanding South American qualifiers for the World Cup. Moreover having a good prior record against England they were not going to be intimidated.

The  manner of Chile’s victory was something Roberto Martinez would have approved of.

In the first half they threw caution to the wind and attacked England. The forwards Jean Beausejour, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez  were a constant danger and the Latics player got into a good scoring position in the 31st minute. He could not put it away. But then again, if Beausejour were able to score from positions like that on a regular basis would he still be at Wigan?

In the second half Chile had to defend against England pressure and they were unable to keep up the football of the first half. However, they maintained their composure, passing the ball out of defence, despite having ten England players almost camped inside their half.

It is something that Owen Coyle’s current defensive quartet could not even dream about.

Chile’s attacking style derives from the time Marcelo Bielsa was coach. Current incumbent Jorge  Sampaoli recognizes Bielsa’s influence saying  that “Through his excellence he justifies an attacking style that I have always identified with, and I subscribe to his philosophy and ideas.” .

Chile typically played a high defensive line, meaning their defenders were pushed into risky last-ditch tackles when their forward pressing was by-passed.

Bielsa clearly influenced Sampaoli, but probably also Martinez and his preferred style of play .

I first saw a Bielsa team twenty years ago when I was living in Cali, Colombia. Bielsa’s Newells Old Boys played at the atmospheric Pascual Guerrero Stadium in Cali in the semi final of the Copa Libertadores. They knocked out local club America – who had a great record in the Copa – on penalties . Newells were to be defeated by  Sao Paolo in the final, also on penalties. The football of that Newells of Cordoba team at the time was something different.

Back in Colombia a decade later, I was to see Bielsa’s Argentina team draw 1-1 with Colombia in a World Cup qualifying match in Barranquilla. Argentina  played an exciting formation with three central defenders and two wing backs. Captain Roberto Ayala was superb in the Gary Caldwell role in the centre of defence and Hernan Crespo  got their goal. Bielsa was not to achieve World Cup success with Argentina despite a record of W42 D16 L10 during his tenure.

Chile are an exciting team to watch, almost a throwback to the times when teams attacked with abandon. Last year Barcelona paid dearly against Bayern Munich for their lack of height in the centre of defence. But Chile played 5’8” Cardiff midfielder Gary Medel in a three man defence against an England team who are always going to be dangerous from set pieces.

Sampaoli has bravely continued with the tactical approach put in place by Bielsa from 2007-2011. The team seems to play without fear, characterised by high pressing and 3-3-1-3. Even when under intense pressure they continue to play with composure and belief. Critics would say that the approach is naïve, but it has produced the best results Chile have ever had.

In Bielsa’s  early days at Chile they were able to get a point away to Uruguay at Montevideo and also to beat Argentina. Both were firsts for Chile. But then there was the flip side –  heaviest-ever home defeats in qualifiers, 3-0 against both Paraguay and Brazil.

If Bielsa achieved anything with Chile then it was  giving them an “identity”. In order to play in such a way every player needed to buy in to the system. Players coming in would know exactly what was expected of them and would play with enthusiasm.

At Wigan,  Martinez probably aspired to what Chile do, but never quite had the players to do it. But there are clear parallels.

Latics certainly had those ups and downs, with fantastic  wins over the elite clubs that dominate English football, but also humiliating eight or nine goal defeats.

But then again, like Chile under Bielsa or Sampaoli, there was  certainly “identity”.

Chile will probably get undone in the World Cup finals through set pieces. For the moment they are fascinating to watch, playing with confidence and with a strong footballing philosophy.

Since Martinez left Wigan the style of football has nose-dived. There is a distinct lack of identity about the way this current Latics team plays.

It remains to be seen whether Owen Coyle can provide the results to go along with his more ‘direct’ approach of football.

In the meantime we continue to look for an ‘identity’ at Wigan.

But then again lovers of good football will hope it does not resemble an identity such as those developed by Sam Allardyce at Bolton and Tony Pulis at Stoke.

