For a moment, Granada manager Diego Martínez is a kid again. More than a moment, in fact; the enthusiasm that overflows with the memories is the same enthusiasm that drives him daily. If he is a football manager now, it is because he was obsessed with football then. It is because he still is. And so here he is at Granada’s training ground, and there he is too: in Galicia, a small boy surrounded by stickers, the faces and names that formed him.
“My aunt had a [news stand],” he says, “and she would save me all the stuff. I’d sit there with all those copies of Don Balon just for me. All the stickers. The sports papers. Those league guide books.”
“I remember Italia ’90, I think that’s my first World Cup,” he says and he’s off again, football flooding back, an hour flying by in the company of the impossibly enthusiastic man whose team face Manchester United this week.
Granada are Spanish football’s great revelation and as the youngest coach in primera, Diego Martínez brought Granada from the second division to the Europa League quarterfinals. Born in Vigo in 1980, he has come a long way, and now he’s going back again to where it all started, which may be the best way to explain how all this happened and why.
There is a moment when he is talking about not joining in the rondos in training, even though he played once. “That’s their moment,” he says. “And anyway, I prefer to watch. You get a lot of information too. When it’s fun, when people are enjoying themselves, you discover who people are. There are no masks there. That’s where you see it, where you see them…”
As he says those words, words that ring true, it falls into place: it is where you see him too. In the fun, the football, the moments. The people. The enjoyment. The memories.
It gets him going, that’s for sure. At times, he barely seems to pause for breath.
“My grandfather bought us a video of the history of the World Cups. And that summer, 1990, I don’t know how many times I watched it. Ah, so many. Pffff. It had it all: that Rivellino goal. Everything from ’86, ’90, Spain in ’82, Argentina in ’78. I saw it so many times. I would watch Estudio Estadio, be ready to press record and watch it four or five times a week. Bits of commentary from games are imprinted on my mind, words that go with certain images. I’d watch it 300,000 times. I just wanted to ‘eat’ it all up.”
“1990 was my first World Cup, the first I properly remember, but there was Euro ’88 before that, which is clear in my mind. That legendary Marco Van Basten goal. I’ve been reading his autobiography, Frágil. I loved it; it showed us things that we don’t see from the outside. He tells the story of how when he was seven a friend fell in a lake and drowned. Things that mark you. His history with his dad. The way he grew up, everything. Everyone has their path, their route.”
This is Martínez’s.
ESPN: Do you remember the first game you went to?
Martinez: Perfectly. I was six. Celta Vigo vs. Valencia in 1987. It’s crystal clear, still. Maté played. Maraver. Nacho. Rodolfo. Vicente, Baltazar, Lucas, Alvelo. I remember a goal from Balazar, Valencia wearing the [red and yellow] Senyera. People sang: “ya somos tres, ya somos tres: Celta, Valencia y Logroñés” [“Now there are three of us: Celta, Valencia and Logroñés]. They were the teams that went up that year from the second division to the first.
Celta won promotion against Sestao at Las Llanas. I remember the celebration, going to the town hall with my godfather. Everything being packed [full of people], all the way up to the Castro [castle]. Just full of people. That was huge.”
Soon, that team was yours as a player, not just a fan.
I joined Celta’s youth system aged 9. By then, I was much more conscious of what it all meant, taking it all in. Celta had taken a leap forward with Jabo Irureta as manager, reaching Europe. We didn’t have much contact with the first team, but I do remember one festivo [“bank holiday”] training up there at Madroa, right up above the city. In the fog and the rain: pure Galicia.
My mum couldn’t come and get us and we saw Eusebio Sacristan there and asked him if he would take us down to the city, please. He was asking us questions: ‘what’s it like?’ ‘how’s training?’ I was 13, I think, imagine what that meant to us. I’d been a ball boy, too. I remember Santi Canizares coming. I was behind his goal. No one wanted to be a goalkeeper, but everyone wanted to be like Canizares. He was an idol. He gave his gloves to a teammate of mine.
I was a ball boy at Celta vs. Zaragoza, watching Juan Esnaider protesting everything, going at the ref, opponents, everyone. That was… well, it left a mark, hahaha! Vasiljevic kicking Juan Sanchez in the head. [Martínez slaps his hands] Bang, he just hits the floor, doesn’t move. I was just there, right by it and I remember his face.
I saw Vasiljevic in Pamplona once, years later, and I told him: ‘bloody hell, I was there when that happened!’ I enjoyed that period so much. That time when you’re falling in love with football, learning so much. All those things that leave a mark on you forever. Pure football. All those details. That was my passion. I went to the finals as a fan as well — although we went and lost them both to Zaragoza, haha! [In the 1994 Copa del Rey final Celta lost 5-4 on penalties; in the 2001 final they lost 3-1.
In the end, football is the vehicle, an excuse for life…
Totally. Take our recent trip to Napoli. Ten thousand fans would have gone. My cousins wanted to go, but no-one could, which is such a pity. It’s a city with such a passion for football. You’re there in the bus and they’re insulting you.
Diego Martínez falls about laughing, imitating the gestures.
That’s football. Not the insults, but the passion. The roar. The noise that all kids that love football love.
