THE PAST IS a delicate topic in sport. It is often used to predict the future, but sometimes it means very little. A team could traditionally struggle against a particular opponent but then accomplishes the unthinkable and win on one fateful day. Past events can also serve as teachable moments, no matter how painful. This adage rings true for Jorge Sampaoli, a man who was born in Argentina but was bred in Peru as a coach.
Sampaoli is a revered name in football these days. From his time at Universidad de Chile and the Chilean national team to challenging the Spanish hierarchy in La Liga, the 57-year-old has been tremendously successful.
Less than two decades ago, Sampaoli was a bank teller and amateur coach in the lower leagues of Argentina. His time spent with La U from 2011 to 2012 launched the Copa América winner into the psyche of fans across South America. As successful as he was with Los Azules, the Santa Fe native’s rise began in the Torneo Descentralizado de Fútbol Profesional, otherwise known as the Peruvian Primera División.
For eight years, Sampaoli was cutting his teeth in Argentina’s lower leagues, mainly with clubs located in his home province. He received recognition from his old club Newell’s Old Boys and coached the reserves, along with a few other smaller teams, but he could not land a gig in the top flight. That was until Juan Aurich FC contacted him in 2002.
Juan Aurich is based in Chiclayo, a northern city in Peru. While it has been a relatively stable club for a few years, the team was mired with financial troubles in the 1990s and early 2000s. They were set for a relegation battle ahead of the 2002 season and needed a coach to guide them to safety. In came Sampaoli, an unknown tactician from Argentina.
Sampaoli’s mother, Odila Moya, was hesitant about her son’s move across the continent. However, she knew that it was a glorious opportunity for her boy to live out his dream of coaching a first-division club. “He had a lot of courage and sacrifice,” said Moya. “No-one knew how it was going to end, but he always had confidence and that led him to success.”
Mothers always remind their children that they know best, and Moya was no different. Issues off the pitch plagued Juan Aurich, which did not help Sampaoli. The president was booted out of the club, debt continued to pile up, and players could not be signed, so the team continued to struggle.
Sampaoli won just one of his first eight games, which led to his sacking after just four months. El Ciclón del Norte was eventually relegated and folded before it was revived a little more than a decade ago.
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Thankfully for Sampaoli, a Callao-based club known as Sport Boys was also looking for a new coach entering the Clausura phase of the season. They knew the Argentine was inexperienced, but they needed to act fast to prepare for the second half of the campaign. The club offered Sampaoli $2,000 per month with no bonuses. He was also forced to sleep in the Callao fire department. Despite the low offer, Sampaoli jumped at the opportunity.
Sport Boys were one of the most popular sides in the country outside of Lima’s big three of Universitario de Deportes, Alianza Lima and Sporting Cristal. They were six-time champions but had not won the league in nearly 20 years at that time. Therefore, it was a massive leap for Sampaoli, but it was also the perfect opportunity to build his résumé.
To the surprise of fans across the country, Sampaoli guided Boys to sixth place in the table, even though he arrived in the middle of the season. It was a slightly disappointing finish for the club’s 75th anniversary, but after placing eighth in the Apertura, it was a respectable showing in the Clausura for the new manager.
Boys were convinced enough by Sampaoli’s performances in the Clausura, so his stay was extended and he had an entire pre-season to mould the squad in his image. Los Rosados were promising because of the abundance of youngsters they had at their disposal. Antonio Serrano, a 23-year-old striker who had just made the jump to a bigger club, scored 18 goals in 36 games. He was the joint third-leading scorer in the Peruvian top flight. José Corcuera, a 21-year-old central midfielder, was another quality youngster.
Sampaoli opted for an even more youthful squad during his first full season. Teenage goalkeeper Salomón Libman was brought in, Universitario striker Carlos Orejuela was signed and midfielder Jaime Linares was also promoted to the first team. Thus began the Sampaolismo revolution at Sport Boys.
Sampaoli’s men ended the 2003 season on a high, scoring 64 goals – 14 of which were Orejuela’s – which was the third-highest tally in the league. Boys were fifth in both the Apertura and Clausura, but finished third in the aggregate table to grab a Copa Libertadores spot.
