Soccer America Q&A with Manuel Lapuente

Lapuente: A Rebel at Heart

Shortly after taking over MexicoÆs helm, Manuel Lapuente won the 1998 Gold Cup in Los Angeles. He took Mexico to the second round of France æ98 and to third place at the 1999 Copa America in Paraguay. Now, the Confederations Cup offers him his first major test on home soil.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is it true that, as a player, you didnÆt get along with coaches? MANUEL LAPUENTE: It was really hard to succeed in pro soccer. You need a lot of faith and strength to get to the top. Coaches were my obstacles. I had quarrels with most of them, as well as with some executives. I am a rebel at heart and that dictated my whole playing career. I couldnÆt understand why coaches didnÆt explain to me why I played in a certain position, why I sometimes didnÆt play, or why I had to play as an outside right. Everything has a reason and an explanation, and I rarely accepted something without an explanation. I learned a lot about how not to do certain things when you are a coach. SA: You started as a goalkeeper in a Mexico City parochial school ... ML: Yes, we used to play before we went to class, and I remember vividly that one day I was in goal and a huge player ran toward me with the ball. I charged him and got the ball. One of the priests came to me and asked me if I wasnÆt scared. I said no, and then I was recruited for the school team. My dad liked the fact that I played sports, but he wanted me to study because he didnÆt think I was going to turn pro. In Mexico, it isnÆt as easy to simultaneously pursue sports and education as it is in the United States, where the good basketball or football players get scholarships. But I was fortunate to get a scholarship at MonterreyÆs Technological University and play for Monterrey.

Running away from home

SA: Was it difficult to leave your family? ML: I was very close to my parents, but it wasnÆt difficult to adapt to my new life. I had been always a little rebel. When I was 15 I ran away from home and police found me in Cuernavaca and brought me back to my parents. I wanted to get out of my house and I had that chance when I was 19 years old, and I went to Monterrey. SA: What are your memories of Monterrey? ML: It was the first time I was really on my own. I learned how to cope, and took my first steps toward developing as a person and toward making my professional soccer debut. There is one thing I will never forget. You have to cross a running track to reach the soccer field in Monterrey. The first time I walked to the field to play, I twisted my ankle on the track. For years afterward, every time I stepped on the field I felt like I was twisting my ankle. SA: You eventually played for Necaxa, Puebla and Atlas ... ML: I had a really nice first year with Necaxa, then later I started having arguments with the coach. I had almost decided to retire when a friend from Monterrey convinced me to go to Puebla, so I moved there with my wife and two children. Again, I fought with the coach for the first two years. But when Ignacio Trelles was appointed coach, I became his captain. Atlas was my last team. Our Mexican coach was replaced by a Yugoslavian, whose name IÆd rather not mention, and after fights with him I decided to retire. SA: What about your national team playing career? ML: I have left that behind me, because we failed tremendously. The biggest soccer disappointment IÆve had was when we were defeated in Haiti during the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 1974 World Cup. I was on the field when Trinidad & Tobago beat us [4-0] and closed the door on us to Germany æ74. That was extremely unpleasant. But maybe it helped me to become a better coach.

A stint in journalism

SA: You became a journalist when you retired? ML: I launched a soccer magazine, Once en el F·tbol, and started working as a commentator for Canal 13. Retirement wasnÆt so painful, because I was still connected with soccer. Unfortunately, the magazine disappeared after three years. SA: You started coaching in 1978, and have your share of titles ... ML: I have four league titles and two cup titles. I have something nobody has, and I am telling you this to show off ù I have won the campeonisimo [the double] twice. With both Puebla and Necaxa, I won the league and the cup in the same year. ThatÆs besides the other two league titles I won, one with Puebla and the other with Necaxa, and the CONCACAF Champions Cup with Necaxa. SA: But your first stint as Mexican national team coach ended when you were fired in the middle of the 1991 Gold Cup after a loss to the United States ... ML: There were other circumstances. That was when we were banned from the World Cup, and I took a team that I started from scratch. The Gold Cup was a last-minute affair, and we arrived without preparation ù with tired players because the league playoffs were finishing up ù to compete against well-prepared teams. I am not bitter. We didnÆt do well, and I was the scapegoat. I may have had failures with other teams, but except for the Gold Cup, we were successful with the national team during that period. They fired me not for soccer reasons. SA: This time around, you were rewarded with a good contract after France æ98 ... ML: It is the best contract of my life, because it marked the first time I received a four-year deal, and I have pretty good work conditions. Fortunately, I also have a good-sized pool of players to chose from. And we have now the Confederations Cup, where we have twice as much pressure because we are playing at home. I can run the national team with autonomy for the next four years in a manner that one would operate a club team. When I did well at Necaxa, it was because Enrique Borja [now the Mexican federation president] was Necaxa president. We were each the master of our own domain. I had total freedom as a coach, although we would discuss both on-field and off-field issues. Financially, this isnÆt the contract of my life because I could have gotten more money. But I am with my favorite team in the world ù my national team. SA: The Mexican press has always been hard on national team coaches. How are you dealing with it? ML: During the warm-up games for France æ98, I suffered heartless attacks. But I knew it was going to be in that way ù that we had to navigate a thorny path if we wanted to have a competitive team ù because the team we had wasnÆt competitive and it wasnÆt going to do anything at the World Cup. We needed to work a lot of extra hours and we used the warm-up games as training, not to win. My bosses supported me, which is why I didnÆt pay much attention to the headlines. One of the reasons why I took the team abroad to prepare was to take them away from the pressure and concentrate on working well together, which we did. Now, I donÆt want revenge. I want to get along with the press and put the past behind, because we have to start a new era. by Soccer America Editor Amparo Sim=n
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