Panathinaikos FC's Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarian on life in Greece and a lifetime's coaching.
Sergio Markarian has enjoyed a fantastic start to his career as coach of Panathinaikos FC. The 57-year-old Uruguayan took over in December after guiding Paraguay to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals.
Markarian pledged to work "24 hours a day" to bring success to the Athens-based club. When he joined the club had just one point from their first two UEFA Champions League second group stage matches, but have since won their next two European outings.
Before his spell with Paraguay, Markarian earned much admiration in Greece when he coached Ionikos to fifth place in the Ethniki Katigoria during the 1998/99 season. uefa.com caught up with him to find out how he is enjoying his time with Panathinaikos.
uefa.com: A win in your debut in the Champions League (against Sparta Prague) and also a spot among the Greek league contenders. Life feels good at the moment...
Sergio Markarian: Yes, but every step we take makes me feel more responsible towards the players, fans and directors. They have invested time and hope in me, and I don't want to let them down. Expectations are high around here.
uefa.com: Panathinaikos have won both their Group C matches since the New Year.
SM: They were proud moments for me. There are not many South American coaches who have had the privilege of coaching a team in the UEFA Champions League. The Copa Libertadores, our South American equivalent, is not the same. The Champions League has more prestige, better players and better clubs.
uefa.com: Are you glad to be back in Greece, where you had a season with Ionikos in 1998/99?
SM: I always knew I would return to Greece. I like the people, the traditions, the music and the food here. Having left the Paraguay job, I wanted to relax and spend time with my family. But then the Panathinaikos offer came along. It was a very attractive proposition from a top club. I couldn't wait to accept.
uefa.com: You arrived in Athens in December. How hard is it to join a club mid-season?
SM: The ideal is to start in the summer: to work out your goals, pick your players and have a pre-season with them. But when I accepted the job, I accepted the risks involved. I was thrown in at the deep end. I had two matches in a week, in different competitions, with players I had not worked with before and the added problem of the language barrier. Physically and mentally, it was tough. I spend any free time studying the language and going through player stats to learn about the players here. It is a challenge I enjoy.
uefa.com: Panathinaikos are challenging for both the Hellenic National League and the UEFA Champions League. Can they win both?
SM: I hope we can achieve both our goals. Sometimes a team goes empty-handed when it fights on two fronts; other times you go after one goal and end up with nothing. There are also teams that go after two titles and win both. We should know more two months from now.
uefa.com: What attracted you to coaching?
SM: It was 1974 and I was watching my country play the Netherlands in the [FIFA] World Cup. Uruguay could not get past the halfway line, and the Dutch won 2-0. It was embarrassing. I remember asking myself what I could do to help. At the time I had a secure job as managing director of a company. But my passion for the game was growing, even though I had retired from playing as an amateur some years before. My wife saw this and suggested I do something about it - like study coaching. Which I did.
uefa.com: Where did your coaching career begin?
SM: Once I had finished my coaching course, I got a call from a club whose second team were in the fifth division of the Uruguayan league. They offered me a job coaching their youngsters - there was no salary involved and I had to cover team costs. But I accepted. It was the start of a double life as I was still working for the company while coaching in my free time. When we won our championship, the club asked me to take charge of the first team who were in the second division. Again I accepted and immediately we won the championship and promotion to the top flight. It was some achievement for a coach to lead two teams to a league title in the same year. I was ready to pack it in, though, because of work and family commitments, but the directors offered me a full-time contract with a good salary. Even so, it was a difficult decision because it meant giving up the financial security that came with my job. But with the support of my wife and sons I chose a career in football.
uefa.com: What was your next step?
SM: I coached at clubs like Danubio FC in Montevideo and got to work with future stars like Ruben Sosa and Carlos Aguilera. No sooner had I become an established trainer in Uruguay, Olimpia of Paraguay came calling in 1983 and I led them to the league title. Two more titles followed, then another three with Cerro Porteño. With Sol de América, meanwhile, we won the Torneo República and qualified for the Copa Libertadores.
uefa.com: What was your first taste of international football?
SM: In November 1991, I took charge of Paraguay's national teams, from Under-23s upwards. We had youngsters like Gamarra, Acuna, Arce, Cardoso and Ayala, who lifted the Copa America in 1992 then went to the Barcelona Olympics where they finished fifth. But I didn't get the chance to finish the job and left in March 1993.
uefa.com: Where did you go after that?
SM: I had three years in Peru, winning one title with [Club] Universitario [de Deportes] and another with Sporting Cristal, whom I took to the final of the Copa Libertadores. After that, in 1998, I went to Ionikos in Greece. It was my first experience of coaching in Europe and a great season as the club qualified for the UEFA Cup for the first time. I returned to South America in 1999 and went back to the Paraguay national team.
uefa.com: What was the highlight of your time as Paraguay coach?
SM: It was a very fruitful collaboration. Paraguay, a small country with many financial problems, achieved a consistently high ranking in the FIFA table. We were never out of the top ten. This was thanks to a great generation of players who put the country in the world spotlight. That time is past, though, and now I'm a Panathinaikos man.
uefa.com: You were sacked by Paraguay despite having taken them to the finals of the FIFA World Cup.
SM: All national team coaches walk a tightrope. I did so for two years knowing I could be sacked at any moment. The pressure was overwhelming. Yet I still don't know why they got rid of me. Perhaps they thought someone else could do a better job. If that was the case, that's fine by me. I tried to put myself in their position and understand their reasons. Maybe I was a thorn in their side. I turned to God for the courage and strength to overcome the sadness caused by this.
Part II of this interview to follow on 11 March...