At 37, Willy Sagnol is still very young in coaching terms, but that did not stop Bordeaux entrusting him with the first-team reins this summer. Aside from his illustrious past as a player, the former Bayern Munich and France defender came on board with a limited management CV, having only briefly shown his worth in a successful spell with his country's U-20 and U-21 sides.
Despite that inexperience, Sagnol has helped Les Girondins make a superb start to the Ligue 1 season, guiding them to fifth in the standings – with the chance of improving that position at home to third-placed Lyon on Sunday. Ahead of their final match before the winter break, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the erstwhile right-back about his new role and his favourites for the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala in January.
FIFA.com: Who, in your opinion, deserves to be named coach of the year?Willy Sagnol: In a World Cup year, it's usually the victorious coach. Even if Carlo Ancelotti deserves it just as much for having won the Champions League, it would make sense to me if it's Joachim Low. It's difficult to decide between them because they have different characteristics, but they're both coaches who win things, and that's what people demand of them. For me, it's between the two of them, even if Diego Simeone is perhaps the coach who had the most impact on his team over the whole season. You get the feeling that there's a real Simeone touch. He coaches in the same way he played the game. He's someone who never gives up on anything, who's attentive to every detail and who stresses the importance of squad unity, motivation and aggression, in the positive sense of the term. His team resembles his own personality and that's why they get good results.
Do you have a preference between Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer for the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2014?I don't really have a preference. On the one hand, you have two fantastic forwards who are making football history and who will leave their mark for a very long time, and on the other you have a goalkeeper who has been a wall at the back for the whole year. Neuer is a proper footballer as well. We saw that during the World Cup, when he adapted very well to his team's style of play. He's a world champion, but Messi and Ronaldo keep beating records. It's tough to choose between them – for me, anyway. I'd say that Neuer's only drawback in terms of winning the Ballon d'Or is that he's a goalkeeper.
*Which coaches had the biggest influence on you during your own career? *They all influenced me in their own way. Jean Tigana and Claude Puel at Monaco made me understand the demands of being a professional. There was also Ottmar Hitzfeld at Bayern Munich, who was a truly great manager, and Felix Magath, who made me work extremely hard. My years with him were very difficult but corresponded with the pinnacle of my form.
*You have been quite successful as a coach yourself, despite your young age. *I'm not going to judge myself in the middle of the season. We can take stock of my first year in May. I constantly ask myself questions and I'm working to achieve long-term results. It's a little early to analyse my experience with France's U-21s and my six months at club level, but it's true that everyone prefers to win matches, because that validates the work you do.
*What are the principles you cherish the most? *I try to emphasise the human aspect above all, because you're a person first and a player second. I work on boosting the players' confidence on a day-to-day basis. Beyond that, my time as a player made me someone who loves spectacular football, even if that sometimes means you lose a little balance in your play. For me, football is entertainment above all. Of course you have to perform well, but you need to please the spectators as well. I like my players to be capable of transcending their roles.
*At 37, you are not much older than some of your players. Do you feel close to them? *Feeling close to the players is natural, especially because of the age factor. Nevertheless, I think that, in principle, a coach needs to keep a certain distance, because his role is to take decisions which don't always please everyone.
*Your Bordeaux team have more points at this stage than the side coached by Laurent Blanc that went on to win the title in 2008/09. *You can't compare different eras. To compare the number of points Bordeaux have now with how many they had in that title-winning year is like comparing [Michel] Platini and Pele – it's impossible. It wasn't as long ago, but five years in football is a very long time, especially for teams that have a lot of turnover and regularly experience success or difficulties. Right now, we're happy to be on 31 points, even if we could have got more in certain games where we didn't give everything we needed to in order to win. What we have to do now is continue collecting as many points as possible to finish with something interesting at the end of the season – namely, a European place.
When you watch Laurent Blanc come up against Europe's biggest clubs in the UEFA Champions League, do you feel hungry for a taste of the same?When you're a player, you can try to look ahead and plan a career for yourself based on your development. It's more difficult when you're a coach. Either way, I have trouble at this point setting myself ambitions for the years to come. The career of a coach depends on the performances of his team, whereas a player's career depends first and foremost on his individual performances. For us, there are lots of factors that come into play, plus there are 20 to 25 players in each professional team and just one coach. That means there are far fewer posts and, as a result, far fewer opportunities.
*What are your thoughts on the higher profile coaches now enjoy? *It's only normal for people to talk a lot about someone like [Jose] Mourinho, for example, because he's a coach who wins things. The same goes for [Josep] Guardiola. Personalities count as well, and both Guardiola and Mourinho are fairly outgoing in how they behave. Carlo Ancelotti wins a lot too, but people talk about him less because he's a bit calmer and more reserved. I don't know what the truth is about how a coach needs to be these days. You also have to be able to use certain communication techniques when it comes to your club and your team. Certain groups of players need to feel their coach share the excitement with them and others need more calm. But it's only normal to talk about people who are successful.