The exciting life story of Rodolfo ZapataMonday, June 14, 2010
'Messi and Tevez can have a feast,' Argentine coach in Nigeria says
By Javier Cardenal Taján
As the ball game has started, the BuenosAiresHerald.com came across the exciting life story of Rodolfo Zapata, a real globe trotter who happens to be the only Argentine football coach working in Nigeria.
His passion for football grew up along side the winds of art running at his parents house. His father, a well known musician, inspired work ethics and effort in order to develop a succesful path.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1966, Zapata started his football career as a goalkeeper, but after 12 years in the fields, he was forced to call for a premature retire after consecutive knee injures. Since then, Rolo (as he likes to be called) found what seems to be his true vocation in life: teaching. Therefore, it didn't take him too long to realize that by just adding a dash of his other passion, he could get the perfect mix with the result being to become a professional football coach.
Zapata's free spirit took him to a journey around the globe.
"My first professional experience was in the United States, then I moved to Canada where I was hired as Director of the "Coaches & Players Development Program".
Back in the US, I spent nine years working at the United States Soccer Federation as coach for the "Olympic Development Program" meant to recruit players for the different US national teams. I then also coached for the United Nations International School in New York City."
At present time, life finds him in Akure (capital city of Ondo) Nigeria working as General Manager for the Ondo State Football Agency (ODSFA).
"I was back from the US, spending some vacation time in Uruguay when my FIFA agent called from London saying that there was an offer from Nigeria. I immediately felt in love with the challenge and said yes with no hesitation.
Thus, I had to interrupt my vacations and get in a plane. Within a wink, I went from Manhattan to beautiful and relaxing Punta del Este to be sit on a plane and on my way to mysterious Nigeria"
In Nigeria, Rolo leads the Sunshine Stars FC of the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) but is also in charge of the Rising Stars, playing in the Professional Division 1 League (second division), and of recruiting players and coaches to pass on his experience in a project that aims
not only to develop the football in Ondo but nationwide.
"Nigeria is such a blessed country with lots of talented young players. I gained the players respect short after arriving. The football language is unique as well work ethics and professionalism. In Okure, where I live, I'm probably the only white man in the city (laughs). The place is great and I am very impressed with the people in the few months I have been there. They are frank and loyal people, and did not have any prejudice about my person and my work."
"Coaching in Africa is a wonderful cultural experience, and I try to live it up every day. As far as my work, I wish to have at least 50 percent of the players I have recruited playing for the teams in the state of Ondo, and to build a pool of young and talented players for the future at a nationwide level."
Zapata is highly interested in the development of solid basis for the Nigerian football. So much, that he is currently leading talks with the heads of the Football Federation who want him to take care of the Under-23 national team that will play the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Zapata's adventurous spirit goes even further as he also dreams of also coaching the Super Eagles in a nearest future.
"I'm still talking with the Federation. If the project is serious I will gladly take it. If not, I will remain with the Sunshine Stars, or I can always go back to the US where I have several job positions waiting for me. Plus, I can also come back to Argentina where I run the Rolo Zapata Soccer Academy in the western Buenos Aires district of Bella Vista (www.rolozapata.com)."
BAH: Let's talk about the game. What kind of match are you expecting to see?
R.Z: I have no doubts it's going to be a thrilling game. You never know what can happen, it's an opener and there is a lot of pressure upon the players' shoulders. My wish is that both teams could make all the way to the big final. I am confident both countries will qualify for the second round.
BAH: Were the Nigerians looking for your advice on how to defeat Argentina?
R.Z: Yes. Actually people from the Nigerian Football Federation. I know the Argentine team very well so I gave them some useful tips. One advantage Nigeria will have is that most Argentine players will be attending the World Cup for the first time, which can be tricky for them in terms of the nerves that exams like an opener game produces. I believe that Nigeria should adopt either a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formation to beat the flat defense of Argentina. Another option will be to play a 3-5-2 formation which will make things easier to start offensive charges from the sides thanks to their fast midfielders and excellent side defenders whom can be moved up to midfield. I see an open door on the right side since it seems that Argentina will set Di María, whose lack of defensive skills along with Heinze's slow movements could benefit the Super Eagles as Nigerians have a natural athletic condition and their speed can be of great advantage, mostly if Argentina decides to play a three men defence (one sweeper and two stoppers) being them all slow players: Samuel, Demichelis, and the aforementioned Heinze.
BAH: So you think is not utopian for Nigeria to beat Argentina?
R.Z: Everything is possible. This team has nothing to do with the one we saw playing in 1994 or the one that defeated Argentina in the 1996 Olympics. That side was blessed with a terrific generation of players such as J.J Okocha, Amunike, Taribo West, Kanu, Babayaro, and so on.
