Thursday 03 December 2020, 02:02

Reja: Albania have to make qualification our dream

  • Albania is 75-year-old Edy Reja's first national-team appointment

  • He is now aiming to take Albania to the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time

  • Read's exclusive interview with Reja about his unique challenge

When Edoardo Reja sat in a dugout for the first time, Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola were respectively seven and eight years old, Jurgen Klopp was 11 and Julian Nagelsmann was not even born. Four decades on, the 75-year-old is into his 26th coaching job, his motivation levels as high as they have always been.

Prior to April 2019, and with the exception of a short spell with Croatian side Hajduk Split, he had spent his entire career coaching Italian clubs. Then came a new challenge as he took on the Albania job, his first national-team appointment. Having just steered them to first place in their UEFA Nations League group, Reja is now dreaming of taking Albania to the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time.

With the draw for the UEFA Zone just around the corner, the former Lazio, Napoli and Atalanta coach spoke with about his goals on the road to Qatar 2022 and the lessons he has learned during his long career. It is one he hopes to end on a high and in which his passion for the game has never altered.

Didier Deschamps, coach of France, and Edoardo Reja, coach of Albania You won your UEFA Nations League group and gained promotion to League B. What did you learn about your team during the competition?

Edy Reja: The Nations League was an interesting experience. Every team has a different approach to football, which meant we had to adapt to the opposition on more than one occasion. We prepared well for our matches and I got a good response from the team. I like the way we adapted to different tactics and I was impressed with the behaviour of the young players, who proved their worth.

It was a real pleasure because I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive before these games. For the players born between 1999 and 2001, who don’t have much experience, the international scene might have been a daunting prospect. Representing your country is a big responsibility and a tough challenge, but they were very brave and stepped into the shoes of the players who were out of the side because of Covid-19 and injuries.

Was there anything you didn’t like and are looking to improve on before the start of the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™?

I didn’t like the fact that we lost our concentration after winning a game and didn’t show as much determination. You can’t relax and lose your focus at this level because then you stop giving your all, which gives even the weakest opposition the chance to hit you. When we’re relaxed we lack the aggression we need to get results. We got ourselves in trouble against Belarus, conceding a stupid goal after going 2-0 up. If we want to grow and get better, we have to pay more attention and be a lot more focused.

Albania qualified for UEFA EURO 2016 but failed to back that up in the qualifiers for Russia 2018 and EURO 2020. Do you think you have a realistic chance of making it to Qatar 2022?

We’ve shown that we’re a competitive side. Our goal is to improve as much as possible. We have to set our sights on qualification and make it our dream because you have to believe in your objectives. If this team believes and if it follows my lead, then it can achieve big things. Our path is also going to be shaped by the draw, but dreams can come true. If you don’t believe that, then you can’t do great things.

You’ve spent the best part of two years in Albanian football now. How far can it go and what improvements can you make?

Albanian football is growing all the time and the football association deserves credit for the work it’s done, especially through its investments in infrastructure and in developing human and professional resources. I’ve been to a lot of matches and the level is good, but tactics is one area where there is room for improvement. There’s a lot to be done in terms of mindset, game plans and fitness.

Edoardo Reja, coach of Atalanta (2016)

You’ve spent your whole career coaching clubs. What made you take on an international job?

I’ve had a long career as a coach – 41 years now – and I think I got everything I wanted from club football. I’d reached my limit, though not when it comes to motivation and ambition. I started out with small clubs and gradually moved on to bigger teams. I have to be honest and say that I’ve always achieved the results I wanted. I’ve never failed. The time had come to say ‘stop’. I wanted to coach a national team because it was the last piece of my football puzzle.

When Albania made me an offer I was only too happy to accept. I wanted to know how coaching a national team feels and the problems that come with it because it’s obviously not the same thing as coaching a club, where the players are at your disposal the whole time. With a national team, you’ve only got a week or ten days to train them and you need to be able to quickly assess who’s in form and who isn’t. It’s pretty stimulating work.

You’ve worked at a lot of smaller clubs and helped them make a lot of progress. Do you find that more of a challenge than taking over a big club and keeping them at the top?

When I started out I wanted to coach big clubs like Inter and Juventus. But I didn’t coach little teams. I took charge of teams who’d dropped into Serie B or who’d been really struggling in Serie A, like Bologna, Genoa, Verona and Cagliari. They were clubs of a certain standard and who were going through tough times.

I’ve achieved my goals wherever I’ve coached. I’ve taken teams up from Serie B to Serie A four times. I made progress with Lazio and Napoli, who I took into the UEFA Cup [Europa League], which was quite an achievement. I’ve got an awful lot of pleasure out of it and I hope this long journey ends with Albania. Why shouldn’t I take them to the World Cup or EURO 2024 at least?

Have you had any regrets during your long career and have there been things that you’re truly proud of?

I don’t have any regrets because this life has given me everything. I’ve done a job that I’ve loved. I played football at the highest level and then I started coaching. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices but I’ve always loved this job. I’m just as enthusiastic about it as I was when I started. It’s a sport I’ve always been in love with and I’m still here despite my age. I’m young at heart and I feel strong.

My biggest achievement was taking Napoli all the way from Serie C to Serie A and the UEFA Cup, all in three years. They were three years in football paradise. The people there have so much enthusiasm and they live and breathe football. I feel lucky because I’ve done the job that I’ve always loved and I have no regrets about anything I’ve done.

Coach of Lazio Edoardo Reja (L) and Miroslav Klose

You’ve coached hundreds of players in the last 40 years. Which ones have you had a special relationship with and have made the biggest impression on you?

I can’t tell you how many coaches and players I get on really well with and who still call me. It would be a long list (laughs). I’ve coached great players like Andrea Pirlo and Miroslav Klose, who played at four World Cups and is the competition’s all-time leading scorer. I had a great relationship with him. He was a brilliant, intelligent player. At Napoli I worked with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, to name but two. How could I pick out just one name when I’ve always got on well with so many players?

Your father was a wine-grower. No doubt he would say that you’re getting better with age, like a fine wine. Do you get the sense that every experience you’ve had has made you a better coach?

If you’ve got a good base and you get every process right, then you’re bound to end up with a good wine. And if you keep a good bottle, then the older the wine the better it will be. I can’t say the same thing about myself though. It’s not down to me to judge who I am and what I’ve done. I’ll leave others to do that, like I’ve always done. My parents were humble people and they taught me to keep my feet on the ground because the best is yet to come, because tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

I’ve always been a positive thinker. I’m a positive person. I don’t do grudges and I always look forward. I don’t like talking about the past, although experience is vital in our job, and if I’ve got this far by improving day after day it’s all because of the past. I work every day, though. I watch matches. I talk to other coaches and I keep up to date on fitness preparation. Football’s always evolving and you have to keep up with innovations. If you don’t, you won’t stay at the top. That’s what I’ve done up to now.

You left home and started your football odyssey 60 years ago. Do you have an idea of where and when it might come to an end?

It’s always been my life. My passion will die with me because I was born with a ball in my hands. I love the ball. It’s been with me my whole life and it’s given me huge satisfaction.