Boa Morte: "Brexit doesn't put me off the UK, my kids are British"

The former Arsenal star is continuing his coaching path in Israel with one of the country’s most historic clubs and has his eye on a return to the UK

In Haifa, the gateway city to Israel’s north, Luis Boa Morte has just finished his first week’s work. The man many Premier League fans will remember as a quicksilver forward has been appointed as assistant coach at Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s been an exciting week,” he tells Goal . “We’ve been working on all sorts of stuff; coaching, working with players, analysing, scouting players. It’s been hectic in terms of work demands but exciting.

“I have always looked to find new opportunities and try to find my way in. I got given a chance here by the manager here, so I hope to make the most of it, to learn the most of it, reinforce my coaching style.”

Maccabi play in green and are a useful starting point for anyone who knows very little about football in Israel. They are one of the most successful historical clubs and probably the best supported one.

If any casual fan were asked to list names associated with football in this country, it is a good bet that they would include Ronny Rosenthal, Yossi Benayoun and Avram Grant in their guesses. Well, all three are associated with Maccabi.

Rosenthal made his name here as a forward in the 80s while Benayoun and Grant thrived alongside each other here in the early part of this century.

Maccabi are third in the Israeli top flight, the Ligat Ha’al, and these days are somewhat of a fallen giant. They are among a cluster of teams all bunched together from second to seventh, all a long, long way off the leaders, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

It’s midseason and Maccabi have been remodelled. Sporting director Mo Allach and coach Fred Rutten resigned in November after a difficult start to the season. Replacement coach Eli Guttman left after only a month, tearfully, after announcing heart problems.

Marco Balbul, someone else who has worked closely with Grant, has been drafted in as the new boss. As part of Balbul’s plans, he wanted to recruit an overseas coach to come and work with the team. Grant worked with Boa Morte at West Ham United and their relationship endured. He was happy to recommend his services to Balbul. Boa Morte flew over, did the interview and started a new life in Israel.

“Avram called me,” he says. “He told me about the position and what the manager was looking for. [He asked] If I was willing to come over, to speak to him and the rest of the board, and to come and join them. I said yes, I had nothing to lose.

“I’ve been doing coaching in terms of the style [Marco] wants us to play. He’s been asking me to create exercises in terms of the style we are going to be playing.”

This is a time of sacrifice for the 41-year-old who, is on his own in Haifa. His family has settled back in Portugal with his youngest son playing in the Benfica academy. He would like to be there – with his wife and children – but this is an opportunity which he didn’t want to pass up.

“Life in Israel is a bit similar to Portuguese life,” he says. “The last four years I spent my time in Portugal, coaching and scouting. There’s not a big difference.

“The language would be the biggest wall to beat. Day by day I try different words [but] it would be difficult to put a sentence together.

“It’s always good to learn the language of the country and appreciate the environment you become part of. I’ve been welcomed by everyone and been enjoying my days here. The most difficult aspect is being away from my family.

 “My kids are still young, and they are growing up. I would like to be part of their growing up process. They understand… and my wife. They support me.

“We all knew that it was going to be difficult for all of us. But at the end of the day they support me because they know that it is something that I really enjoy.

“My wife and my daughter will try to come to visit me. My eldest son lives in the States, he studies over there and plays Uni football. That one is taking control of his own life.

“We will try to make most of it. The youngest one doesn’t want to lose a weekend of football to come and see me. He is loving what he is doing at the moment, so I need to understand.”

He is in Israel to learn – about different football culture and to grow his knowledge and his own football style. He has taken his own teams before, but this is the first time he has been involved on a serious, first-team level.

The role of assistant coach differs massively from being in charge and Boa Morte is open to the experience. He is building his coaching databank step by step. And that journey started at a time when he barely acknowledged that his own playing days might be at an end.

“I stopped playing in 2013 without knowing that I was stopping,” he says. “In a blink of an eye I just see myself taking the Fulham under-13s to a tournament in Germany and to another tournament in Lisbon. By the time I opened my eyes I was already coaching.

“I was training with Fulham under-23s and sometimes with the first team. Kit [Symons] started inviting me in the afternoons to deliver some attacking coaching and I accepted.

“I was training in the morning, in the afternoon you need to do some individual stuff and I was taking kids.

“Huw Jennings, the academy director, asked if I wanted to coach the under-13s and I said ‘yes, why not’ because in the afternoons, I’ll fill my time as well.

“I was coaching in the morning, sometimes during the week delivering individual sessions with the under-23s at Fulham and then at the end of the day, three times a week, I was going to coach the under-13s.”

