After four years in the sports management of the Cypriot AEK Larnaca, Xavi rock (Barcelona, 1974) decided that it was time to take a breather. It did not have the appearance of Panathinaikos, the second most important club – after Olympiakos – in the history of Greek football. The greens brought him back to the offices last November, from where he works to return the club “to the place that historically belongs to it.” He does it “absolutely alone”, tracking Europe in search of good footballers who end their contracts and, in addition, are good people. “It is the secret to success,” says Roca, who reveals that he is not trying to sign Spanish soccer players. “Some agents make jokes when I tell them 'I'm looking for this, this and this, but if it could be better, not Spanish'”, he discovers before remembering that he has already incorporated three –Fran Vélez, Aitor Cantalapiedra and Carlitos López– for next season.
How did Xavi Roca end up at Panathinaikos?
I had a contract with AEK Larnaca, but I decided to leave because I felt I needed to take a breather. I was close to joining the organization chart of FC Barcelona, but the events that happened last summer did not help. At the same time, a club like Panathinaikos believed he was the right person for his sports management. They came looking for me without my knowing that they were thinking of me. That made me reflect. The flame lit again and I met with them to see what they wanted. They were clear: they believed that I was the right one and I did not hesitate to join this project. I want to put the club back where it belongs historically.
Panathinaikos is one of the most important clubs in Greece, but it is no secret that it does not go through its best moment – in 2018 it was separated from the European competitions due to debts. Do you think of your time there as a personal challenge?
It is undoubtedly a challenge. There are difficulties, but we are talking about a great club. It is a great satisfaction to see how, little by little, it resurfaces and achieves results. I am implementing my ideas and the club begins to have a very strong identity. It is satisfactory. My contract was with the winter market on the doorstep and despite the fact that they are very hard and difficult windows, we were satisfied with what we could do. Without going any further, we managed a streak of six consecutive games winning, something that had not happened in the club for a long time. This allowed us to reach a privileged position in the table.
To the economic crisis that the club is going through, we must add the negative effects of the covid-19. Although next year they may already be fighting for a position in Europe, they are obliged to look towards the quarry.
So is. The club looks a lot towards the quarry, but not only now. He was sanctioned without being able to sign and placed a lot of emphasis on promoting players from the lower categories. There was no other. We want to continue carrying out this promotion of young players because there is a lot of talent in the youth team. In Greece we are a benchmark club in that regard. The intention is to complement that quality that already exists with foreign players who bring experience and quality so that those we already have grow and continue to evolve.
Do you think there will be more opportunities as a result of the covid-19 crisis?
Many clubs are going to have to do it obligatorily. There will continue to be billions of transfers, but the most sensible thing is to bet on people from the house. Surely a couple of years from now we will talk about new talents emerging from this coronavirus crisis. Many players will be able to show their worth and establish themselves in great teams across Europe. They might never have had the opportunity otherwise.
What is a normal day like for the Panathinaikos sports director?
(Sighs). The days become eternal and at the same time you lack hours. Due to the situation of the club I am totally alone in the sports management and that involves a lot of work. Right now I am in the sports city. I arrive at 9:30 and spend all day reviewing players and answering emails, calls and managing different personal situations we have: new contracts, renewals, negotiations with people with whom we have not yet reached a reduction agreement … The work is infinite. The day ends and you say 'I have left to do this, this and this'. But when there is desire and you have the motivation to want to build something beautiful, you work with pleasure. I am really hopeful.
“I am very attentive to players who end the contract. They are those that we can access to avoid paying a transfer. For us it is very important to advance, that player is not in the market for long.”
Xavi Roca, sports director of Panathinaikos
Do you really deal alone with all that the sporting direction of Panathinaikos entails?
Yes. I have no one. I'm alone. Absolutely alone. For all. To keep track of other leagues, to check the profiles they send us … I have in mind trying to create a structure. It is something we will do as soon as we can because the club deserves it and it is the right way to do it. But to this day I am alone.
How do you structure your work towards incorporations?
