“Where I come from we say, ‘He shit on his legs.'”
Cesar Menotti won the World Cup as manager of Argentina in 1978. Affectionately known as El Flaco (the skinny one), he is interviewed here in July 2011 at his home in Buenos Aires and had recently undergone surgery for a lung condition. It clearly hadn’t much stopped him putting the world to rights, and so much the better for us.
Is it hard, stopping smoking?
It’s hard. They told me the first month would be difficult, that afterwards it would get easier, but that’s bullshit. With every passing month the urge to start up again becomes stronger. Doctors insist on helping us live longer but reduce the quality of that life at the same time; their job is to make life bitter. And surgeons are even worse! Now they do all their operations with a little machine that goes beep, as if it was nothing at all. Medicine no longer has any depth. There’s not even any blood in operating theatres anymore.
Speaking of which, how did the operation go?
It was nothing. I only had to spend three days in hospital. The doctor told me that I could carry on my life as normal, so long as I stopped smoking. But my life isn’t the one that I know! For smokers, the cigarette is an extraordinary companion, a friend. At times when I’m alone, for example when I’m writing, I really miss it. I’m thankful for the people whose smoke blows into my face, I go looking for them at the doors of restaurants. Yesterday, this guy took a Havana cigar out in front of me, and then at the moment of lighting up said, ‘I’ll leave you’, No! I said, come as close as you can!
Have you given up football too?
Being merciless in criticising how I saw football had betrayed its most essential principles has finally paid off. Huracan saved football in Argentina, and Spain have reconciled me to the sport. Football is the only thing I like to be mistaken about, and seeing them play with these little guys is a great comfort. Football is three things; time, space and trickery. But now there’s no time, we don’t look for the space, and we’re never mystified. I get so bored sometimes I think what they call football is something else now. I think everyone wants to play like Barcelona, 99.99% of managers want to be Guardiola but they don’t know how.
Guardiola said that with good players…
An idiot might believe that, not me. He doesn’t just say, ‘keep the ball, keep the ball’. What Guardiola is achieving goes much further. It’s the result of training, of clear ideas and of having the intelligence to make those ideas be understood. It’s already a given that Guardiola is more important than his players. He’ll tell you the opposite of course, but what would he say? Are we going to remember Piqué, Pedro, Busquets, ahead of Guardiola? Iniesta wasn’t even in the starting line-up before. Guardiola is not what he is because of his players. What he is doing is serious, and it makes me envious. What’s more, there’s something else I don’t agree with..
Cruyff was not the first to adopt this style of play. The first guy who played like Guardiola at Barcelona was Cesar Menotti. And it was the end of me; they used to jeer us for playing too many passes! I don’t know if there were others who did it before me, but I played Maradona in the position Messi plays today. Carrasco and Marcos on the wings, and Schuster where Xavi plays. When we got back to the dressing room at half time with the score at 0-0, the players would say to me, ‘We can’t play like this, every time Schuster passes it back to Alexanko the crowd starts whistling!’ When on the other hand if we were winning 3-0, the same passes would be met with cheers. After I quit the club, the centre back Migueli told me he’d refuse to play if whoever replaced me forced him to play man-marking. Because he was big and strong people thought he was a beast, but he was from Andalucia, he liked to play with the ball and was excellent with his feet.
Why did you leave Barcelona?
My mother had just died, Argentina was becoming a more democratic country and I felt the need to go back. I went and had dinner with Núñez, the club president, and he gave me a blank cheque to convince me to stay. He told me to bring in all the players I could buy, but I said there wasn’t a single one I wanted.
Do you sometimes feel the urge to return to the dugout?
When I look at a football pitch I’m like a musician seeing a guitar. Sometimes I watch the Barcelona youth team on TV and I say to myself, ‘I could put a team together and beat them’. But after six months, half of the 16 year olds would be gone; the owner would sell them on, its shameful.
Do you think the position of manager has been devalued?
