Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 August 2020

Leganes manager Javier Aguirre on life under lockdown: 'How can I be so selfish to think about my job, about football?'

Former Al Wahda manager talks to The National about the devastation caused by Covid-19, missing his family and why he will never look at sport the same way again

Javier Aguirre took over as Leganes manager in November 2019.
Javier Aguirre took over as Leganes manager in November 2019.

Like the majority of us, presumably, Javier Aguirre is in reflective mood.

The coronavirus and its lockdown has brought that upon him, a time in which he has been confined to his home in Madrid, removed from his normal role as Leganes manager and a football career that spans 40-plus years. From family, too.

One of Aguirre’s three sons lives elsewhere in Madrid, but given the restrictions enforced by the pandemic, hasn’t been able to meet. The other two reside in their native Mexico.

For Aguirre, the boys are what’s important right now. They’re what he misses most.

“It’s very difficult. Very difficult,” Aguirre says by phone, moments after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced Spain’s residents could leave their homes to exercise for the first time in almost two months.

“We are in contact every day, or every couple of days, and on Fridays we have a family reunion on Zoom. But it’s not the same. I miss the guys … I miss them. At this time I’m very sensitive. I just think about hugging my children.”

Aguirre has been thinking also about sacrifices made for football, those family occasions missed because of a commitment to his profession. Birthdays and bereavements. He lost both his parents while carving a coaching career across five continents, a journey that included a two-year stop in Abu Dhabi with Al Wahda from 2015. He’s lost siblings.

Now 61, Aguirre has always recognised life’s priorities. But the current crisis has reinforced them.

“If I say I don’t want to go back to training, or want to turn away from football, it’s not fair,” he says. “Because there’s a lot of people in much worse situations than us. I have a beautiful apartment in Madrid. I have money. I’m OK. My family’s OK.

“But there’s more than 20,000 Spanish people to have died so far. Also many in my country, Mexico, and in the whole world. The United States; England. It’s unbelievable. And how can I be so selfish to think about my job, about football?

“Sometimes I say ‘You know Javier, enough is enough. You're a privileged guy’. So stop now to think about football. Stop now to think about the three points of the next game. It’s difficult. It’s a kind of rollercoaster. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down. Oof … difficult. Very difficult.”

Being so close to the devastation in Spain, one of the worst affected countries by the coronavirus, has exacerbated his frame of mind.

“One of our security guards in the team died, 54 years old,” Aguirre says. “Also, the general director was in hospital. It’s really awful, terrible for us to continue like nothing happened, smiling, ‘Oh yes, Leganes …’. No.

“I don’t know, how do I say? From that point, there’s a before and after. I cannot think about my sport and my life the same way I did two months ago. Trust me.”

It’s natural his outlook on football has changed. How could it not?

“For sure,” Aguirre says. “Because I've been working 19, 20 years outside my country, and in that time my dad and my mum died, two of my brothers died. I missed a lot of social events and family events.

“When I was in Abu Dhabi, I lost my mum and I tried to go to Mexico, but it was impossible with flights and I was in the middle of the season. My mum is in the hospital and I’m thinking ‘OK, she will be better, no problem’. But no, she died.

Leganes manager Javier Aguirre. Getty
Leganes manager Javier Aguirre. Getty

“Six months later my sister died also. It was very difficult on me. And I thought is this important to work in Abu Dhabi for the money and you lost your mum and your sister and you can’t say at least ‘Go in peace, I love you, mum; I love you, sister’, or give your kid the last kiss in your life.

“Now I have a big responsibility with my three boys so - of course I care about Leganes, of course I’m professional, of course I want to close a successful career - but the biggest challenge I have is to make sure my three boys are good guys, good human beings.”

Aguirre’s typically irrepressible laugh is less frequent, but still it peppers 45 minutes from Madrid to Dubai that whizz by.

“Now my wife wants to be a grandmum,” he chuckles. “The three boys have girlfriends. I’m saying not to push them. But I don’t know ... I’m a different man right now. A different man. I have to be."

More introspective, evidently.

“I’m 61 and my career is almost over," Aguirre says. "And although I say ‘No problem, I’m still young’, I’m in the last third of my life, no doubt about it. So I want to do a lot of things. Life is to enjoy and sometimes I put my sport in front of everything, so wow, I have some kind of regrets.

