A Romanian with plenty of Spanish spirit, Cosmin Contra hopes a fine spell at FC Petrolul Ploieşti is just the start of a great coaching career as he leads his low-budget side into action against Vitesse in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round.
The youngest coach in Romania's top division at 37, Contra made his name as an aggressive right-back, representing Deportivo Alavés, AC Milan, Club Atlético de Madrid and Getafe CF while earning 73 international caps. He told UEFA.com he "will always be a Romanian who loves his country", but when it comes to coaching, travel has broadened his mind.
"I got my UEFA Pro licence in Romania, but my coaching model and coaching philosophy is Spanish," he explained. "The most important thing is the intensity of the training sessions, which has to always be high. In matches, I ask for aggressive pressing and to impose our style, not to bow to the opponent. It is not always possible, but you have to play like that or you have no chance of winning."
Thus far, that outlook seems to be serving Contra well. He started his coaching career with 11 games unbeaten at FC Politehnica Timişoara in 2010 before a clash of personalities prompted his departure. A spell in the Spanish third division working with young players at CF Fuenlabrada preceded his move in autumn 2012 to Petrolul, where he promptly earned the club their first Romanian Cup in 18 years and a third-place finish.
Contra believes "Romanian players and Romanian teams can easily work at Spanish or west-European standards" domestically, but when it comes to continental competitions, budgets will always put them at a disadvantage. "It is very hard, almost impossible, to compete in the long term with the biggest sides, so when a Romanian team manages to eliminate a big team, it is twice as big an achievement," he explained.
By the standards of Petrolul – the four-time Romanian champions from the once oil-rich Prahova county – Vitesse are giants; Contra estimated that they had an annual budget five times higher than his. "It will be very difficult, because we, from the point of view of infrastructure and facilities, are 100 years away from them, but I am optimistic because of our skills," he said. "We have our chance and we will go for it."
His ambition in the short term may be reaching the play-off round, but Contra – whose family are still based in Madrid – has longer-term goals. "Working in Romania is great, because you need experience, results and achievements to prepare you for bigger challenges," he said.
"I am extremely ambitious. Coaching our national team is a target for everybody, including me, but once I have proved myself I want to be in the top European leagues. It would be my dream to return to the clubs where I played – AC Milan, Atlético – but it's a long, hard road ahead." A road that may well start in Arnhem.
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