Throughout the season I am very attentive to players who end their contracts. They are those that we can access to avoid paying a transfer. My job is to try to reach them as soon as possible. It is very important for us to advance, that player is not in the market for long. We have great competitors. There are other clubs that bid more than us or offer other types of projects, but so far we have not done badly. We have managed to sign players who are very worthwhile. There is great sacrifice and hard work behind each addition. We try to make players understand what it means to play in a historic club like Panathinaikos. We want to create a relationship, something nice between club and players.
How do you manage your time with so much workload?
I try to dedicate more hours a day to the different sections that require more attention. Now, with the covid-19, everything is more complicated. But during the year, when I'm calmer, I try to follow the Greek Super League during the weekend and watch every possible match during the week to keep my database of players who can be interesting up to date. I like to contact the representatives to find out which players end the contract and to follow them more thoroughly during the season.
How many emails do you answer per day? In the transfer period it should be scary to check the email.
I receive many emails a day. Agents have a bad habit of making it easy and send it to you on WhatsApp. Please ask them to mail it to me because it is the only way to stay organized and keep my daily mess structured. If I start receiving offers by WhatsApp, by message, by mail … I go crazy.
What leagues do you see the most and what nationality do you prioritize when making signings?
The Greek Super League is an easy competition in that regard. We have a Mediterranean climate and the people are very open. Spanish, Portuguese or Italians adapt quickly. Also the South Americans. In the competition there are many Brazilians and Argentines. For geographical reasons we also look at Serbs, Croats … A mix. I don't think we have a specific market.
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Do you have a predilection for Spanish soccer players?
Although from the outside it seems that I am looking to sign Spanish soccer players, it is not. It is true that at AEK Larnaca I met some who were and then we contributed some more. But whenever I look for profiles I try not to massify. I even try to prevent them from being Spanish. If the player is good, the nationality does not matter, but I try not to create a colony. I always seek to go beyond the player's performance on the field. I am very interested in his personal life to create good human groups because I think it is the secret of success. If you are not a good person, it is very difficult to succeed in life. Do what you do. At the time of signing I try to obtain information on a personal level. Although football is globalized and you always have access to all of them through someone, the most reliable information I can get is from the Spanish market. That is why I sometimes go for the Spanish. Some agents make jokes when I say 'I'm looking for this, this and this, but if it can be better, not Spanish.'
For the next season he has already signed Fran Vélez, Carlitos López and Aitor Cantalapiedra. And Dani Poyatos sounds for the bench. Is the Spanish quota already closed?
If there is a very good one we can make an exception (laughs). The market has been like this and these are very good players that we could not miss. But we also signed Ayoub in the winter market, we brought Nagy on loan from Legia … Sometimes you are conditioned by what the market offers, but it is true that to this day we have hired several Spaniards.
The case of Carlitos López is curious because he cannot play until next season. Was it a market opportunity?
So is. Carlitos was an opportunity that we could not miss. We had a relationship for a long time and it was a mature contract. We were always in touch and the opportunity arose. He did his part to join this project. He saw that there was a seriousness and a job behind and that made us agree. Although he cannot play until the next course, he is fully incorporated into the team's routine. Let's see if now, with the new regulations, we can bring forward his debut with Panathinaikos. As of July 1, you can still play and end the season with feelings of competition. That would be very important to everyone.
The last to arrive was Aitor Cantalapiedra. The Panathinaikos fans should be excited about these additions.
And me. We are all very excited. Both Carlitos and Aitor are not only good soccer players; they also have the profile that excites the fan. With Aitor it seems that we reached an agreement in a week, but really there are many months behind him. Speaking, working, explaining, convincing … He is a footballer who has shown that he wants to be part of our project. He had economically better offers, but he has understood that not everything is money and that being in this project and in this country can be very beneficial for him. This is how great groups, great teams are built.
Do you remember who is the footballer that has cost you the most to sign?
I do not remember any in particular, but I have faced complicated situations in which until the last moment there have been discussions about any clause. Details that, after much work, have jeopardized the operation at the last moment. Also in reverse. Operations that you think you cannot perform and suddenly take a turn that leads you to understand yourself. This world is like this. And the satisfaction you feel when you close a player is priceless. Other times you feel like you've given your all, but the player decides not to come. There you stay touched, but you must continue because they are things that are part of the charge.
