His team up against Sweden and Spain in Qatar 2022 qualifying
The Frenchman talks about qualifying for the World Cup and memories of the tournament
On 15 February this year, Willy Sagnol was officially appointed Georgia head coach. A surprise move you might think, until you learn that the former Bayern Munich captain was convinced to take on the role by two people he holds in high regard from his on-field battles in the Bundesliga: namely Levan Kobiashvili, now president of the Georgian Football Federation, and his vice-president Alexander Iashvili.
The task entrusted to Sagnol by the two esteemed former Georgia internationals was to get the Crusaders back on track after the agony of just missing out on UEFA EURO 2020 qualification and to perform well in the upcoming qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Georgia get their campaign underway this Thursday with a trip to Sweden, before playing Spain three days later and then travelling to Greece on 31 March.
It all points to an exciting challenge for the 58-time capped Frenchman and veteran of two World Cups (2002 and 2006), as he explains in this exclusive FIFA.com interview, where he also shares his memories of the game’s flagship event.
FIFA.com: How did you come to be appointed Georgia coach?
Willy Sagnol: I was looking to take charge of a national team rather than a club. The Georgian Federation is headed up by former players who I frequently came up against in Germany. There was an immediate sense of trust with them, and I accepted the job with immense joy and ambition.
You started your coaching career as assistant to the France U-20 team before taking charge of Les Espoirs (U-21s). You then managed Bordeaux for two seasons and later had a spell as assistant coach with Bayern Munich. What prompted your return to international football?
I really enjoyed my time at the French Football Federation. International football functions in a way that suits me, and it was something I wanted to experience again. I’m in a country that wants to continue to develop and where I can play a beneficial role. For me, it’s a medium-term project, even if these days there’s no such thing as long-term. The current precariousness of club coaching positions makes that role more and more complicated. Nice projects or feasible projects don’t always arrive at the right time.
What was the mood in the national team and country when you arrived?
I sensed enormous disappointment and sadness at how EURO qualification had slipped through their fingers in their play-off final. However, this demonstrates that qualification was indeed attainable and that the potential is there. There are more and more young people emerging, and working with them is always rewarding because you can see them progressing as you go along. The project here appeals to me because it came along at the right time and because it’s a realistic challenge. We’re well aware that we’re not going to win the World Cup, but there is a desire at both federation and team level to continue the progress.
Have you been given a specific goal for these World Cup qualifiers?
No, there was no set goal because we know we’re in a difficult group, with teams like Spain and Sweden, who have a lot more experience than us. I would say that our mission is to make qualification difficult for others. We have enough quality to… we have ambitious young players, so we needn’t set limits for ourselves. We want to have our own playing style and identity, regardless of who we face.
How would you define this identity?
The goal of the national team is to adapt to modern football, i.e. a transition game with quick forward moves. The players also need to have self-confidence and believe in their qualities, which are great, and to take risks in games. A team like Georgia has no chance if it doesn’t take risks. You can’t just defend and hope for a foul by your opponent. You have to provoke mistakes by being ambitious in the game. Since my arrival, I feel that everyone shares a desire to change course. Of course, it will require convincing results because they’re what give you confidence. Georgians have a lot of pride, and there are players who are starting to emerge on the European scene and who need to be the driving force for this.
What would be a good result for Georgia in these qualifiers?
Based solely on performance, a good result would be to secure third place. A very good outcome would be to aim higher, but it’s still very premature to call this, especially in the current climate with travel more complicated and demanding, and the absence of fans. I have a lot of respect for the professionals currently playing all their games in empty stadiums. It’s not easy and requires a lot in terms of self-sacrifice and mentality. But even in these difficult circumstances, we must be able to succeed.
Willy Sagnol, head coach of Georgia
Your World Cup idol?
My idol was Roger Milla. I can still see him dancing after his goal for Cameroon, at 40 years of age! For me, this is one of the great moments in World Cup history. He was a veritable legend and very well known in France.
Your favourite World Cup match?
France-Brazil 1986, because it’s one of the first matches I remember. I was nine at the time. Being in Mexico, it was very late for us but I was able to watch it with my dad. Zico’s missed penalty [during normal time], Socrates’ missed spot kick [in the shootout], Luis Fernandez’s joy… These are powerful images.
The best player of all time?
There can only be one, and that’s the King, Pele. Living as we do in a world where media and images are very important, you get the impression that there are many stars today, but they’re not really comparable with the Pele of that era. He transcended everyone, his team-mates, his opponents as well as the fans. He was fabulous.
How do you look back on your international career these days?
I was extremely fortunate to be able to participate in two World Cups and two EUROs. There were no titles at the end of them, but compared to my childhood dreams, it was fabulous. I was proud to represent my country and to wear the jersey. When you play at a World Cup, from the first day to the last day, you feel like you’re flying. It’s wonderful. In 2006, we came down to earth with a bang, however. I felt a lot of disappointment about not being able to get a World Cup winners star for my country, but with the passage of time, what endures most is the great human adventure I experienced with wonderful team-mates.
At that World Cup France began with two draws… How did you manage to keep believing and stay the course?
Everyone knows that it’s not always the team that starts best that goes the furthest. We believed in ourselves and our qualities. We knew that, even though the quality of our play wasn’t great, we weren’t far off. Something clicked in the third game and we felt liberated from then on. There was a lot of maturity in this team and, while we weren’t necessarily thinking we’d go all the way, the victory over Spain [in the last 16] gave us a lot of confidence as a team.
In hindsight, do you still blame Zinedine Zidane for his sending-off in the final?
What I remember, 15 years on, is that I played with one of the best players in the world, who wasn’t just a great player but also a great man. Maybe his rush of blood to the head in the final made him human again – and human beings always make mistakes. Unfortunately, his came at the wrong time. Even if there was a lot of anger after the game, we couldn’t pretend that we’d definitely have won if it hadn’t happened. Football is a team sport, and it’s a message that we must always convey to young people: we’re responsible for our performance, but we’re also responsible for the team’s performance. When you have a rush of blood on the field, it penalizes your whole team first and foremost.
Is he the best player you’ve ever played with?
Unquestionably, and by a long way. We can talk about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who are extraordinary players who’ll score because they set out to score a lot of goals. With Zidane, his primary objective was to make the team play well. That’s why I have him as my number one. He could have done his own thing a lot more and been much more individualistic in his play, because he had the quality to do it, but he had that desire to make the team play well and make his team-mates better. For that alone, he deserves a statue.