UEFA Champions League
To the limit
Running through deserts and cycling up mountains, Luis Enrique has continued to push his mind and body to extremes since hanging up his boots – and now his insatiable thirst for competition is focused on leading Paris Saint-Germain to perfection

This article was first published in Champions Journal. Read the original article here.

*This is an excerpt from Luis Enrique’s interview in Champions Journal. Check out issue 17 to read the full thing.

WORDS Graham Hunter

If you’re a friend of Luis Enrique Martínez, you’ll regularly receive mobile phone pictures of deer, wild boar, wide-winged birds of prey, foxes or forests draped in snow. If you’re his really good friend, you’ll occasionally be asked to go through hell with him.

The former stems from his need, his obsession, to use any spare time to pedal several hundred kilometres per week – sometimes by road, more often on mountain tracks or through dense wooded areas where the terrain is rough but the natural world is at its finest. The latter comes from the Paris Saint- Germain coach’s penchant for tilting at tortuous physical challenges, recruiting fellow buccaneers and then ‘achieving the unachievable’.

Few of us properly understand the regimen of an elite footballer. It’s a gilded, lucrative, often highly enjoyable prison. But something of a jail nonetheless. It’s hugely well rewarded, of course, but your time is rarely your own.

Once a career is finished, the bonds are broken. The prohibited is no longer proscribed – Thomas Gravesen went gambling in Las Vegas, Mathieu Flamini ventured into biochemical engineering (hugely successfully), Gareth Bale golfed (even more), Victor Valdés followed his passion for windsurfing, Romário and George Weah became politicians, while Gerard Piqué bought football clubs and the Davis Cup.

Luis Enrique, by comparison, decided that he wanted to test his body, mind and character through extreme sport, up to and beyond what most people would consider the outer limits of human endurance. A clutch of marathons, triathlons, Ironman contests followed – and then the ultimate challenges.

“I do like to undertake extreme tests and I don’t know exactly why,” he says. “I simply like it. I always felt very lucky to be a professional footballer and I really enjoyed my career. But I remember in the last few years telling my team-mates that as soon as I stopped playing football, I’d start running marathons, long-distance challenges, bike races... I wanted all the things professional football doesn’t allow you to do when you’re playing – skiing, for example. I only learned to ski when I was 38.

“I’ve always had that competitive aspect – it’s what I enjoy the most, regardless of the sport. We all want experiences to give us something positive. That’s the spark you’re looking for. But when you retro-analyse things, you realise that the worst times are when you learn the most. Negative situations leave the deepest memories, not only in sport but also in life.”

That’s a phrase to return to. We must if the aim is to understand this energetic, pugnacious and hugely talented man a little better. But, for the moment, more about his leonine status. He happily warms to his theme: “There’s a famous race in South Africa, which we mountain bikers know, called the Cape Epic. The pain of competing is quite sharp. An Amabubesi is someone who manages to complete this race in three different years, consecutive or not. They join the Amabubesi club, and I’m one of the relatively few people in it.

“The race takes place each year in March/April, and you’re on a mountain bike for one week, or eight days. Each stage is about 80 to 110km. There are some shorter 20 to 30km stretches. The conditions are what they are: if it rains, it rains. If it’s very hot, it’s very hot. These are endurance races and you get to share these experiences with professionals, even if only on the campus. It’s a test I really appreciate.”

But if rising to Amabubesi status sounds difficult (catch him in a rare moment of self-assessment and Luis Enrique will admit that this year’s Cape Epic was his toughest yet... and that age might just be a factor), it’s nothing compared to what he went through while traversing the Sahara on foot.

“The hardest challenge I’ve done, where the competition caused me the most pain, was the Marathon des Sables. It’s a mighty challenge and extremely tough because you have to rely on yourself for one week and you’re running a daily marathon through the desert. You can do a double marathon one day and then the next day only 20km; self-reliance implies you bring and carry your own food, your own bed. These circumstances are very different from the day-to-day life of a normal person. They take you out of your comfort zone and force you to experience new things in life.”

The 53-year-old has been applying his own philosophy since taking the reins at Paris Saint-German last July, but the man in charge admits: “It’s a really long process. The goal is to open their minds. You need to create a collective idea, the one you believe is the best to win matches, both in attack and defence.

“That entails some attitude changes, depending on the moment: knowing how to prepare for matches, how you should play depending on the scoreline, and whether or not we need to make substitutions. It’s like a jigsaw. You set the pieces and begin with the straight lines to build the frame. This is similar. How long does it take to build the frame? No idea!

“What’s important for us is not to be obsessed but excited and ambitious, because players who are scared never write their names in the history books. You can’t be scared – what’s the point in being scared?”

Words that come from his heart, just as much as from his brain. The words of an ultra-competitor.

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UEFA Champions League
To the limit
Running through deserts and cycling up mountains, Luis Enrique has continued to push his mind and body to extremes since hanging up his boots – and now his insatiable thirst for competition is focused on leading Paris Saint-Germain to perfection
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