“If I have something personal now, 100 per cent, I will put that first ahead of any game, any money, any salary. If I have to leave Madrid because I have to go back to Mexico for any personal reason I will do it tomorrow. I cancel my contract.”

Not that Aguirre takes for granted the opportunity at Leganes. He has relished the role he took up way back in November before the crisis developed, when the former Osasuna, Atletico Madrid, Zaragoza and Espanyol manager answered another SOS – Save Our Season.

At the time, Leganes were rooted to the bottom of La Liga with five points from 12 matches. When the Spanish top flight shut down in March, and having taken 18 points from 15 matches, they had jumped one spot. Currently three points from safety, Aguirre's men have tasted defeat three times in 12 league games.

Like their peers, Leganes were allowed last week to return to limited training following the easing of some restrictions by the government, as La Liga’s organisers aim for a restart next month. Just Thursday, Aguirre cited June 20 for its resumption.

Javier Aguirre lost his main striker at Leganes when Barcelona signed Martin Braithwaite in February. AFP
Javier Aguirre lost his main striker at Leganes when Barcelona signed Martin Braithwaite in February. AFP

During lockdown, the Leganes physical coach had been in regular contact with the players, holding daily fitness sessions online with the group. Aguirre sometimes popped on, preferring instead to check in regularly by phone with his senior players.

But he is worried. Worried that, for the first time as a manager, he doesn’t have a concrete schedule; worried, not just about the physical condition of his players, but the mental toll of the shutdown.

“Look, I’m 61, my wife is 60, normal couple, blah, blah, blah,” Aguirre says. “But imagine I have two players, 19-20, single, they don’t belong to Madrid, their family is in Andalusia. So they’ve a lot of problems.

“Imagine these guys alone, they cannot go outside to do anything. So imagine how the guy is feeling every day, how the guy is living. You can depress yourself.

“I’ve never as a coach worked with psychologists, because one of my strengths is I talk a lot with my players - I’m an old man, so I can have that conversation. But now a couple of players will need help professionally.

“And also we’re in the relegation zone, so imagine that our first game you have to win, then go to Barcelona. It is difficult. So difficult.”

That first fixture is drawing ever nearer. Aguirre has exhausted his planning for the rescheduled home match with Real Valladolid – “I know everything about them” – assessing many of their matches by video.

He has watched back all of his with Leganes, still ruing the sale of Martin Braithwaite to Barcelona and Youssef En Nesyri to Sevilla. It robbed Aguirre of his two main forwards, meaning offensive issues remain despite the morale-boosting 2-1 victory at Villarreal before football was halted.

He understands the yearning for La Liga’s return; that people in Spain “are starving to watch a live game”. Yet he knows its place in the wider context, too.

“Honestly, I’d be happy only if, this bloody virus, if we could find the vaccine to kill it,” Aguirre says. “Other things are secondary for me. First of all is people’s health, the humanity.

“And then the second part, my job is football, OK, I can do my job. But first of all I’m thinking of that family who has lost someone. In the whole world around 200,000 people have died. Like a big, big war. Huge numbers.”

Still, a resumption of the league - without fans in attendance - looks likely, even if Aguirre felt cancellation, with the new season not beginning until January, was the best way forward.

Inevitably, the potential return fosters several concerns. Safety at matches, for one.

“I don’t want to go play if there’s any risk to anybody,” Aguirre says. “Coaches, staff, security people, players, referees. Imagine we brought a new escalation of the virus. We spend three months trying to control it and in two weekends, boom.

“The virus is still killing. First of all, it should be people’s health, people’s lives. First. In front of everything.”

People first. Family in front of everything. Kept away from his sons, Aguirre has found comfort as he normally does in wife Silvia. Confined to their apartment for the best part of six weeks, they play cards, watch Netflix, read.

Silvia cut her husband’s hair; in return, he gave her a manicure. Aguirre doesn’t do anything in the kitchen, content to concede Silvia’s the expert. They dance. They sing karaoke. They have the online reunions with the boys.

Together 40 years, the lockdown has underlined how those closest are what truly matter most. It is a weighty endorsement of the Aguirre family unit.

"I need more hours with my wife," Aguirre chortles, that infectious, full laugh returning. “I’m crazy, I know that. But it’s true.”

Updated: May 11, 2020 08:54 AM

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