However, due to a strike, teams either did not play or fielded line-ups with under-20 players for two rounds. The Peruvian federation decided to hold a four-team playoff with the third to sixth-placed sides to determine who would earn Peru’s final berth in the Copa Libertadores.
Cienciano protested, claiming they would have finished sixth instead of seventh if not for the strike. In the end, two of Boys’ matches were annulled so their final standing was fourth. They withdrew from the playoff in protest and Sampaoli left his post.
Despite the cruel ending, Sampaoli and Boys had plenty to celebrate. They were a young and exciting side who re-established themselves as a top contender. They drew 2-2 with the eventual champions Alianza and recorded 3-2 and 4-2 victories over Sporting Cristal.
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Ironically, Sampaoli was tipped for the Sporting Cristal job while unemployed. He eventually chose Coronel Bolognesi, based in the southern city of Tacna near the border with Chile. Slowly but surely, the energetic coach was inching his way across the border, but there was plenty of work to be done. Bolognesi were a solid first-division side, but apart from the occasional outlier, they were a meandering club.
Much like Sampaoli’s time at Boys, he encountered a slow start at Bolognesi. The team scored an excellent 85 goals in 52 matches, but they also conceded 85. They also suffered a quick elimination in the Copa Sudamericana. The southern club clearly had offensive potential, but the defensive side of their games was a big weakness.
Sampaoli immediately went to work over the winter, but he had a few building blocks for the future. Johan Fano, an on-loan striker from Alianza and a recent call-up to the Peruvian national team, bagged an eye-popping 29 league goals. Unfortunately, he returned to his parent club and established himself as a starter the following year.
However, 18-year-old winger Junior Ross was incredibly prolific. Ross scored 17 goals and had age on his side. Sampaoli replaced Fano with his countryman Roberto Demus, who, like his predecessor, was in his mid-20s but was still full of promise.
The defending was still spotty but thanks to their Argentine spine in Demus – who scored 17 goals in 2005 – midfielder Carlos Marzuk and defender Julio Caldiero, Bolognesi returned to the Sudamericana.
Just like Boys, Bolognesi needed a full pre-season and a gradually increased workload to adjust to Sampaoli’s taxing system. If the coach was not completely satisfied with a specific outlet pass or a run during a corner in training, he would immediately halt the session and make the necessary tweaks.
Sampaoli also demanded notes on opposition penalties, video on the opponents’ movement on set-pieces – even the throw-ins – and detailed analysis from their last five games. Oftentimes, preparation for a match would begin two months in advance. That is how Sampaoli was and still is to this day.
To those who know Sampaoli, his attention to detail is no surprise. It was evident that he would become an expert coach during his playing days with the Newell’s academy. Marcelo Bielsa was a defender for the first team while the youngster was in the youth system, which is fitting due to Sampaoli’s reverence of Bielsa.
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Sampaoli was borderline obsessed with Bielsa’s coaching and his methods. The now-Sevilla boss listened to press conferences while jogging so he had the tactics, positioning and motivational speeches embedded in his subconscious. Even when he was on the pitch as a teenager, the midfielder showed signs of becoming a Bielsa disciple.
Sampaoli’s detail-oriented routines paid off: his trademark press and high-energy style of play overwhelmed the majority of Bolognesi’s opponents. They recorded a combined 15 more points in the aggregate table than Alianza in 2005. The southern club also topped Universitario in the 2005 Clausura and the 2006 Apertura. Even Sporting came up short in the 2006 Clausura.
The Sudamericana qualifying campaign ended in heartbreak as Chilean powerhouse and eventual finalists Colo-Colo knocked out Bolognesi on away goals. Ironically, that same Colo-Colo side was coached by Claudio Borghi, who was eventually replaced by Sampaoli as Chile’s coach just six years later.
Sampaoli departed the club before a successful Apertura but returned for the Clausura and recorded another third-place finish to secure another Sudamericana berth. His stock was rising at a more rapid pace than his team’s counter-attacks.
