‘You can’t take life too seriously’ – Peter Sharland on life in Argentina, supplying some of the biggest clubs in the world and managing a national team and a club side
In ‘The Big Interview’ this Sunday journalist Tom McIntyre travels to Cordoba in Argentina to meet the Englishman making his mark in South America…
“Oye Tom! You made it, over here amigo!”
The booming voice echoes across the small airport as I make my way into the main lobby having picked up my baggage. There, standing with a huge grin on his face and surrounded by some people in Belgrano shirts is Peter Sharland. When we had arranged for me to spend a couple of days with him for this feature I had not expected him to come and pick me up from the airport. That’s not something that normally happens when you interview people within football, but Sharland is no ordinary person.
Sharland’s mother is from Cordoba but his father is from London, they met during his dad’s year abroad whilst studying. They fell in love and the senior Sharland returned to Argentina after finishing his degree. They split their time between Cordoba and London, with Peter being born in the latter. However when he was eight they moved back to Argentina permanently. Sharland was a promising footballer (a ball-playing centre-half) and was a part of the Belgrano academy, However a serious knee injury when he was a teenager prevented him from ever having a real professional career. After brief playing stints in America, Costa Rica and England’s lower leagues, Sharland decided to call it a day, hang up his boots and head home.
There Sharland was given a chance coaching within Belgrano’s youth set-up, his teams gained a reputation for a fast, attacking style that led to them regularly overperforming. When the club were relegated in 2019 they turned to this unproven 32-year-old who had never managed a senior side before. Six years later Sharland is a Belgrano legend, he won promotion and the Copa Argentina in his first year and whilst no major silverware has followed since the team have finished third in each of the past three seasons and are a regular in the Copa Libertadores. As we’re driving back to his flat in the centre of town, with trusty golden retriever Roman in the back, I ask Sharland whether he ever thought about management when he was playing.
“Haha, honestly no.” He replies. “I always thought after I finished playing I would go into the media, it’s a lot easier! But that would have been after a longer playing career,” as he says this he glances down at his troublesome left knee. Even now he struggles to drive a manual car and will always pick an automatic when he travels.
After being dropped off at the flat Sharland has a meeting with the chairman at the club, but he promises to take me out for dinner so we can talk shop. I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Cordoba, a fascinating (and old) town that has plenty to offer tourists, yet none are forthcoming.
That evening we go to a small place near Sharland’s flat. It’s run by two students and serves only vegetarian food. This may be surprising in a country famous for its steaks but Sharland has been off meat for a few years now. His decision came after bringing Angel Di Maria to the club for a couple of seasons before retirement. Sharland was in awe at how Di Maria still performed as well as anyone in the conditioning tests despite being in his late 30s, and whilst he couldn’t quite bring himself to go vegan he cut out all meat. He also doesn’t drink, yet you wouldn’t know it given how he dominates every room he enters.
Over the course of the evening Sharland is absorbing company as he discusses a wide range of topics including but not limited to whether or not the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote show we are in a computer simulation, his love for comicbooks and his dream to one day run a bird sanctuary.
The first football question I put to him is one I was told to ask by nearly every Argentine journalist I spoke to ahead of this trip. Does he think that he missed a trick to push on and challenge for a title by spending more money. Belgrano currently operate with the 9th highest wage bill in Argentina, roughly a third of that of River Plate.
“Don’t be stupid,” says a visibly bristling Sharland. “That isn’t what this club is about. You want to see someone spend a stupid of money for a player go to Europe, or China, or…” Sharland pauses and then says smiling “Buenos Aires.”
Throughout his time with Belgrano Sharland has never been afraid to play his academy products. Kids of 16 and 17 are regularly thrown into the starting line-up in accordance with Sharland’s policy of “if you’re good enough you’re old enough.” Even in the team now Belgrano’s strongest starting XI has seven academy products in it. Across Europe you can see Sharland’s work. Bruno Amione at Liverpool, Bruno Zapelli at Manchester United and Jonathan Busetti at Inter Milan.
“I love them all,” says Sharland with clear emotion in his face. “I remember when they were here as little kids, then they played in the first-team, look at them now, conquering Europe. It’s why we do this job, it’s what gets me up in the morning, to help these guys achieve their dreams.”
Some don’t fly the nest. Left-back Franco Perez Tarifa and attacking midfielder Julian Ghiglione are into their fifth seasons as regular members of Sharland’s first-team squad and both have turned down moves to North America and Europe.
“Some guys don’t need to leave. Some are happy with what they have. Could they leave at some point? Of course but they are happy here now, and that makes me happy.”
Sharland has drawn comparisons, albeit ones he strenuously denies, to Jurgen Klopp. Like Klopp Sharland loves attacking, high intensity football, and he prefers the emotional bond with his players rather than deep tactical nuances. You can see that on the training ground. Trusted No. 2 Carlos Orsi, who has been with him since the beginning, is leading lots of the sessions, with Sharland offering encouraging words and, wherever his knee allows, joining in.
At the end of one session Sharland is seen talking intensely to Cesar Haydar and Javier Sanchez, his two Colombians. As Sharland joins me after the chat it leads me perfectly into my next line of questioning. For the past 18 months Sharland has been the manager of Colombia, taking over a few months before the 2024 Copa America.
Similarly to Belgrano there has been no trophy with Colombia but fans have fallen in love with his team’s attacking style. But how on earth does he find the balance?
“What balance?” Sharland replies before exploding with laughter. “Being a football manager is an insane commitment, being an international manager at the same time is something else entirely. Look in all seriousness a lot of my players are playing in South America plus I have an incredible support staff based in Europe.”
That support staff includes former internationals Fredy Guarin and Juan Cuadrado, who work as Sharland’s eyes and ears in Europe. Whenever the calendar allows he will fly over to watch the likes of Davinson Sanchez, Luis Diaz and, remarkably, James Rodriguez.
The morning before I leave Sharland tells me he has a treat. On the way to the airport we stop off at a tiny place on the outskirts of the city. As we walk in a small, elderly lady shouts “Hola” from behind the counter. Sharland insists Gloria makes the best empanadas in the country, and whilst I haven’t tried them all these ones were absolutely superb. As we’re eating I have to take a call from my editor to update him on how the story is coming along and I step outside out of politeness. When I come back in I see Sharland sitting with Gloria and her husband Esteban, chatting about the weekend’s game against Rosario Central. In this part of the world Sharland is a celebrity with what he’s done for this team and this city but here he is, just chilling out with two old friends, minding his own business. People are walking past and there is some waving, but the shop isn’t swamped by adoring fans. The locals respect his privacy and in return he’s more than prepared to be one of them. After all he is one of them, this is his town and his club. Does it matter if they ever win the league or even the Copa Libertadores? Some might say yes but I would be interested to see if those same people came and spent a period of time here and then still had the same opinion. This city is proud of their club, and that’s always been Sharland’s aim.
Thank you so much for reading this blog and I hope you enjoyed it, as I warned it was a little different! There’s one more post to come in the Belgrano diaries which will be out on release day. My first Kaizer Chiefs post should follow later in the week. I feel like it’s important to point out (as there are some real players mentioned here not just newgens) that everything in this blog is entirely fictional.
Finally make sure you sign up for Slack if you aren’t already and if you are in Slack please join my channel #asharlandabroad. Until next time!