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Pellegrini embraces Málaga’s long-term dream

The Chilean coach has had a rollercoaster ride in Spanish football. But he may have just found a club tailor made for his low-key qualities.


Pellegrini (left, at his presentation as Málaga coach) has always thrived on strong club backing. Photo: Málaga CF.

In 1999, an Ecuadorian banking tycoon called Rodrigo Paz wanted to take the team he owned, Liga de Quito, to the next level and make it a major force in Latin American football. As well as spending heavily on players, he hired Manuel Pellegrini, a Chilean coach who had been successful in his home country and was starting to make a name for himself across South America.

With the full backing and confidence of the club owner, the quietly spoken coach’s methods were effective and he won that year’s national championship in style, as well as taking the previously underperforming team on an impressive run in the Copa Libertadores continental tournament.

Fast forward to 2010 and Pellegrini has been hired by another extremely wealthy man –Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani of Qatar– to lead Spanish side Málaga out of the doldrums. Málaga’s new owner is prepared to bring in new players and has reportedly given the coach a handsome contract to see out this season and the following two.

Given his record, this would seem to auger well for the club and the coach. But the Chilean is not a miracle worker, being parachuted in for a quick fix. “I have signed for three seasons even though the club offered me five,” he said on being presented on November 5. “This shows that they trust in me for the long term.” And despite his brief but successful spell with Liga de Quito, Pellegrini has repeatedly emphasised the importance of building teams over time, in order for his philosophy to take effect.

“Teams with a long-term project end up having more success,” he said on being presented to Real Madrid fans in the summer of 2009, as that club brought him in to oversee its latest, big-spending, galáctico reinvention. His message went unheeded by Real president Florentino Pérez, who sacked Pellegrini after one season in which the team notched up a club record number of points in the league, but still finished second behind Barcelona. A sixth successive failure by the team to reach the Champions League quarterfinals also sealed his fate – which was to be replaced by José Mourinho.

Pellegrini always looked like a dead man walking at Real Madrid. Pérez’s lack of backing was well documented (the president had wanted to hire Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger) and the coach also had to face the hostility of sections of the Madrid sports press, despite enjoying fans’ support.

But the Málaga job shows more signs of resembling that of Villarreal, where Pellegrini, 57, spent five years building a small-town team into a free-flowing football powerhouse, with a major reputation in Spain and across Europe. With the support of club president Fernando Roig he was also building on his own reputation, earning a name as a coach who could marry South American talent with European organization and tactical acumen.

The small Mediterranean club punched above its weight throughout Pellegrini’s time there, reaching the Champions League twice, including a run to the semifinals in 2006. Perhaps just as impressively, Villarreal finished second in La Liga in 2008, 10 points ahead of Barcelona.

Few coaches in Europe have been able to match that kind of record with similar resources in recent years, with Mourinho being an obvious exception at Porto. But the man from Santiago could hardly be more different from the charismatic, headline-hogging Portuguese. A former civil engineering student who lists languages, painting and music among his interests, Pellegrini is a thoughtful, slightly aloof character as he stalks the touchline, and one who respects both his players and opponents.

“He left a very good impression on everyone, even on the other teams,” remembers one Liga de Quito fan of Pellegrini in 1999. “He was educated, cultured and very quiet. He would think a thousand times before talking. He seemed sure of himself and he gave the players enormous confidence.”

Málaga’s players will need plenty of that confidence if they are to pull out of the relegation zone, where they have been languishing under the leadership of Pellegrini’s predecessor, Jesualdo Ferreira.

It’s perhaps too early to appraise the merits or otherwise of Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani when dealing with football. But in hiring Pellegrini and offering him a long-term deal, he has already shown substantial good judgement and if he has a modicum of patience, he might well make the Costa del Sol a footballing force to be feared.

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Published: Nov 8 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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