It is 2008 and Auckland City’s Spanish assistant coach Ramon Tribulietx is frantically giving instructions to the Navy Blues’ goalkeeper Paul Gothard from the touchline. It makes for quite a sight. The diminutive Spaniard telling the physically imposing English custodian what he wants him to do with the ball in his hands. On most occasions, the former Colchester United keeper would punt it way down field, but not this time. What Tribulietx wants him to do is roll it out to one of his centre-halves, who has taken up position to receive the ball.
“He was looking at me as if I was mad,” said Tribulietx, in conversation with FIFA.com at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014. “He had this look on his face that said: ‘You want me to throw the ball out here?’ ‘Yes, yes. You throw it out and the centre-halves will pull wide to receive it’.”
Madness or not, the Spaniard’s ways have proved to be very effective. Operating in a league that takes its tactical cues from English football, Auckland - an amateur club with most players having full-time occupations outside of football - have adopted a Barcelona-style approach to the game, patiently playing the ball around and biding their time for opportunities to present themselves.
The switch has paid dividends, not least in the last few days in Morocco, where they won two games to set up a Club World Cup semi-final against San Lorenzo, a match they came mightily close to winning.
“I believe in this style of play. It’s what I was brought up with and have preached all my life, said the Spanish footballing missionary. “We’ve been working for years to show people that we can keep possession of the ball, even if we are a team from New Zealand.”
Auckland showed just how comfortable they are on the ball when they faced the Argentinians on Wednesday, recording a possession stat of 57 percent and dominating the game for long periods, a scenario that would have been virtually unthinkable six years ago .
“Structurally, we’re very strong,” explained the Barcelona-born tactician. “We’re very aggressive in defence and then, when we’re on the ball, we have a very clear idea of what we want to do with it.
“Most people would probably have expected San Lorenzo to win 4 or 5-0, but we didn’t lose in normal time and we didn’t play a single long ball in extra time. We kept trying to play the ball around on the deck and we created chances. We took what quality we have and went as far as we could. I’m so, so proud. These players won a moral victory today.”
Powers of persuasion
Tribulietx has every right to be proud. Only he and his backroom staff know just how much time they have put into changing the mindset of a group of players that has been brought up, in most cases, to play the game in an entirely different way.
Explaining how they engineered the transformation, the Spaniard said: “I show a lot of videos and I set up every training session with the idea of getting the team to play the kind of football we want them to play. I speak to them a lot and convince them that this is the way. You reap the reward sooner or later.”
Formerly a coach with a number of Catalan sides in Segunda B – Spain’s third tier – and a former pupil of Barça guru Paco Seirul-lo, Tribulietx does not see the need to mimic other teams.
“I don’t show videos of anyone else,” he explained. “I show videos of us. I take our videos, I edit them and I show them to the players. If I’d gone to New Zealand and used videos of Barça or another Spanish team, I might have got off on the wrong foot and come across the wrong way.
“I prefer to demonstrate things my way, on the training ground and on video. Slowly but surely they started believing in it.”
Over the years the visionary coach has come in for a lot of criticism in New Zealand football circles, criticism that has only abated recently.
“I’ve heard a lot of people saying that you can’t do things like this in New Zealand because the quality isn’t there,” he recalled. “Just trying it out has been really hard.”
Fortunately for Tribulietx, his employers were right behind him: “The club has given me a lot of support. Its roots are Croatian and the people here see football in a different way. They don’t watch so much English football and they don’t have that kind of mentality. We’ve worked together and we’ve got people believing.”
Still only 42, Tribulietx has shown the world what he is capable of, and has done so on the best possible stage. Though eternally indebted to Auckland, the Spanish coach would like to work in Europe one day.
“I’d like to take my career forward, I’m not going to deny that,” he said, contemplating what the future might hold. “If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen.”