Over here [Argentina], we’ve had 50 years of ‘deculturation’. It’s worrying. Even the middle classes find themselves on the margins. People fought for their rights to the eight hour day, and now they go to work for 14 hours just to be able to live and no-one is complaining. It’s going to shit. After what I’ve lived through I feel like a hormonal Marxist with no ideological explanation. In my 70 years of life, I’ve witnessed the disaster that is capitalism and its pollution of everything around us, including football. This country no longer makes sense. I refuse to trust those who are running the country so long as there are children in the street, and 4 million people living in districts where there should only be 500,000. It makes no sense.
Is there a version of Guardiola in Argentina?
No there is only one Guardiola. But if there were one, he would be cut down, they wouldn’t let him live. Over here, we’re obsessed with the Mourinho-type; he who thinks only of winning, and is never responsible in defeat. A short time ago, a friend of mine went to Spain and attended training sessions with both teams, Real and Barca. He said there wasn’t much difference between the two, that Mourinho trains the team well, but as soon as they get out on the pitch, at the moment of truth, there’s no comparison; there are dozens of Mourinhos, but only one Guardiola. It’s a constant worry that they’re just waiting for the right time to destroy him.
Guardiola has assumed that mantle though has he not?
Well he has the greatest advantage of all, which is his history; nobody can take that away. Real Madrid can buy as many players as they like, they could buy them all, but in the end the 5-0 defeat at the Nou Camp will endure forever. I can’t think of another game like it. He killed Mourinho then, for the rest of his existence.
You said that after that, Mourinho wet himself?
Where I come from we say, ‘he shit on his legs’. The next clasico, there was Higuain, Adebayor, Benzema and Kaka all on the bench and I thought, ‘maybe this time he’ll win, but he’ll have to shit himself again first!‘. It’s the greatest cowardice I’ve witnessed in football. And at Madrid, of all places. But you know what happened to Mourinho is very difficult to deal with, I can’t think of an equivalent humiliation at the hands of your rivals.
And Messi, how do you rate him?
I think there have been four kings of the game; Di Stefano, Pelé, Cruyff and Maradona. The fifth is yet to appear. Messi is close, but I don’t want to give him the crown yet. Messi is a gift, a wondrous thing, but we are yet to see him in different surroundings, in different circumstances. Like Maradona at Napoli, where he transformed an entire side of simple players into something brilliant. Messi still has another step to take before he can take his place as the fifth king. But you know what the best thing is?
That Messi is still learning. Before, when he had the ball he would always try to make the difference alone. No longer. He has evolved. And that’s where you can see the influence of the manager. At Barcelona, there is no such thing as absolute freedom; there are rules that must be observed so that liberty and expression can flourish within the team.
Why is Messi criticised in Argentina?
Football is like life; you don’t get up everyday at 6am to go out and find the woman of your dreams, it either happens or it doesn’t. Every Argentina player wants go on and win the game on his own when he gets the ball at his feet. It’s one dimensional; a nightmare. What’s the point in having a great player on your side if nobody passes the ball? At Barcelona, there’s always an option for the pass. They’re more important than goals. That’s what it’s all about, passing the ball. It’s not difficult.
So you would tell them to play more like Barcelona?
Idiots! What, they think its just a question of opening your mouth and suddenly being able to sing like Serrat?![Joan Manuel Serrat] No, it’s impossible. By the way, you know Serrat called me when I came out of hospital. I like the guy, but he’s tough on you; he said, ‘Aren’t you gonna do something better with your time than just sitting around smoking you old git?’.
And have you taken his advice?
I don’t smoke anymore, and I’m trying to write a book based on what I’ve written or said in interviews over the years. I don’t know if it will get published. But maybe I’ll unlock the mysteries of football…
This interview is translated from a French translation of the original Spanish, which appeared in So Foot #92 in December 2011. The translation was by Thomas Gaubin. The original Spanish version was published in El Pais in July 2011, conducted by Luis Martin and can be found by following this link: