Lluís Cortés Wanted To ‘Disconnect’ After Barcelona’s Big Year, But Ukraine Has Lured Him Back To Coaching
On Monday evening in Zürich, former FC Barcelona Femení head coach Lluís Cortés is set to be named as the Best FIFA Women's Coach for 2021 after winning an unprecedented treble of Spanish league, Cup and UEFA Champions League with the Catalan club. However, just two days after the end of that season, Cortés resigned claiming he no longer had the energy to continue.
The 35-year-old made the surprise choice at the height of his powers, after reaching the pinnacle of the women's game just 30 months after taking his first position as the head coach of a team. Yet the burden of managing a club like Barcelona during a Covid-pandemic which elongated the Spanish club season to run for 353 days in the year was proving too much of a physical and emotional strain on Cortés.
Speaking to me from his home in Spain, Cortés tells me "it was a wonderful season. For a Barça supporter like me, it was like a dream to win the treble. Of course, these were moments that we will never forget. To win is fantastic but the day-to-day in a high-level team with a lot of pressure, and each day more pressure, it's hard, it's really hard for a head coach. Especially in a season where Covid affects the day-to-day of our team. For me, as a head coach I had to make last-minute decisions, working hand-in-hand with the doctor. We could not plan anything because everyday things changed."
"We were preparing for matches, then the other team said we can't play because we have three positives and you don't play and you have to change your plans. It was a really, really stressful season. Of course, the stress around the head coach is also big for these kind of teams, because every day you get more and more pressure, every day more media are speaking about you, evaluating your job. I think, as a coach you have to decide when to finish at a club. The normal situation is that the club fire you after you lose two or three matches. As a coach, you have be clever and you have to decide when to leave the team."
"I felt at the end of the season, I was so tired, I was living far from my home city. I wanted to spend more time with my family, I wanted to rest. I wanted to exit from this stressful life for some time. For this reason, I wanted to leave the team. Of course, it's true, that at the end of the season I felt a lack of feeling with some players but it's normal in a football team. It would be the same with Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Valverde in the Barça men's team. As a coach, when you have all these feelings mixed, you have to make a decision. I think it was the best decision for me, for the club and for everybody."
After four months away from the game, Cortés is back in coaching, albeit away from the day-to-day pressures of club management after receiving an unexpected offer from Eastern Europe. He told me "after leaving Barça, I decided to disconnect. I was working on building my new family home. For three months, I disconnected 100%, I needed it. Then an agent called me offering this option from Ukraine. My first answer was 'no'. After that, we spoke with their association. They explained to me that it was a particular, individual goal of the association president, Andriy Pavelko. He wanted for me to deliver not only the first women's team but also a big project to develop women's football in the country. I said I would only take this offer if I could live in Spain. They said yes, you can do it online most of the time. Of course, I am going to Kyiv some times, when we have the FIFA international break with the team. It was one of the keys for me to accept this offer."
Ukraine last qualified for the UEFA Women's Euro in 2009 and during the intervening period, Russia has been the only Eastern European nation to qualify for a major women's tournament. The same month as Cortés' appointment, the Ukraine Association of Football (UAF) announced it would be bidding to stage the next European championship in 2025, enabling the country's soccer team to qualify automatically as host nation. Whichever way the UEFA decision goes in December, Cortés aims to set in motion within Ukraine a plan to emulate the women's soccer program in his own country.
He told me, "in Ukraine, the situation in women's football is like in Spain ten or fifteen years ago. We have to change a lot of things, starting with the mentality of people. They have to understand that women's football is normal, that a lot of women can play football and they can play football very well. They have to understand that they can enjoy watching women's football matches. That's the first thing we have to change, but it's the most difficult thing to change."
"We also have to change the way the national team is working, starting with the methodology. We are going to try to apply a new methodology with the national teams, we are working on it, not only in the first team but also the u19s, u17s, u16s, because we think we have to change the way they understand to train. After that, we want to help each club to improve the level of their staff, to improve the level of players. We think we have a lot of possibility to increase the levels of coaches, physios, doctors, fitness coaches and we are working on a program for that."
