2022 FIFA World Cup ™ – News – Reja: Albania must make qualifying a dream
- Albania are the first national team nomination of 75-year-old Edy Reja
- He now aims to take Albania to the FIFA World Cup for the first time
- Read FIFA.com’s exclusive interview with Reja about her unique challenge
When Edoardo Reja first sat in a canoe, Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola were seven and eight respectively, Jurgen Klopp was 11 and Julian Nagelsmann was not even born. Four decades later, the 75-year-old is in his 26th coaching job, his motivation levels are as high as they always have been.
Prior to April 2019, and with the exception of a short period with Croatian team Hajduk Split, he had spent his entire career coaching Italian clubs. Then came a new challenge in accepting the post of Albania, her first nomination for the national team. Having only just led them to first place in their UEFA Nations League group, Reja now dreams of taking Albania to the FIFA World Cup ™ for the first time.
As the draw for the UEFA zone approaches, the former coach of Lazio, Napoli and Atalanta spoke with FIFA.com on his goals on the road to Qatar 2022 and the lessons he has learned over his long career. It is the one he hopes to end in style and in which his passion for the game has never changed.
FIFA.com: You won your UEFA Nations League group and got promoted to League B. What did you learn about your team during the competition?
Edy Reja: The League of Nations was an interesting experience. Each team has a different approach to football, which means that we have had to adapt to the opposition on several occasions. We prepared well for our games and I got a good response from the team. I like the way we adapted to the different tactics and I was impressed with the behavior of the young players, who have proven themselves.
It was a real pleasure because I must admit being a little worried before these matches. For players born between 1999 and 2001, who don’t have much experience, the international stage could have been a daunting prospect. Representing your country is a big responsibility and a difficult challenge, but they were very brave and put themselves in the shoes of the players who were on the sidelines due to Covid-19 and injuries.
Is there something you didn’t like that you want to improve before the start of the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 ™?
I didn’t like the fact that we lost our focus after winning a game and didn’t show so much determination. You cannot relax and lose your focus at this level because then you stop giving your all which gives even the weakest opposition a chance to hit you. When we’re relaxed, we don’t have the aggressiveness we need to get results. We got into trouble against Belarus, conceding a stupid goal after leading 2-0. If we are to grow and improve we have to be more attentive and much more focused.
Albania qualified for UEFA EURO 2016, but failed to support that in the qualifiers for Russia 2018 and EURO 2020. Do you think you have a realistic chance of making it to Qatar 2022?
We have shown that we are a competitive side. Our goal is to improve as much as possible. We must aim for qualification and make it our dream because we must believe in its objectives. If this team believes and if they follow my example, they can achieve great things. Our path will also be shaped by the toss, but dreams can come true. If you don’t believe it, 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 continues to grow and the football association deserves to be commended for the work it has accomplished, in particular through its investments in infrastructure and in the development of human and professional resources. I have been to many matches and the level is good, but tactics are an area where there is room for improvement. There is a lot to be done in terms of mentality, game plans and fitness.
You’ve spent your entire career coaching clubs. What prompted you to take up an international job?
I’ve had a long coaching career – 41 years now – and I think I have everything I wanted from club football. I had reached my limit, but not in terms of motivation and ambition. I started with small clubs and gradually moved on to bigger teams. I have to be honest and say that I always got the results I wanted. I have 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 it feels to train a national team and the problems that come with it because it’s obviously not the same as coaching a club, where the players are at your disposal all the time. With a national team you only have a week or ten days to train them and you need to be able to quickly assess who is fit and who is not. It’s a pretty stimulating job.
You have worked in many small clubs and helped them progress. Do you find that more of a challenge than taking control of a big club and keeping it on top?
When I started I wanted to coach big clubs like Inter and Juventus. But I haven’t coached small teams. I took charge of teams that had joined Serie B or were really struggling in Serie A, like Bologna, Genoa, Verona and Cagliari. They were clubs of a certain level and going through difficult times.
I achieved my goals wherever I coached. I’ve taken Serie B teams to Serie A four times. I made progress with Lazio and Napoli, which I hosted in the UEFA Cup [Europa League], which was quite an achievement. I have a lot of fun and I hope that this long journey will end with Albania. Why shouldn’t I take them to the World Cup or EURO 2024 at least?
Have you had any regrets in your long career and were there things that you are really proud of?
I have no regrets because this life has given me everything. I did a job that I loved. I played football at the highest level, then I started coaching. I made a lot of sacrifices but I have always loved this job. I’m just as excited about it as when I started. It’s a sport I’ve always been in love with and I’m still here despite my age. I am young at heart and I feel strong.
My biggest achievement has been to move Napoli from Serie C to Serie A and the UEFA Cup, all in three years. They spent three years in football heaven. The people there have so much enthusiasm and they live and breathe football. I feel lucky because I have done the job that I have always loved and I don’t regret anything that I have done.
You have coached hundreds of players over the past 40 years. With whom have you had a privileged relationship and who have marked you the most?
I can’t tell you how many coaches and players I get along with really well and still call me. It would be a long list (Laughs). I have coached great players like Andrea Pirlo and Miroslav Klose, who have played four World Cups and who is the competition’s all-time top scorer. I had a great relationship with him. He was a brilliant and intelligent player. In Naples, I worked with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, to name just two. How could I choose just one name when I have always gotten along well with so many players?
Your father was a winegrower. No doubt it looks like you get better with age, like a fine wine. Do you feel that every experience you have had has made you a better coach?
If you have a good foundation and master each process, you are bound to end up with a good wine. And if you keep a good bottle, the older the wine, the better. I can’t say the same about myself. It is not for me to judge who I am and what I have done. I’m going to let others do this, like I always have. 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 have always been a positive thinker. I am a positive person. I don’t hold a grudge and always look forward to it. I don’t like to talk about the past, even though experience is vital in our work, and if I get this far improving day by day, it’s all because of the past. But I work every day. I watch the matches. I talk to other coaches and keep up to date with physical preparation. Football is constantly evolving and you have to keep up with innovations. Otherwise, you won’t stay at the top. This is what I have done so far.
You left home and started your football odyssey 60 years ago. Do you have any idea where and when this might 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 has been with me all my life and it has given me immense satisfaction.