Just a few days shy of his 60th birthday, the Uruguayan Martin Lasarte accepted the biggest challenge of his coaching career by taking charge of the Chilean national team, who are determined to make it back to the FIFA World Cup™ after missing out on Russia 2018.
And while this is his first stint in charge of a national team, Lasarte has ample coaching experience in South American, including in Chile, where he has managed two of the country’s top three sides: Universidad Catolica and Universidad de Chile, guiding the latter to three titles.
Known as Machete for his hard-hitting tackles as a player, Lasarte was the coach who gave Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann their professional debuts at Uruguay’s Nacional and Spain’s Real Sociedad respectively. On top of that, he has coached in countries as varied as Colombia, UAE and Egypt – his last stop before taking up the Roja reins.
His first official matches will be against Argentina and Bolivia as part of the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, where Chile currently languish outside the qualifying berths in sixth place. That campaign, as well as this year’s Copa America and the team’s objectives, were all up for discussion during an interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: What attracted you to the Chile role at this point in your career?
Martin Lasarte: Firstly, it’s always enticing and interesting to be offered a national team job, but there was also a sense of belonging. I worked here for almost four years and it was a very good period for me, personally and professionally. I’d been shortlisted for the position before but only this year did a concrete opportunity arise. I don’t know if it was the best or worst time for it, but I’m here now. Once you accept, there’s a lot at stake… but I’m confident we can achieve the goals we’ve set.
How have you adapted to your first international coaching role, not to mention starting it in the midst of a pandemic?
Today, like everyone else, we find ourselves in a very specific situation that requires us to be inventive, to bring out the best in ourselves, and that’s where we’re at. There is a lot of deskwork: watching recordings of matches and videos, reviewing stats, talking with players and colleagues, making plans… In that regard, I feel very good. But unquestionably you miss the day-to-day routine: going to training, welcoming and chatting to the players, seeing if the weekend games reflected the work put in during the week. You just have to adapt. Ultimately, that has been one of the hallmarks of my career, adapting to different cultures and countries. I think it’s something I do without great difficulty.
How would you assess Chile’s start to the qualifiers?
In football there’s a lot of talk about how one feels [about a game], but the table doesn’t lie. On that basis, our position is somewhat compromised. That said, I feel that Chile deserve to have more points, which would have put us into the qualifying berths. Colombia got a point against us after a very stop-start game, while Uruguay beat us thanks to a long-range strike in the last minute. Even Venezuela’s winner came late in the game, so Chile had its chances. That’s useful for establishing what lies ahead and what the team can become.
What pleased you most and least about the performances in the opening four qualifiers?
What I liked least, or what worried me most, were the late goals conceded. Closing out matches is very important, even more so at this level. What pleased me most is that there’s a foundation in place, a structure that’s been there for some time and remains valid. There are players who form the cornerstone of the team and who are at a very high level, and they will be the standard-bearers driving our desire to return to a World Cup.
Could you tell us a bit more about the squad you have at your disposal?
Of course. I feel that the team is undergoing a process of renewal, just like many national teams on the continent in recent years. Chile may have been more directly affected by this, but it has a number of players who are capable of helping us achieve our goals and delivering at the World Cup, if we qualify. Then there are others who are at the stage where they can lend a hand but for whom the World Cup is probably out of reach still.
The other part of the equation is that we must continue with something [previous coach Reinaldo] Rueda started, which is to try to regenerate – a word I prefer over ‘replace’. A regeneration implies that footballers from earlier periods coexist with the new recruits in a process that should be planned and gradual and include the transfer of experience.
In this process, how important is the change of mindset achieved by the likes of Bravo, Medel, Vidal and Sanchez?
It’s of the utmost importance. It is no coincidence that they’ve been part of Chilean football’s most significant achievements They’re players who still stand out today for their sporting qualities, but also for their ability to motivate. That’s what I mean when I talk about the transfer of experience: it’s vital to have players with the ability to pass knowledge on, and Chile has them.
How do you envisage handling a dressing room with so many strong personalities without being able to work day-to-day with them like you would at a club?
I see it as just another challenge in my career. In Egypt I had to deal with the big names at Al Ahly, a huge club even if many Westerners don’t realise it, and yet it went well, despite their having a different methodology and language. Maintaining dressing room relations is crucial, as I know that, more so than tactics, group management is the hardest thing.
Speaking of tactics, can you reveal what formation you have in mind for Chile?
We’ll have to take into account the Covid situation, our opponents, etc. Argentina away is not the same as Bolivia at home, which is not to suggest we’re superior or inferior to anyone. The realities are different. Our baseline will be 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the formations I’ve used the most. Over and above any numerical description, we’ll be trying to follow in the footsteps of the previous coaches from [Marcelo] Bielsa to Rueda by way of [Jorge] Sampaoli, all of whom did very well.
What do you mean by follow in their footsteps?
There are aspects of Chilean football identity from recent years that we cannot get away from, albeit with the caveat that those players are not the same today as they were 10 years ago. You don’t lose things like skill, knowhow and experience, but you can lose other things, such as physical performance. We need to look for ways that allow us to be as effective as before. For example: using a high press. We may not be able to do it all the time, but at certain times, during specific periods in a game.
What are your priorities for the upcoming Argentina and Bolivia fixtures?
We’re in a difficult situation, communicating digitally with players is very different from face to face. We try to gather information and send it in a clear and tangible way. So instead of 15 complex concepts, I prefer it to be five simple ones, based on what’s already been done, so that we can pick up from there when we meet up.
Can you make Chile a leading contender again in the limited time you have to work with the squad?
The limited working time is a reality, but the mentality of Chilean players, of Chilean football in general, has still changed for the better. It was a qualitative and real change, which maybe those of us who’d come from overseas or who’d competed against Chile in the past noticed more. We must keep the team centre stage. Chilean football has earned the right to be there and now is not the time to lose it.
At the Copa America, will you prioritise building a team for the World Cup qualifiers or for getting results at that tournament?
That’s like asking you to choose between your mum and your dad (laughs). The answer is to look at things globally. The big objective is to qualify for the World Cup. For the Copa America, as of today, we’re thinking of a mix, giving some playing time to those lads who have not yet competed for us or done so very little. That’s also because, we’ll need them very soon afterwards for the qualifiers, and if we make it, at the World Cup itself. In that sense, we see the Copa America as a solution, not a problem, and don’t think it will have a negative outcome in sporting terms.
You know how fixated on results South American fans are, and those of Chile are no exception. What would you ask of them as you embark on this project?
I’d just ask them to accompany and stick with us, and to give us their support and drive – whether it’s a little or a lot. And for them to believe in this process. I don’t wish to delegate the responsibility, which is mine, but I would like others to buy into the possibilities that unity, synergy and all pulling in the same direction can bring. That’s everyone’s responsibility. That energy ends up being significant, and I think the players would really appreciate it.
Although you’re not long in the job, is Qatar 2022 already an obsession?
More than an obsession, I see it as an obligation, albeit one you gladly undertake. A few months ago, I had to endure a worrying health issue, which fortunately has been resolved, and today I see things from a different perspective. I do what I like and work at what I love. I’m in a country where I feel like any other person, and I have the same goal as everyone else. I’ll show a lot of effort, commitment, goodwill and a little talent (laughs), along with the utmost dedication and resolve. Time will tell if that’s enough.