Now that Sampaoli had two successful spells with two separate sides, he was garnering plenty of intrigue from teams. One of the interested parties in his services was Manuel Burga, president of the Peruvian football federation. However, the talks did not end on a positive note.
“We had a meeting with Burga and the project that he brought was not really compatible to ours,” said Sampaoli. “Because we wanted to make a Peruvian football revolution in order to achieve qualification [to the World Cup]. So it did not happen at that time, and we got a call from Sporting Cristal, which was an important step in my career and the biggest leap, but at the same time, it turned out to be the biggest failure.”
While the national team carried on with the coaching carousel, Sampaoli accepted the Sporting job, more than two years after they considered him for the role. Sadly, Sampaoli was dealing with personal issues. His wife of 20 years, and mother to his two children, left him due to his heavy involvement in football. To make matters worse, Sporting had to endure an early start to the campaign with the Copa Libertadores on the fixture list, which is when everything began to unravel.
Sporting did not have any friendlies scheduled leading up to the first leg of their qualifier against Club America, whose domestic campaign was already a few weeks old. The Peruvians pushed for the match to be rescheduled but the motion failed. America took advantage by moving the match from Estadio Azteca to Toluca, which is at an even higher elevation than Mexico City. The Liga MX side crushed Sampaoli’s men 5-0 in Mexico and advanced 6-2 on aggregate.
Sampaoli promised improvement after the embarrassing loss, but the players were not accustomed to the high intensity of the tactics. Sporting did not have many young players, either, unlike Boys and Bolognesi. Youth was one of the foundations of Sampaoli’s previous teams, so a lack of youngsters led to more trouble.
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As results began to sour, the squad turned on their coach and stopped playing for him. Los Cerveceros won just four of 17 games and were nailed to the bottom of the table. Almost five years to the day that Sampaoli was sacked by Juan Aurich, he was given his walking papers by Sporting. Like in Chiclayo, he was only employed for four months. It was a bitter ending to a budding career.
Sampaoli later admitted that he should have never moved away from Sporting’s old system. The players were accustomed to the tactics and it led to some impressive results. However, it’s clear that the timing of the hiring was not ideal, and director Francisco Lombardi admitted as much. “It was a very hard experience because I liked very much the system of play that he proposed,” said Lombardi. “You would not get tired of it, and in addition, with [Bolognesi] he scored four goals in our stadium. However, he generated resistance from a few players. It was a lesson for me as a director, because right there, I realised that the human element does not carry much weight.
“Like in all of the places that he managed, it was hard for Jorge to get started. However, the management did not have patience with him and decided to fire him when they were about to get new players. There were four or five experienced players that we were not in-sync with him and were not adapting to his style. Like in other clubs that he managed, in this one, they did not have young players that could be moulded. This is something that happens today in Peruvian football.”
Many coaches would have crumbled in a similar situation. However, Sampaoli is no ordinary tactician or motivator. He balances the positives with the negatives and uses them to improve himself. That is how he salvaged himself in Chile.
Even though he left Peru 10 years ago, Sampaoli still remembers his coaching roots and is appreciative of the opportunities he received. It’s what led to a historic Copa América on home soil with Chile in 2015 and to a top job in Spain.
However, one of his former clubs hasn’t enjoyed the same success. Right around the time Sampaoli was hired by Chile, Sport Boys were relegated to the second division. It has been five years since the Callao club has played in the top flight and financial issues continue to cripple the team.
Ahead of his debut in La Liga, Sampaoli took the time to record a special message for Boys. “Friends of Sport Boys, a greeting from far away and solidarity for the situation you are going through, knowing that the spirit that Los Chalacos have and the love for our beloved Sport Boys will ensure that the club never dies as all of the port of Callao deserves.”
The video was recorded in August when Boys were in danger of relegation in the Segunda División. They accumulated just 19 points from their first 15 games, but right after Sampaoli’s words of encouragement, they rattled off seven wins from their final 15 matches to stay up. Los Porteños only had five victories in the first half of the season alone, yet they finished the campaign with five straight triumphs.
Their former hero was more than 9,000 kilometres away, but Boys still channelled their inner Sampaolismo. Sometimes the past is worth remembering.
By Peter Galindo @GalindoPW