"It's true that we have to make some changes at the top of the pyramid but we have to build the pyramid from the base. This means we have to increase the number of young girls playing football and if we want that, we have to invest money, we have to create references. In Spain, for example, it is very good we have Alexia Putellas as a reference, because a lot of young girls want to be like Alexia and for this reason they start to play football at a very young age."
Cortés had been linked in the media with top-level teams like Manchester City but admitted he never considered going back into club management. "I had some offers", he tells me. "Of course, when a team is not going the best way it can go, people start speaking, and one free coach was Lluís Cortés. I did not get a specific offer from City. I didn't want to come back to this stressful day-to-day life in a club. I preferred to stay some time at home and a national team allows me to live this way."
Just two weeks after his appointment, Cortés was thrown into the deep end of World Cup qualification matches. Having never previously qualified for the tournament, Ukraine emerged with a highly-creditable 1-1 draw away to Scotland before a disappointing 4-2 defeat in Hungary left them with only a slim chance of making the finals.
To climb above Scotland and make the play-offs by September, Cortés is likely to require a result in their last qualification match in his homeland when Ukraine face the runaway group leaders Spain, including several of his former Barcelona players. "It will be good, they were my football players but they were also my friends. I think it will be very special to play against all these players but it's true that it will be very difficult because they are so good. They are in a very good moment now. It will be very difficult in that match, but from now until September, things can change a lot. There's a lot of time to improve the team, to change things and let's see."
What seems certain is that on Monday, Cortés will be sharing the FIFA podium with his former captain, Alexia Putellas. The women's Ballon D'Or winner is set to become the first Spaniard ever to win The Best FIFA Player award. He told me "it is wonderful to be the coach of this kind of player. Alexia understands very well the style of Barça, what the team needs in each situation. She plays, but she also helps the other players play better. Playing as a number ten, she helps the team in the build-up, helps the team's finishing actions, helps the team creating chances and helps the team everywhere. Not only with the ball, also without the ball but also in the instructions she gives to her team-mates."
Putellas was a goalscorer during the team's outstanding performance during the UEFA Champions League final, a 4-0 win over English champions Chelsea, which was masterminded by Cortés. He admitted, "it was a very special day. We went to Gothenburg with a lot of confidence thinking we could win the match, that we were ready to win the final. We came through four hard matches against Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain where our match-plan worked 100% so we had a lot of confidence in our tactics. I was speaking with the players that if we could be ourselves, if we could play in the Barça style, we would win the match."
Barcelona's success came almost exactly two years after they suffered a humbling 4-1 defeat to Olympique Lyonnais on the same stage in the 2019 final. Cortés accepts that the team learned a valuable lesson in the manner in which they approached the game. "It was the first time for the club and most of the players to play in a Champions League final. In this moment, we went to Budapest to live the experience. What we learned from there is you can't go to a Champions League final to live the experience, you have to go to win the match. This change of mentality I think was crucial in the difference between Budapest and Gothenburg."
Barcelona not only won the treble, but they achieved it playing in a style befitting the club's noble traditions of possession soccer handed down through generations of success in the men's team. A born and bred Catalan, Cortés understood exactly what his job entailed. "As a coach you have to understand that when you sign for Barça, you have to play in a very specific way because they are a unique club in the world. When you play for Barça you have to play in an associative way, you have to build up from the back with short passes, or at least you have to try. It was good because I think this way too, this style of play is the best way for you to win matches."
"Then my idea, in this case, is very similar to the Barça style, but it's true we created some variance that was essential to improve the team. For example, years ago, Barça did not have players like (Asisat) Osholala, (Lieke) Martens and Caroline Graham (Hansen). They are so vertical, they can run a lot to the space, they can do quick counter-attacks. Barça did not have these kind of players. After we signed these kind of players, we had more options as a team. Not only to play in an associative way and get to the other box with short passes, we could do this, but we also could do two or three passes to score a goal because we had very quick players in forward positions."
Halfway through the following season, no women's club has so far managed to find a way to either counter or emulate Barcelona's effectiveness on the pitch. So could they potentially hire the coach who put it all together? "In the future, do I imagine Lluís Cortés coaching a club?" he asks. "I think so. That's my goal, but not now. I don't know if it will be in six months, one year, two years, I don't know. The option to coach a men's team is another option I have, I don't want to say I am a women's football coach. I always say I am a coach of football and footballers. The sport is the same."