- Edoardo Reja has been at the helm of Albania since April 2019
- At 75, the former Napoli and Lazio coach has lost none of his passion
- He dreams of qualifying Albania for its first FIFA World Cup ™
When Edoardo Reja first took his place on the bench, Zinédine Zidane and Pep Guardiola were seven and eight years old respectively. Jürgen Klopp was 11, and Julian Nagelsmann was not even born yet… Four decades later, “Edy” Reja, 75, is living his 26th coaching experience, with motivation still intact.
Remained almost exclusively in his native Italy, with the exception of a short stint at Hajduk Split, in Croatia, his latest challenge to date is however unprecedented, since it involves for the first time a national team. At the helm of Albania since April 2019, he has already won his UEFA Nations League group, and now dreams of qualifying for his first FIFA World Cup ™.
At the microphone of FIFA.com, the technician passed in particular by Lazio, Naples and Atalanta Bergamo, evokes his ambitions on the road to Qatar 2022 as the draw for the Europe Zone approaches, as well as the lessons learned from his long career, which he dreams of ending in apotheosis, and during which he never lost his passion.
Mr Reja, you have your UEFA Nations League group and you were promoted to League B. What did you learn about your team in this competition?
The League of Nations has been an interesting experience. In this competition, each team has a different playing philosophy. It took several times to adapt to the opponent. We prepared the matches well and I received a nice response from the team. I liked its adaptation to different playing tactics and I liked the behavior of the young players, who showed their worth. It was a real pleasure because I must say that before these matches, I was a little afraid. The international scene could have been dangerous for players born in 1999-2000-2001 with so little experience. The national team is always a big and difficult responsibility. They were very courageous and made it easier for us to cope with the large number of absences due to COVID-19 and injuries.
On the contrary, what didn’t you like and what can you improve before the qualifying for the FIFA World Cup 2022 begins?
I didn’t like the fact that after a win we didn’t keep our focus and determination. It is not allowed at this level to relax, to lower the concentration, because then you do not give your maximum, and even the weakest opponent can hit you. By being relaxed, we are not aggressive enough to achieve the result. We even got in trouble against Belarus, when we conceded a stupid goal just after we scored the second. If we are to grow and improve, we have to show more attention and a lot more focus.
Albania qualified for UEFA EURO 2016, but did not confirm in the 2018 World Cup and EURO 2020 qualifiers. In the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, is that realistic to aim for a qualification?
We have shown that we are a competitive team. Our ambition is to improve as much as possible. We must aim for the dream of qualifying because we must believe in its goals. This team, if they are convinced of it and if they follow me, can achieve great performances. Our course will also be determined by the draw, but dreams can come true. If you don’t believe in it, you can’t accomplish great things.
Based on what you have seen of Albanian football over the past two years, what is its potential and what improvements can you make?
Albanian football is constantly growing and the work of the Federation should be commended, especially its investment in infrastructure and the increase in human and professional capacities. I have attended many matches, the level is good, but of course the tactical aspect needs to be improved. On the mentality, the game plans and the physical aspect, there is a lot to be done.
What made you accept this challenge of a national team after having spent your entire career in clubs?
I have had a long career as a coach – 41 years old now – and I think I have had everything I wanted in club. I have reached the limit. But not in motivation or ambition. I started with small teams and gradually moved on to bigger teams. I must tell the truth: I have always achieved the desired results, I have never failed. It was time to say stop. I wanted to lead a national team because that was the only piece missing to complete my football puzzle. The moment Albania’s proposal arrived, I accepted it with great enthusiasm. I wanted to know the feeling of a selection, its problems, because it is obviously not the same thing with the clubs, where the players are always at your disposal. In the national team, you only have a week or ten days to train, and you need to have the ability to quickly see who is in good shape and who is not. It is a stimulating experience.
You have often worked with “small” teams that you have managed to make a lot of progress. Is a challenge more interesting than taking a great team and keeping it on top?
When I started out, I had the ambition to coach great teams like Inter and Juventus. But I have not coached “small” teams. I have coached teams which fell in Serie B or who had great difficulties in Serie A. Bologna, Genoa, Verona, Cagliari… These teams had a certain level but were in difficult times. Wherever I coached, I achieved the goals, I climbed from Serie B to Serie A. I progressed with Lazio and Napoli, which I took to the UEFA Cup, which was a feat. I had an extraordinary pleasure and I hope that this long journey will be concluded with Albania. Why not take him to the World Cup, or at least the 2024 European Championship?
In your long career, are there any regrets and things that you are truly proud of?
I have no regrets because this life has given me everything. I did a job that I loved. I played as a high level footballer, and then I started coaching. I made a lot of sacrifices, but I always loved this job. I still have the same enthusiasm as when I started. I have always loved this sport and I am still there despite my age. I have a young mind and I feel strong. My biggest achievement has been the journey with Napoli from Serie C to Serie B, then Serie A and UEFA Cup, all in three years. It was a three-year stay in football heaven, with immense enthusiasm from all the locals, and the way they experience football. I feel lucky because I have done the job that I have always loved, and I have nothing to regret in everything I have done.
You have coached hundreds of players over these 40 years. Who are the ones that impressed you the most, or with whom you had a special relationship?
I can’t imagine how many coaches and players I have such a great relationship with who still call me! So I have to make a long list! (laughs) I have coached great players such as Andrea Pirlo or Miroslav Klose, who has played four World Cups and is the competition’s top scorer. I had a great relationship with him. A smart and brilliant player. In Naples, I worked with Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi… How can I only remember one name given that I still have good relations with many players?
Your father was a winegrower. It would probably say that, like a fine wine, you get better with age. Do you feel that each experience makes you a better coach?
If you have a good base and if all the processes are done correctly, the wine will be good. And if you keep a good bottle, the older the wine, the better it will be! But I can’t say that about myself. It is not for me to judge what I am, what I have done. I let others do it, as I always have. My parents’ humility taught me to keep my feet on the ground, because the best is yet to come. Tomorrow will be better than yesterday. I always think positively, I am a positive person. I don’t hold a grudge and always look ahead. I don’t like to talk about the past even though experience is a decisive factor in our profession and if I have reached this level improving myself every day, I owe it to the past. But I work everyday, I watch games, I talk to other coaches, I keep up to date with physical preparation. With the evolution of football, you have to stay on top of what’s new, otherwise you cannot stay at the top level. This is what I have done so far.
You left your home and started your football adventure 60 years ago. Can you imagine where and when this trip will end?
It has always been my life. My passion will die with me, because I was born with the ball. I love the ball, it has been with me all my life and has given me immense satisfaction.