You clearly did…
When I was a student, my [now] wife would say to me: ‘go on, get the Marca guide book out, let’s see what a freak you are.’ And she’d say: ‘ok, Ruben Castro’, say, and I would reel off his whole career. Another one: at Sevilla vs. Atletico, on the train with the press officer, Juan Ramon Morales, on the way to the playoffs. I’d found some old football stickers and I gave them to him because he loves that kind of thing and we spent ages and ages guessing: ‘Racing Santander … left-footed … foreign ….’ ‘Marcelo Sabou?’ ‘Boom!’
If it hadn’t been for injury, would you have made it as a player?
Nah. I was very bad, hahahahaha! No, if it hadn’t been for the injury, I still wouldn’t have made it. Put it this way: I wouldn’t pick me! I was very disciplined, versatile, tactically I understood. But I didn’t have the physical or technical ability to go any further. I played in tercera, maybe I could have played Segunda B, but that leap to the second or first division? No, I don’t think so. I was at Celta for nine years, Cádiz C, Portuense. I played in tercera while I was studying. I got injured in September and in November I stopped playing, but I wouldn’t have done much.
Coaching was the logical step, then?
As a player, what I had in the head, my body couldn’t do. Because I was tactically good and very disciplined, I always had a place in the squad, despite my limitations, but I could see where my ceiling was as a player. I knew at 14, 15 really. But I could also see things others didn’t. I would ask coaches and fitness trainers all sorts of things. Set-pieces, strategies, anything. I was interested. I would go to congresses, ask questions. I borrowed football books and took it all in. I read articles I didn’t even understand. I consumed it all, like I had consumed Don Balón. Because it was a passion.
I didn’t know I was going to be a coach but later, looking back — you can see it. I was dig, dig, dig. Go everywhere, ask everyone and without even realising it, you’re becoming a coach.
You did a physical education degree at university. Was that with an eye on being a coach?
When I did my degree, I was thinking about being a coach, yes. My grades weren’t good enough to get placements in A Coruna. I went to Cadiz to do the TAFAD [a physical education qualification] and I played and trained there too. It was a two-year course, very practical, very useful. I got one of the best three grades in Andalucía and then went to university. It could have been Leon or Granada, I chose Granada. I don’t know why: I had never set foot here before. The faculty is just down the road here, pretty much next door. You think: why?
Was it destiny that brought me here of all places? I didn’t know I would get in. The physical trials were July 6 or 7, and the day before, at 3 p.m., I went to see the Alhambra. That was the only slot available, and I thought ‘I’ve got to go because I might never be back here again.’ So, I went…
But you passed and stayed.
Yeah, I got in to do INEF. I coached too. Imperio Alborote, then Arenas de Armilla in tercera. Youth coach, assistant, then first-team coach. I was 25; Look at my staff now. My assistant Raul Espinola, and my goalkeeper coach, Juan Carlos Fernandez: they were Arenas players. It’s like a story — everything connects.
But you didn’t have a route planned out?
Never. I went where football took me.
And now? Do you have a future path mapped out?
No. That’s never been my idea; you can’t choose. The only thing I have always done was ensure I was as serious, as prepared with a team of U-15s as in tercera, as with Granada. Make sure I was ready for what’s next. I didn’t imagine anything. Just be the best coach you can be. Work as if you’re in the Champions League, even if you’re nowhere near it. Learn.
I was talking to my basketball coach yesterday: I would learn from basketball, volleyball, handball. Immerse yourself in everything. Think. I was asked to take a team at 25 and I said yes because I felt I was ready. I was earning very little; it wasn’t a living. Some thought: ‘let’s see when this novice falls,’ but we won nine in a row and almost reached the playoffs, having taken over [when they were] bottom. And I decided not to renew because I had to finish my degree. I had statistics and mechanics still to do. They thought I had an agreement with some other club, but I wanted to finish.
People said: ‘why stop now, you’ve only just started?’ But I thought: ‘I have to get this degree and then I can do what I want.’ And when you’re ready, destiny, life, takes you where it wants to take you.
Did your university friends see life bringing you here?
Yes… Look, you think ‘don’t be stupid, how can you think this would happen?’ But, yeah, they say they could see it. That said, they see what we have done at Granada and they can’t believe it.
Monchi saw something in you and took you to Sevilla, where you worked in the youth system and as an assistant. You learned from Marcelino, Míchel, Emery…
I never worked with Marcelino, but he was very good to me. I was coaching the U-19s, it was summer, hot, and I asked if I could watch training, ask questions. ‘What are you doing?’ He changed the club’s whole methodology. I enjoyed watching him a lot. It’s not just the coaches, it’s Monchi, Pablo Blanco, Víctor Orta, Oscar Arias, Miguel Angel Gomez.
And then it gets serious. When you reaches this level, is it the same? Can you still enjoy it?
In my way, yeah.
The preparation of a game, seeing a team grow, seeing that you have helped someone… and if on top of that, you win, it’s the hostia — bloody brilliant. That process, that internal satisfaction: that’s everything. Exceeding expectations. Teaching and coaching are very closely linked. The players, like students, are the protagonists. They do it. I like methodology and process. If you win and you don’t know why, that’s not going to be sustained over time.