And he was combining all that with his last season as a professional, with Chesterfield.

Then came the return to Portugal where he worked with Sintrense in the third tier – “Equivalent to England it’s a League One team,” he says –  and most recently with the Portimonense under-23 side. Boa Morte speaks with the insight of a man who has been involved at proper football clubs all his life – Sporting CP, Arsenal, Fulham among them. He has that time-earned perspective into what makes a footballer tick. And the true challenge in coaching comes with unlocking that element.

“It’s a psychological thing,” he says. “You need to try to get into players’ heads every single day. One day you can see them training unbelievable and the next they don’t have a good week. And you’re just trying to figure out why.

“You need to be friendly but you cannot be too close to the players. You need to find the balance to give them something and get the most of out of them when they are performing – in the week in training sessions or during the weekend when they are playing. It’s not easy to find the right balance.

“So, it’s always a fight, not in a bad way, but it’s a challenge every single day. I think that’s what gets me most passionate for the job. Every single day you need to understand the player quickly, try to get into their heads; [understand] why the performance wasn’t so good, why the match was good, why we lost, how they feel today.

“When we are winning it’s much easier because everyone is in a good mood but when you lose that’s when the rubbish hits the fan and it gets much harder to lift them up, keep their heads up, keep them on a good vibe. These are things that fascinate me about the job.”

As far as the tactical part of it goes, Boa Morte is no ideologue. We have seen Portuguese teams and Portuguese coaches succeed before using an array of strategies and schemes. How Boa Morte seems to see the game is equally rooted in the realpolitik of the resources at a club’s disposal.

“That is subjective because when it gets to the matches sometimes you got to change the system because something’s not working,” he says.

“It depends who you are playing against. Are they top of the league? Bottom of the league? Are you top of the league? Bottom of the league? [If] one point at the end of the season could make all the difference…”

For now, though, it’s about getting behind the manager and helping in any way he can. That means a unified message and an utter adherence to what Balbul wants. There can be no other way; only the man in charge.

“It’s important that there is no double message,” he says. “I cannot have a different agenda to the manager. I need to follow the manager’s instructions.

“I need to get on with the style we like to play; which message does he want me to pass on to the players.

“He has the final word because he is the manager, so I need to know that. These are things I will get I know daily when I get to work with him and the team.”

And that is behind one of Boa Morte’s habits when taking his young son into Benfica. Respect and discipline are paramount.

“When I take my son to the sessions, I just drop him there and I’m away for a couple of hours then I come to pick him up,” he says. “Sometimes I cannot stand the comments from the parents.

“I would like to see him training and all that but if I stand there to see him training I have to stay away from the parents because some of them are not polite. They are not fair.

“We should enjoy seeing our kids training but I wish the clubs would do it behind closed doors. That would be ideal because the parents, their comments just make me sick.”

He says he has taken something from all the coaches he has had alongside him during the course of his playing career, Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Arsene Wenger among them. Indeed, he spent time scouting for Arsenal once he was back in Portugal. But it is the United Kingdom where Boa Morte sees his future in the long term, Brexit or no Brexit.

“Whatever decision they have to take they will take it and it definitely does not put me off to come back,” he says. “My kids are British citizens. They were born in the UK, all three of them. They have British passports.

“My kids love the UK and they are willing to go back any time they can. Nothing would put us off because it’s a place we know well, and we would all be happy to be back there.”

Boa Morte has taken all his coaching badges with the FA and is only short of the UEFA Pro Licence, which he is hoping to pick up as quickly as possible.

“Everyone is looking to get into the best leagues,” he says. “I doesn’t mean I’m going to get there but I wish to get there. I’m going to work towards it.

“I’m very pleased to be at Maccabi Haifa. I’ve been enjoying my time here with the players and with the coaching staff. But my ideal place to be would be the UK.

“If I don’t get a chance or an opportunity to coach over there I need to keep doing it elsewhere because I love what I do. I’m not going to be standing about waiting to come. I just want to become better and better.

“One day I know my opportunity to come back to the UK will come along and I want to feel ready for it when the chance comes about.”

Boa Morte signed a six-month contract in Israel, and has the option of renewing for a further year based on how things go.

“I came to a different country with different mentality, habits, religion, it’s all different than what I’m used to in Portugal.

“We will see at the end of the season how was my time here and how my family cope. Let’s see how it all goes together, and we will make a decision.”

If he does return to the UK, Boa Morte would be one of a very small number of black coaches working within the league system. He is aware of this fact and it is something he would like to see addressed.

“I would like to see more black people in the game on the coaching side,” he says. “I hope to get more people in there. The opportunities will come for sure.”

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