They do have good players now, like Obafemi Martins and Jon Obi Mikel, who's injured, but it's a different generation, they are going through a transition period trying to find their new stars. Everything can happen, but let me be realist also; Nigeria is a team that plays nice football, which does not mean they play good football.
BAH: So what are their weakest points?
R.Z: They know what to do with the ball possession thanks to their great technique but once they lose it, they get a bit desperate and throw all tactical order out of the board. Argentina has terrific players that know how to hold the football. Another weak point I see is their defence, mostly on their central defenders due to some lack of coordination. Messi and Tévez can have a real feast playing in between the central full-backs. Also, be aware that this lack of coordination is what some times lead to unnecessary and violent fouls and Messi could be one of the landed targets.
BAH: Nigeria have recently changed their head coach. Can this affect performance?
R.Z: Definitely. But it goes beyond that. The biggest problem they face is that the Football Federation is not doing things the way they should be done. Despite qualifying them for another World Cup, Shaibu Amodu was fired after the team finished third at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. They keep believing that foreign coaches are better than locals. But who qualified the team for two world Cups? It was local Amodu; but he was replaced by former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback by the end February. There is no way you can prepare a team for a World Cup within three months. I would have expected Lagerback to retain most of the players from the home based side that played in the ECOWAS Cup (Economic Community of West African States) and then add a few foreign based players to beef up the team, by doing so you will have a squad that's been playing together for a good while. But the coach decided to call the guys playing in Europe hence producing a lack of team work.
BAH: So, it seems like Lagerback couldn't do much?
R.Z: Well, a good thing is that somehow he managed to bring some tactical order. I've seen it during last friendly against North Korea (Nigeria won 3-1), where both wingers moved back to midfield to defend and form a five men line on what looked pretty similar to what José Mourinho did with Inter during the Champions League final. That's definitely some progress.
BAH: I'm sure they asked you how to stop Messi?
R.Z: Yes, and I always say that in spite of his brilliant skills, his determination and the phenomenal season he just ended with Barcelona, he is still a human being. Nigerian players must be ready to approach the game tactically and mark-man him. A strong player like Dickson Etuhu can do that job with support from other players. He is not invisible, he can be stopped. Messi should not be given too much space to play the field because if he has the space, he can destroy any team like he did against Arsenal in the Champions League. Any player wanting to hold a player like Messi must be able to anticipate him throughout the entire game. For me, the World Cup will be a good opportunity for Messi to prove the whole world that he is more than a great player, but it's not going to be easy.
BAH: Isn't Messi more than a great player?
R.Z: For me the true Argentine phenomenon is Carlos Tevez, who succeeded at all teams he played for: Boca Juniors, Corinthians, Manchester United, and now Manchester City. In those teams success is something for just a few privileged ones. At a national team level, Tévez never disappointed either. On the other hand, Messi had numerous poor games during the qualifying stage. He is not like Maradona who back in his time could run the ball from one end to the other and win games by himself no matter how little skillful his teammates were. Messi is the cherry on top, the last note of a magnificent symphony that is called Barcelona. He is the one meant to finish the plays, and for that purpose he must be backed by a whole team. In South Africa he'll definitely have the chance to put the super hero outfit on, like Diego did, then we'll the see if it suits him well or not.
BAH: But Isn't Messi surrounded by great players at the national team?
R.Z: He is, but there is a lack of work to make him play the way he does in Spain. I remember World Cup winner coach César Luis Menotti who used to say that when you don't have the necessary time to shape up a team, you must look to build small partnerships on the field, and find the perfect matches for some players. But, again this is something that must also be rehearsed. Maradona did not have enough time to work out these players. But if you already know that Bolatti and Pastore played beautifully together in Huracán, just like clockwork, why not making them play in the starting eleven. Pastore could be Messi's Xavi. I'd have liked to see players like Riquelme or D'Alessandro playing right next to Messi, but Pastore can do it too. I also think that Jonás Gutiérrez or Clemente Rodríguez can do for Messi what Dani Alves does for him in Barca. Di María can be his Iniesta. However, this is not the way they have worked it out.
BAH: Do you think Argentina will make a good tournament?
R.Z: It's my desire. Maradona is starting his coaching career and will learn a lot from this tournament. What I see is that there have been a series on incongruities during his stay. The team seem to neither have a set goal nor what his game plan is. There are drastic changes all the time. Not being able to decide which forward will play because one have names like Milito, Higuaín or Tévez is not a problem. But after last March friendly against Germany everybody thought that Argentine would play 4-4-2, and now all of the sudden and with 10 days from World Cup's kickoff, Maradona changed his mind and wants to play 3-4-3, which is a formation defenders never worked before. Playing a 3 men defence is not something you shape up within ten days. Nevertheless, I hope Argentina win and make all the way to the glory.