Tata Martino looks tanned and rested and alarmingly stress-free for a manager in the middle of his team’s season. This is what happens when a man is plucked out of a soccer fishbowl like Argentina and set down in a training facility in Marietta, two miles from the Big Chicken, which, by the way, Martino had never heard of before being asked about it by a slightly off-center sports columnist.
“Que?” he said in Spanish, turning to Justin Veldhuis, a member of Atlanta United’s communications department and in-house interpreter.
So there I am trying to explain to an accomplished international soccer coach what the Big Chicken is, and how his beak opens and closes, making it (regrettably) an Atlanta landmark. I considered it a significant moment in U.S.-foreign relations.
“I like red meat more,” Martino said. “I don’t like fried chicken.”
OK. Moving on now.
Martino may the best coach of any sport in Georgia. That’s as far as I wish to take the argument because there’s no great metric to compare the futbol/football accomplishments of Martino with Kirby Smart (Copa America finalist vs. North America finalist?) or Dan Quinn (The Brotherhood vs. “La Fraternidad”).
But one doesn’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate what the fledgling Atlanta United has achieved to this point. Martino has managed and helped build a franchise that made the MLS playoffs in its inaugural season, and this year the club is 7-2-1 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, despite losing to Kansas City 2-0 on Wednesday night.
This life chapter has been a dream for Martino, a former Argentina national team coach, even though he’s 4,828 air miles from home. He misses his wife. He misses his children and family members. He misses friends. He misses the city of Rosario on the central province of Santa Fe.
“The people, not so much,” he said.
This is why Atlanta feels like a vacation. It’s difficult for the average person in the U.S. to comprehend what it’s like for a soccer manager to coach the national team in his native country, especially a world power like Argentina. Think of Alabama football or Kentucky basketball. Now imagine those states are a country.
Martino grew tired of the questions, the criticism, the attention. He just wanted to coach again. He wanted peace and simplicity in his 50s. Atlanta appealed to him from a coaching perspective because it was a chance to build something from the ground up.
“It feels like your own,” he said. “It was born, and it’s still building, it’s still growing.”
But “95 percent” of the reason he came to the U.S. was to seek solitude.
“Getting out of that atmosphere, getting out of everybody’s mouth. Everybody’s talking about you,” he said. “In a very short period of time I was able to accomplish a lot of things. I coached in a World Cup; the national team from Argentina, where I was born; the club where I grew up in Rosario, Newell’s Old Boys. After all that, it was time to go back to living like a normal person.
“It was the most well thought-out decision I made in my career.”
His family and friends supported him. Everybody else thought he was crazy.
“Their opinions don’t count. Sure, there were more people who aren’t my friends or family who had opinions. But they are people who have opinions of others and they can’t even solve their own problems.”
What did they say?
“Why is he going to coach in that league?”
Soccer arrogance. Argentina to Atlanta. Think: New England Patriots to Saskatchewan Roughriders.
But he has found joy in coaching again. He had “kind of lost the ability to enjoy my team, and I wanted to get back to somewhere where I could do that.”
Players sing his praises. Martino can be a difficult manager to play for because he’s so detailed and his bar his high.
“He demands so much of you,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “But that’s a good thing.”
Martino often walks around with a Sharpee in his hand. It’s to diagram a play or a situation on the whiteboard. But sometimes, to the amusement of players, he gets so caught up in a teaching moment during film sessions that he forgets the screen is not a whiteboard.
“I don’t know if he forgets or he doesn’t care but every now and then he’ll write on the flat-screen TV,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “It doesn’t matter where we are -- an away game, at the hotel, wherever. If he sees something that he thinks is super important, he’ll just write it on the TV screen, and we’re like, ‘Does that come off?’”
Martino: “When I have the image right there, I want to explain it.”
He comes from a working class family. His father worked in a factory that made bed frames. His mother was a teacher. He’s a soccer coach. After a playing career, that’s all he wanted to be. But because of his stature back home, he would be asked questions about things that had nothing to do with his chosen vocation.
“We’re just soccer coaches. There’s more important people in the world,” he said.
He signed a two-year contract that expires in December. There’s an option for two more, but he’s putting off that decision for now.
When asked how much longer he wants to manage?
“Maybe tomorrow -- no more. Maybe five years, 10 years. I don’t know. To me it’s not about length of time, it’s how I’m feeling.”
So there’s the good news for Atlanta United. Today, he’s feeling good. This new little venture is contending for a league championship. It’s not the world stage but there are advantages to that. Maybe one day he’ll even make it to, “El Pollo Grande.”
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