Martino fits right in place

Martino fits right in place

Like Vilanova and Guardiola, the stoic Argentine's ideologies will gel well with Barcelona's principles

Barcelona has chosen swiftly, but appears to have chosen well. Just four days after hearing that its coach, Tito Vilanova, could continue no longer to defy cancer and oversee the careers of some of the finest players on earth, the club went where nobody had predicted to sign a replacement.

The Argentine Gerardo Martino is from the other side of the world, but in thought, deed and inclination he is similar to Vilanova, and to Vilanova’s predecessor, Pep Guardiola.

“I identify with the kind of football Barcelona plays,” Martino said to the Spanish sports daily Marca a month ago. “The respect for the ball, playing out from the back, possession, interchange of passes. The pass is the essence of football.”

He couldn’t have known then that he was auditioning for the job of coaching Lionel Messi, Neymar, Xavi Hernàndez, Andrés Iniesta, Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol and Dani Alves. But he identifies most obviously with Messi.

They are from the place, Rosario. They started out at the same soccer school, Newell’s Old Boys. It sounds like a school because it originated as a team almost 110 years ago, led by Isaac Newell, an immigrant who studied at the English High School in the central Argentinian city.

Martino was on a plane bound for Europe on Monday, but there were two schools of thought flying through the Catalan city. One was that Messi had suggested his countryman, his hometown man, to the club where he has special status. The counter rumor was that Guus Hiddink, the vastly experienced Dutchman, was on his way to Camp Nou after resigning his role as manager of the Russian team Anzhi Makhachkala.

We waited for soccer’s equivalent to the white puff of smoke from the Vatican. Barca did not keep us in suspense for long.

The new season is fast approaching,  and we will see a man, known as “Tata” (grandfather), who has never coached outside of South America on the sidelines. He will look, as he usually looks, calm, contemplative, watchful.

Those traits at once ally him to both Guardiola and Vilanova. But whereas those two are both Barça old boys -- raised in the culture of that club -- Martino is as much a newcomer as is Neymar, who was Barcelona’s marquee signing from Santos in Brazil this summer.

It will be Martino’s first task, his pleasure surely, to find a role for Neymar.

Things will not look at all foreign to the coach because throughout his 509 games with his one and only Argentine club, Old Boys, he played it with the ball on the ground, with imagination and sharing.

Again in his own words, he once described himself as “a skill-based player.” He said he played well, but ran little until he came under the coaching of Marcelo Bielsa, another studious, industrious coach who believes in movement and passing as the core values in soccer.

“Under Bielsa, I learned that you need to do other things in order to play,” Martino has observed. “It was a matter of survival.”

They are two types of Argentine coaches: The forceful and the enlightened. Bielsa, whose name is incorporated in the title of Newell’s stadium, and Martino, who has a stand named after him, are Old Boys with a legacy there. Martino played there from 1980 to 1994, with a short unsuccessful break as a Tenerife player in Spain in 1991.

He cut his coaching teeth largely in Paraguay, where he coached the national team to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and then to the final of the Copa, the South American championship the following year.

Those were triumphant years, sticking to his credo of how the game should be played, yet coaxing Paraguay beyond Argentina and Brazil, and at the World Cup further than Uruguay.

Paraguay had never had it so good, but Martino returned to his first love, to turn around Newell’s from a relegation threatened team to the best -- and crucially best-looking -- side in the Argentine league.

It would take, one imagined, something really big to lure him away from his hometown. Something big, really special, came with the call to Barca.

Martino is the fourth Argentine to coach the Catalan club -- after Helenio Herrera in 1958, Roque Olsen in 1965, and Cesar Luis Menotti in 1983.

The first of those was to become legendary in a negative way, or rather with negative tactics, with Internazionale, the Italian team that he coached in the renowned catenaccio defensive way in the 1960s. Defense is Barcelona’s Achilles’ heel, and if he knows of a world-class defender he can bring with him to Spain, that would be his first call.

His second might be to instill some defensive cohesion into what he inherits from Vilanova. But mostly, he will likely continue the pass and move, the attacking inventiveness that Barcelona is built for. Maybe he needed to be told to work as well as to indulge his passing skills as a young man; at Barca he will discover a work ethic that is almost manic -- the ethic among the Barca scholars to work as they pass, specifically to work like Trojans the instant any of them loses possession of the ball.

Martino has a two-year contract in his new role. That will be time enough to keep the skills going, to learn as well as to teach experienced players like Xavi and Puyol, and maybe even to guide one of them to be his own successor if things go well.

He already knows, and practices, the rule that is golden at Barca: That it is a players’ game above and beyond all else.

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