“I am very interested in the personal lives of footballers to create good human groups. I think it is the secret of success”
Xavi Roca, sports director of Panathinaikos
Have you ever had to settle for the eighth option?
Clear. Ever. Even further back. It depends on the club you are in, you can have a list of priorities, but even if you think that these profiles may fit your budget, then there is the reality and the reality is that sometimes you end up signing, unfortunately, options that you do not you expected to arrive. I say unfortunately in relation to what you had listed. Sometimes those footballers end up being revelations or perform above expectations. You have to be attentive to the market, be in permanent contact with representatives, with the club … The idea is to avoid that any of the options you are considering can fit you and you have to go to another that you did not even contemplate.
Does it benefit to have been a footballer when working as a sports director?
Can be. Nor do I really know how other sports directors who have not been footballers manage situations. I think that, although it is wrong to say it, my main virtue is that I am very clear, very transparent. I speak naturally and that the person who is above the player perceives it. Then there are footballers who tell me. It is not about me being better or worse, it is about speaking naturally and clearly. That ends up being perceived. It is like the coach who believes in something. If you carry it inside, there is no need to pretend. Being a player gives me that plus of knowing how the player thinks at certain times. Also, from my humble position, to advise you on what is appropriate or why I think it is appropriate for you to be part of our project.
How are you managing the locker room? It must be difficult to administer egos.
I have been a footballer and I know how a locker room works. Egos, contracts … I repeat that I think it is key to be clear and transparent, not to deceive anyone. We must explain the why of things. There are players who cannot be compared to each other. First, because there are several positions and each one has a status, an age, a performance … Rightly or wrongly, the sports director and the club have to make a series of decisions that may be right or wrong, but at some point you have than mark that line. You can't go saying yes to everything. You enter a dynamic that is not beneficial. You have to have a left hand, know how to manage and, above all, be a person. If there is no one to tell you 'you told me this and it really is this other' you are doing well.
Has Big Data thrown you back any transfer?
No. I use it for guidance, as help. It is one more tool. I don't think it should have much weight in a decision of a sports director. And I say this with all the respect in the world to the experts and those who are managing the Big Data issue. A player is many other things. And it is not the player alone. It is the player, the person, the club, the city, the project, the coach … There are times when you think you know a real player, but then you see the numbers and there is something that does not agree with you. It can help, but a transfer must be conditioned to many other things. As much as it can be measured, there are aspects of competition that are not measurable.
For example? In the coming months, due to the covid-19 crisis, Big Data could become more relevant …
Obviously, during this time of confinement we have had to use digital platforms to see footballers and take notes. And the numbers may have more weight in the coming months, but I want to see the games more than the numbers and if it can be on the full field better. I want to see how the player moves in function to the opposite, his 'timing', how he acts in relation to the spaces, the ball, the partner, how many times he looks before receiving the ball, if his body is well shaped to gain advantage over On the contrary, if it offers a pass line … These are aspects that, for me, have a lot of value and I think that today measuring them is complicated.
What should the relationship between the sports director and the coach be like?
I really believe that the project is based on people. Assuming that there are good people and everyone understands that we are all part of a club, that there is no one above anyone. Although there is a structure, because in the end it is essential to work in order and properly. But that does not mean that the organization chart ends up imposing itself on a daily basis. I'm not going to impose something on the coach. If I'm going to talk to him, to discuss the positions to be reinforced. I will always be available for anything. If you ask me for your opinion about who plays I will give it to you, but I will never tell you who has to play. That is your decision. On the subject of transfers the same. If I sign a coach in accordance with my football idea, we will easily agree on the signings. But it is the sports director who is on the market. He knows who is available and what signings are most conducive to the club.
What is the most difficult thing about being a sports director?
In sports management there are very thankless situations. You have to make decisions constantly and it is difficult to show that there is nothing personal behind them. It feels bad when you think about it, but it is day to day. In every company and every club you have to make decisions. It can affect you, but you have to be professional. If you have empathy and understand how the other person feels, everything is more bearable.