You’re one of the most active managers there is. You’re very vociferous on the touchline, constantly talking, always instructing, almost ‘in’ the game.
I’m in a trance. I’m super-focused. There may be moments when your emotions can’t be managed. With time, you can control your temperament better, [the basketball coach Sergio] Scariolo says. But I am temperamental. I feel and live the game and my staff and players do too. I enjoy that sense of total concentration. But, of course, if you ask when am I happiest, it’s when we win. Not so much because of the win itself as how we got there, how it happened, what we have achieved.
No one expected this from Granada.
To see [forward] Antonio Puertas, [midfielder] Angel Montoro, [defender] German, [defender] Victor Diaz, [goalkeeper] Rui Silva, [goalkeeper] Aáron, [defender] Quini and [midfielder] Fede Vico… people who were with you in the second division, go to Napoli and play guys who cost €70m — that’s more than our entire budget — and win… pffff.
That first season, everyone thinks we’ll struggle. We go up. Then everyone thinks we’ll go down. We reach Europe. The next year: ‘this lot are going back again.’ No. That’s where the satisfaction is: in helping a group to believe, to prove itself, to feel that passion. Without that passion, we would have 10 points less. Without that, when they score in Napoli, we throw in the towel. Any other team would have done in our situation, a goal down, four players injured.
You mention that state of “trance,” the intensity. Do you finish games tired?
Mucho, mucho. Mentally, you’re exhausted. But then you can’t sleep. When it’s a night game, I watch it again. In Italy, I slept at 5 a.m.. I watched the game again, I analysed it: not because I have to see it, but I couldn’t sleep.
What happens on those days when your energy flags? That must happen, right?
You come through the door, you have to be ‘up.’ You’re a coach; that’s your job. If you’re all [soft, flat voice] ‘come on, lads’, that’s no good. What you say has to be coherent, authentic. A player can ‘smell’ it if you’re not true. One day I might be more animated, but it will always be authentic, honest. It’s better to do that and make a mistake then say sorry than be an imposter, pretending to be something you’re not. If you’re angry or pissed off, leave that in the car. But moods change.
I read something that Kobe Bryant, rest in peace, said: to concentrate on the game or the job, you don’t always need the same activation, the same concentration. Everything changes. Even the music you’re listening to. I know myself now: my music to come to training changes depending on what I need in that moment.
What were you listening to on the way in today?
Today it was Heroes del Silencio. Pearl Jam. I mix it up. Today was just for enjoyment rather than to create a mood. Let’s say you lost on Sunday night at 9 p.m.. Monday morning, you can’t open your eyes, you feel flat. You’re still thinking: ‘We’ve lost.’ At that moment you need Iggy Pop. Lust for life. To analyse games, I like more classical music, something more background. Jazz, say. Or Ludovic Einaudi on the piano. Every moment has its music, and that’s contagious.
What about if it’s your players who have issues. Do you help them individually?
As far as they let you. They’re not all equally communicative, they don’t all want you to help them. There are players who use the pitch to isolate from the problems, for whom the best thing is just to play. As a coach I feel close to them. I have a ‘nose’ for when something isn’t right. I hold out a hand but that step has to be theirs.
I’ve had all sorts of players and I have learned from them. With some, you let it go; others you approach. They all have their button, their code. You have to learn that, read them.
Are there players you can’t read?
To start with, yes. Some are hard to interpret. Sometimes it’s not in what they say, but in their gestures. I believe a lot in body language, non-verbal language. And you really feel it when you connect, face-to-face. Sometimes you talk to the team and think: ‘today, I reached them.’ Other days maybe you don’t feel that, but later on, you find that something you said stuck. Or you find that a veteran player has told a teammate: ‘speak to the boss, it’ll be good for you.’ Some of them know me very well now; better than I know myself, I think.
Much of your work sounds intangible, intuitive.
The coach is an artisan. I like stats, data, but a coach also has to be intuitive. That intuition is not plucked from nowhere — it’s based on years of work, experience, study. Even if you’re not conscious of that, that’s where your intuition comes from, what it’s built on. There’s process, methodology and then a feeling. The stats might say ‘this player,’ but something says ‘that one.’ Why? I don’t know, but him. And that’s the coach’s art.
And if you’re wrong? If you lose?
Boris Becker said I hate losing more than I like winning, and I think that’s the case for me too. The intensity of feeling is greater: the hatred of defeat is more intense. But I have learned over the years — all the more so now with three games a week — that there’s no time for mourning. You have to be excited again, ready again. Yeah, it can all be exhausting, that’s true. But so much the better. I want to play every three days for a very long time. No time for laments. Do that the day they sack you, hahaha! Until then, there’s no time. There’s not much time to enjoy it either, mind you.
In Napoli we enjoyed that night, let loose. But you’re on the plane the next day, and you think ‘and who’s going to play on Sunday?’ and all the euphoria vanishes, hahaha! There are difficulties, like there are in any occupation — in journalism, you could tell me loads of things — but the most important thing is to be able to live your passion. That’s the absolute business.