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Postscript

Current Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino and current Southampton manager Mauricio Pocchetino played in Bielsa’s Libertadores Cup Final team for Newells. As coaches both follow the example of Bielsa
– an attacking approach, with high pressing.

Wigan Athletic & Honduras: A love story

It was a chilly evening in Bloemfontein. The 2010 World Cup was in full swing, and while the rest of the world adjusted their TV sets for the decisive Group H match — Spain vs. Chile — my party set off for Free State Stadium amid a sea of blue and white stripes.

My wife Kat and I, fresh from a 12 hour drive from Port Elizabeth where we’d taken in England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia a couple days prior — wore Wigan Athletic shirts. My brother-in-law John, also dressed in Wigan from head to toe, had followed Honduras’ progress through the qualifiers and ensured we had tickets for the group match against Switzerland. Everyone else wore Honduras colours, but by the time we arrived at the stadium, the distinction was blurred.

On paper, the match was a drab 0-0 that dumped Switzerland out of the tournament (Honduras had already been knocked out after defeats against Spain and Chile). But for Hondurans, this was an historic night. Second World Cup, their first since 1982. And it might have been a first win but for some good goalkeeping from the Swiss. The draw was seen as a dignified way to bow out of an extremely tricky group, in their second World Cup appearance. Switzerland had defeated Champions-to-be Spain only a week prior — they were no slouches.

On the pitch, former Latics favourite Wilson Palacios bossed the midfield alongside Hendry Thomas, still a Wigan player at the time. They never got to play together at the JJB or DW, a shame based on the tenacity displayed that evening. Maynor Figueroa, heroic in previous matches despite the defeats, continued his fine form in defense. Current Latics target Roger Espinoza was on the bench. As Figueroa walked toward the tunnel at the end of the match, I shouted in Spanish, “Maynor, por favor quedate en el Wigan!” [Maynor, please stay at Wigan] As the words registered, he retreated back out of the tunnel, stuck his back out head out, and gestured a thumbs up my way. True to his word, he remains a fixture at Wigan Athletic to this day.

I’ve since learned that we were not the only Latics supporters following Honduras at that World Cup. For years now, a curious bond has formed between the Central American nation and the northern town of Wigan.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in Colombia, I know what it means for a Latin American country to see their footballer exports succeed abroad. My dad would pull me out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch Faustino Asprilla play for Parma, and later Newcastle. This was long before the days of Ivan Cordoba’s success at Inter Milan, or the present day golden generation of Colombians succeeding in Europe led by Radamel Falcao. There were two or three players plying their trade abroad, and their every movement was watched with pride.

In many ways, Wigan Athletic has become dear to Hondurans as Parma did to Colombians back in those days. If Roger Espinoza completes his rumoured move from the MLS upon the expiration of his contract, he will become the fourth Honduran to play for the Latics. It is no coincidence that Honduras qualified to their first World Cup in 2010, as their players found first team football in top level leagues. Wigan continue to give their players a stage, an opportunity to grow — and they are reaping the benefits. Needing a win to progress in CONCACAF qualifying yesterday, they annihilated Canada 8-1 and in turn leapfrogged them and Panama to win their qualifying group in the final fixture. Their excellent showing at the Olympics proved there is more talent coming through, Espinoza included. A second consecutive World Cup is a possibility.

And so, there is a real bond between Honduras and Wigan Athletic. Jet-lag aside, Honduras’ success in the qualifiers can only be good for the Latics. Maynor Figueroa has grown immensely over the years. Honduras was the first to use him as a left centre-half, and it wouldn’t be surprising if watching Honduras had persuaded Roberto Martinez to use him in the same way in Wigan. The experience these players gain in major tournaments ultimately strengthens their performances for the club. If Rodallega had been able to break into the Colombian team, he too, might have further developed. As it was, he fell down the pecking order and stagnated for both club and country.

So keep an eye out for our Honduran brethren in the final six-team CONCACAF group stage. With Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica for company — three automatic berths, and a playoff against Oceania — you may have another reason to travel to Brazil in 2014.

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