Stuttgart’s Matarazzo turns to psychology in relegation battle

Berlin (AFP) – VfB Stuttgart’s American coach Pellegrino Matarazzo admits his job involves psychology as much as football coaching in the fight to keep his club in the Bundesliga.

Matarazzo’s side are second in the table and four points from safety with 10 games remaining.

“The battle to avoid relegation is very, very psychological,” he told reporters in a virtual interview.

“There is a lot of pressure. This club is ginormous with a large fan base. You feel the need to win.

“The more pressure you have, the more you have to be a psychologist rather than a football coach.”

Matarazzo propelled Stuttgart to ninth place last season in their first year back in the German top flight, but they have struggled this season and are on a nine-game winless streak.

Yet Matarazzo is unwavering.

“If I’m not convinced that we’ll stay in the league, I’m not the right guy.

“I’m 100% sure that this team will get enough points.”

He is adamant despite a torrid season.

A shoulder problem sidelined top scorer Sasa Kalajdzic in the first half of the campaign.

Injuries and Covid cases have meant Matarazzo used 31 players in the first 17 games – the most of any Bundesliga club.

– ‘Rough and bumpy’ –

“We had a tough and bumpy first run of the season,” he admitted. “Without making any apologies, it was just a continued destabilization of the team.”

Typical of their fortunes this season, Stuttgart led with five minutes remaining at Hoffenheim last Friday, only to concede two late goals in a 2-1 defeat.

This followed a 1-1 draw at home when visitors Bochum equalized in the 94th minute.

“Against Hoffenheim you felt the fear of losing set in,” Matarazzo said.

“My approach is never to call it luck – it’s about investing a few percent more.

“All we need is a win to get the ball rolling.”

The 44-year-old’s journey to coaching in the Bundesliga was unconventional.

Born in New Jersey to an Italian family, Matarazzo’s passion for football was ignited by Diego Maradona’s TV highlights during his heyday for Napoli in the 1980s.

“My family were big fans of Maradona and Napoli,” he explains.

“After Sunday dinner, we would go to the park. I would be Maradona and I would live this fantasy and this passion. It was a big part of growing up.

Although he received a degree in mathematics from Columbia University in New York, the young Matarazzo traveled to Europe to play football.

After unsuccessful trials with Italian clubs, the defender played in Germany’s lower leagues.

After hanging up his boots 10 years ago, Matarazzo studied for his coaching license on the same course as current Bayern Munich boss Julian Nagelsmann.

The pair hit it off and Matarazzo eventually joined Nagelsmann’s coaching staff at Hoffenheim in 2017.

“I went abroad knowing that if it didn’t work out I would use my college degree to get into the corporate world, but I never seemed to stop climbing the coaching ranks.”

He was appointed Stuttgart head coach in December 2019, but this season has given Matarazzo sleepless nights.

“Especially after games when you’re wired and going through situations.

“I handle the pressure knowing there are parts I can influence and parts I can’t. I give 100%, which gives me peace knowing I’m doing all I can.

– Impeccable German –

After spending the last 20 years in Germany, the American is fluent in German — much to his embarrassment.

“I think in German and look for words when I speak English,” Matarazzo admits with a laugh.

“I translate what I want to say in English, which is rather embarrassing.

“The worst thing for me was when I came home and my aunt said to me, ‘You have a (German) accent’.”

Matarazzo faces the challenge of keeping his players focused, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an obvious concern for all.

“It’s a big part of our lives right now – it’s something that you know you don’t want to be a part of or close to,” he said.

“When you get on the pitch, you can get distracted and get overwhelmed by the game.

“We keep moving forward, remain optimistic and hope for a better future.”


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