Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winning isn't the only thing

There are interesting situations playing out in Spain and Argentina this week that show the upside and downside of coaching.

In Spain, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has won 13 out of a possible 16 trophies since taking over four years ago, but he has yet to decide if he wants to coach the club next season.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, Boca Juniors, under coach Julio Cesar Falcioni, won the Argentine league title in December, is undefeated in the past 33 games and is one of the favorites to win the Copa Libertadores. Yet Falcioni is on the verge of being fired.

Both situations make you scratch your head. Success, it seems, doesn’t always generate happiness.

That’s especially true in Guardiola’s case. A great player for Barcelona, where he rose through the club’s youth system, and for the Spanish national team, Guardiola has always been a thinking-man’s coach. Thanks to his game plans, Barcelona, with its exceptional talent, has dominated its opponents.

Since his arrival, Barcelona has won three Spanish league titles, three Spanish Super Cups, two Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups, two European Super Cups and one Copa del Rey.

This season, Barcelona has a two-goal advantage over Bayer Leverkusen going into the March 7 second leg of the second round of the Champions League, and is in the Copa del Rey final May 25 against Athletic Bilbao.

Yet Guardiola has hesitated signing a new contract. Since his initial two-year deal, Guardiola, at his insistence, signed consecutive one-year deals the past two years, but the time frame when he signed those extensions has already passed, and that has club officials nervous.

“I would have liked to have made my decision earlier but it still isn’t clear to me,” Guardiola said. “It’s a personal question. I need to find the motivation to continue and it still isn’t clear.”

That last sentence makes you wonder. If, in his case, job satisfaction comes from acquiring talent and putting a successful game plan together, could the end result — winning — get boring?

View full sizeAlejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty ImagesBoca Juniors coach Julio Cesar Falcioni watches his team play last year.
At 41, Guardiola seems to have other challenges in mind, and as crazy as it sounds, could elect to walk away from the best team in the world.

Falcioni’s situation is different. When he was hired in December 2010, he was the fifth coach Boca Juniors had gone through in a year. He brought stability to a club and its first title since 2008.

But that wasn’t good enough. Boca, Diego Maradona’s former team, likes to think of itself as the South American Barcelona, where you can’t just win, you have to win playing attractive, offensive-minded soccer.

That’s where Falcioni has failed. Boca’s 33-game unbeaten streak has been achieved through a defensive approach, which has angered the team’s rabid fan base. It also hasn’t sat well with team captain Juan Roman Riquelme, who last week reportedly instructed players to play his way, rather than Falcioni’s, which resulted in a heated argument following a scoreless tie in a Copa Libertadores match.

“When you’re a coach, your team can play the way you want,” Falcioni reportedly said to Riquelme after the match. “But here I make the decisions.”

That would have been fine if club officials immediately backed Falcioni, but they didn’t, which has undermined the coach’s authority.

It also didn’t help this year that River Plate, Boca’s biggest rival, was relegated for the first time in its 110-year history. Winning that game has often been more important than winning the league title, and the losing team’s coach usually doesn’t last long.

This year, that’s not a card Falcioni can play.

So in Guardiola and Falcioni we have two extremely successful coaches who, for different reasons, are having difficulty enjoying the end result of their work. And if a coach can’t enjoy winning, why would anyone take the job?

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