Colombian Luis Fernando Suárez, 62, is a bit like Latin American Bora Milutinović. After Ecuador (2006) and Honduras (2014), the man who has also officiated in many clubs will lead Costa Rica in Qatar. Before doing battle with Spain, this lover of sports psychology confides in his winning recipe.
How is your handling of a selection going?
My first objective is to understand the way of thinking of the players, but also of the population of the country in which I will work, to create an emotional bond. And for Costa Rica, it was difficult, because I had little time (he was appointed on June 21, 2021, Editor’s note). With Ecuador, for example, when I got to the start of the knockout campaign (2004)I already knew the country, because I had been the assistant coach of Francisco Maturana for the 1998 World Cup.
How did you adapt to the lack of time?
As a coach, we can have fears, rely on precedents, but there, for lack of time, we quickly decided. Our diagnosis was that we had to make an express change, and we dared to do so. The lesson learned is that, even if it is more comfortable to lead a long process, you can quickly form a group by focusing on the synergy between the players, even more than on individual qualities.
“We then wondered what type of players we were missing. And we called up new elements, including a 17-year-old player, Jewison Bennette, who had not yet played a professional match. »
Concretely, what have you changed?
We must remember the context: before I arrived, it had been two years since the selection had won an international match. We played the Gold Cup almost immediately, and even though we won some matches, we realized that there was still a lot of things to improve. We then wondered what type of players we were missing. And we called up new elements, including a 17-year-old player (Jewison Bennette) who had not yet played a professional match, and who now plays in England (Sunderland). And then, we selected three or four of his under-20 teammates, who weren’t playing in the best clubs in the country. This led us to do without other players who were often called up. But we also relied on elements of experience to frame them, like Bryan Ruiz or Keylor Navas. They helped us get them to their destination. We quickly felt a union within this group. We made bold, bold decisions.
You also carried out training microcycles with the players of the local championship…
I am very grateful to the League, as they have agreed to release players for periods of seven to fifteen days. Before the playoffs, they also released the players earlier, and before the play-off against New Zealand, we had a month to prepare. These microcycles allowed me to get to know my players better, to better understand who they were.
For you, what is a selection player?
If he’s good on the pitch, but he doesn’t know how to live in a group, he’s not a good element. A selection player must have character to meet the high standards of the supporter, must understand his responsibility, know how to maintain his humility and be well aware that collective objectives are more important than personal objectives.
You work with a sports psychologist, Felipe Camacho. What is his role ?
I was already working with him in the club (Dorados Sinaloa, La Equidad, Atlético Junior). In fact, I’ve been convinced for about ten years that you have to train the brain as much as the body, which is not done enough in Latin America. Felipe enriches our work, with cognitive exercises, to train attention span or improve decision-making. And the group was receptive, they like this work.
“To work on decision-making, the ability to concentrate, we played an eleven against eleven match, but all with the same color of shirt. »
Could you give a concrete example of an exercise?
To work on decision-making, the ability to concentrate, we played an eleven against eleven match, but all with the same color of shirt. It complicates the situation, it requires additional cognitive effort. In exercises in small spaces, players can also be prohibited from speaking. Finally, it makes you realize how important communication is. It is always about training the brain so that the player is more relaxed when solving problems in competition.
A received idea wants that the mental is more important than the tactics in selection. What do you think ?
It’s just as important. One or the other cannot be neglected.
And what football do you like to set up?
I like teams that evolve as a unit, that know how to attack and defend together. I also like my teams to handle the ball well. But as a coach, I am especially convinced that we must prepare the players for various scenarios, and then it is up to them to make the best decision.
Recently, there have always been several Colombian coaches at each World Cup, such as in 2018, when Juan Carlos Osorio led Mexico and Hernán Darío Gómez Panama. Is there a Colombian school?
No, there is no school, there are just good coaches. Since 1998, there has always been at least one Colombian coach. In Brazil (2014)there were three of us: Jorge Luis Pinto, who was in my place, in Costa Rica, Reinaldo Rueda (Ecuador) and me (Honduras).
“In any case, in Colombia, there is a before and after Maturana. He is a unique person. »
Is there at least one common filiation? Are you the heirs of Francisco Maturana, the great figure of the Colombian benches?
In any case, in Colombia, there is a before and after Maturana. He is a unique person. Personally, I was his player, his assistant and I learned a lot from him. Afterwards, I had other influences, because as a coach, you never stop learning. Today, I learn a lot from my assistant coach.
Didier Deschamps says he prefers being a coach to coaching in a club. Is this also your case?
Yes. Being a coach is an exciting game. You don’t train on a daily basis, but knowing how to choose players, observing them takes a lot of time. And then, your responsibility is immense since a whole country expects a lot from you. Taking a player or not can fuel a national debate… You have to have a high sense of responsibility.
“I also gave each player a USB stick so they could watch our game decryptions from Japan, Germany and Spain again. And I hope they do…”
In your group, Spain and Germany are the big favourites. What message are you sending to your players?
They are the logical favourites, but good preparation can help to spoil the party. During our last meeting, before facing South Korea, I organized a workshop on our World Cup opponents. I also gave each player a USB stick so they could watch our breakdowns of the game from Japan, Germany, and Spain again. And I hope they do… But the advantage I have with this selection is that many players have already experienced this situation and thwarted the predictions (in 2014, Costa Rica had reached the quarter-finals, editor’s note). From the group of 2014, seven or eight players are still there. Moreover, this group has already shown its mental strength during the playoffs, where we were very badly embarked halfway (six points taken in seven games, Editor’s note). For the play-offs, for example, I felt a group that didn’t get caught up in the ambient optimism. In Costa Rica, it felt like you just had to show up to win against New Zealand. But we knew we had to play a very good game. And besides, it was not easy (1-0).
What big lessons have you learned from your previous World Cups?
That we must constantly renew ourselves. I remember that during my second World Cup (2014), I felt like I was repeating a story. With Ecuador, we had beaten Brazil in the qualifying rounds, a first, and with Honduras, we had won for the first time at Azteca, against Mexico (1-2). But you have to know how to forget why you won, because in football, everything is ephemeral. With Honduras, the outcome of our story was not as brilliant as with Ecuador (round of 16 in 2006, elimination in the first round in 2014, editor’s note). I then also realized that no detail should be overlooked. A player’s expression at breakfast, the way of greeting each other, everything must be analysed.
Your captain and goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, does not play at PSG. What do you think of his situation?
I’m not going to hide that I would like him to play. But I know him, I know he’s a warrior, he’s never going to give up. This is not the first time that he finds himself in this situation. It has already happened to him, especially at Real Madrid. But with everything he’s shown, he shouldn’t be going through this.
“Keylor manages to always stay focused on his daily life. Mentally, he is strong and still enthusiastic. »
How do you explain that it is so difficult for him to be an indisputable starter?
I think when you come from this part of the world you can be looked down on a bit. I’m not talking about racism or anything like that. But faced with this lack of consideration, the important thing is to make it a motivating factor. And Keylor manages to always stay focused on his daily life. Mentally, he is strong and still enthusiastic. I was able to realize this from our first conversation before the Gold Cup. I understood that we shared the same obsession to experience a new World Cup. And here we are.
Interview by Thomas Goubin