OSAKA (Reuters) – Speaking softly and thoughtfully to the media, River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo, nicknamed “the Doll” due to his small stature and boyish looks, gives the impression that butter would not melt in his mouth.
Behind the innocent exterior, however, lies one of the world’s most astute coaches who River president Rodolfo D’Onofrio is certain will follow Argentines Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Bielsa to Europe.
Any doubts about the 39-year-old’s passion are quickly dispelled by a quick look at clips from his playing career as a stylish midfielder which included three stints with River and two World Cups for Argentina.
There was the infamous incident in 2004 when he was sent off for scratching Boca Junior goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri’s face in a ferocious derby, followed by another years later when he appeared to bite Gary Medel’s finger in the same fixture.
Nowadays, Gallardo, whose side face Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in their Club World Cup semi-final on Wednesday, channels his passion more wisely.
In 18 months since replacing Ramon Diaz, he has won the Libertadores Cup, South America’s version of the Champions League, the Copa Sudamericana, a rough equivalent of the Europa League, as well as admirers for their style of play.
Heavily influenced by Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola and former Argentina coach Bielsa, Gallardo has implemented a high intensity game based on the idea that his team should have as much possession as possible.
Gallardo, who says he has trouble switching off and is close to becoming a football obsessive, played for Argentina under Bielsa.
“Bielsa was one of the coaches who taught me the most, but maybe I missed some of his concepts because I was very young and they didn’t interest me that much at the time,” he told La Nacion in a recent interview.
One of Gallardo’s most surprising moves was to appoint a neuroscientist to work with the players, something unheard of in Argentina.
“I would have liked to have had this when I was a player,” he said. “It adds something related to mental and visual training and anticipation. Players who think better, more quickly, are the ones who make the difference.”
Traditional phrases based on playing with guts and determination are dismissed as superficial.
“I like to tell the players that we are going on to the field to defend a cause and to feel good about ourselves,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
A win on Wednesday would put River into the final against Barcelona, assuming the European champions see off Guangzhou Evergrande in their semi-final, and complete a remarkable turnaround for River, who were in the second division less than four years ago.
“A lot of wonderful things have happened and now we are in a privileged position,” said Gallardo.
“This is the cherry on the cake, it’s something which is unique and we are all very happy to be here.”
“It’s a moment to enjoy and value. When you think about everything which has happened in the last year and a half, it has been a great effort.”
(By Brian Homewood, Editing by Ed Osmond)