Over a year after leaving his position as sporting director at West Ham United (where he coincided with legendary Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini), Mario Husillos is back at his home in Pedregalejo in the city after a spell in his native Argentina. In this interview, the 62-year-old talks about his experiences in the game, the differences in football between Spain and England and lays bare his time at Malaga CF.
What are you up to now? Are you in the job hunt or have you retired?
I’ve spent the last year without the stresses of work, but I’m always thinking about football. I’ve had a few different offers, but I’m still waiting for the right job to come along. For me, money isn’t what’s important when deciding to take on a project, rather it’s whether I think I can really make a difference there.
How do you think your spell with West Ham went?
It was great being able to sign the players I really wanted. With a club of West Ham’s stature, the player market was very open for us - apart from those at the real heavyweight clubs, like Bayern or Barcelona. However, the English market can be complicated due to the money involved. There’s a lot of outside influence to consider, from players’ agents for example, who are in contact with the clubs. The sporting director can spend a lot of their time dealing with all these outside influences, rather than actually watching and analysing players. But the board, fortunately, only signed players to whom we had already given our approval.
Is football these days dominated by players’ agents?
Yes, I would agree. As soon as things are going well for a player, their agent will be asking for new terms and saying that the player isn’t happy at the club. There can also be difficulties when you want a player to leave, but they don’t want to go. The agents can complicate all this.
Are there agents in whom you can put your trust?
In some cases, yes. But for the most part, you have to remember that people are always looking out for their own interests.
As sporting director, do your loyalties lie more with the club or the manager?
One hundred per cent with the club because it sets your parameters. There are examples where there are tensions between the different parties which creates problems. However, at Malaga at the minute, there seems to be a recognition of what’s possible and how to make the most of it.
In what ways is the Premier League better than La Liga?
Above all, the careful planning of its calendar is its strength. Knowing when every game will take place makes it easier to ensure everything runs smoothly. Perhaps the playing standard is not quite as high as in Spain, but the spectacle is wonderful. And the quality of players is the best.
What football do you follow at the moment?
Football never bores me, not even the recent Copa Libertadores final where the teams were just fouling each other to stop the other one from playing. But I prefer when teams have to use their heads in order to win. I particularly enjoy watching French and English football and, in some cases, Spanish teams.
What do you think of modern expressions such as ‘defending in a block’ or ‘high pressing’?
It’s new vocabulary, but the perception that getting closer to the opposition means you’re closer to scoring is not true. For example, if you have a team with fast players up front, the high press is not so important. Overall, I think that the key is that the players have faith in the coach’s tactics. Nowadays, we see more and more opinions on these things, but a team has to be together in order for things to work.
Is a team which doesn’t press or in which not everybody tracks back automatically setting itself up for failure?
You always have to remember to press and keep your defensive shape to stop the other side from playing, but if you’ve got someone like Messi, you have to give him freedom. But there are only about ten or fifteen players in the world who can be afforded this luxury because of the difference they can make. It takes me to the old question about the Segunda División - why is it so difficult to predict what will happen?
Because there are none of these exceptional game-changing players?
Yes. Obviously, a player who’s worth one million euros will be better than one worth 100,000, but the difference in quality isn’t enough to win you games. But, if you can find a player guaranteed to get you twenty or more goals a season, you have to bring him as he’ll make a real difference. Also, set-pieces and organisation become very important in the lower leagues. Therefore, if I were in charge at a Tercera División club, I’d focus on players who are good in the air, for example, as they could make a difference in these areas.
Who could be the heir to the throne of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi?
For me, it will be someone who has at least a decade at the highest standard and isn't affected by injuries. There are players like Mbappé and Haaland who’ve shown their potential, but they would need to be consistently scoring 35 to 40 goals a season to be considered on the same level as Messi or Ronaldo. Longevity is key. For me, this is what sets Messi ahead of even Diego Maradona.
What was your reaction to the death of Maradona?
I thought it was very sad that his death has turned into a ‘show’. I fear that he won’t be able to rest in peace as any stories to do with him sell well in the media. But it’ll stick with me how Diego managed to capture the hearts and minds of all of Argentina.
Can the amount of money Messi earns be justified?
He earns this much money as his employer has agreed to pay him it. I don’t think we can blame the players for what they get paid. Yes, they earn astronomical sums but it’s because they generate so much for their clubs. However, I think that the new realities brought on by the pandemic may require something of a rethink here.
Has introduction of VAR improved football?
I’m sure that in a few years, the system will be different because the current one is too disruptive to the flow of games. Anything that makes the game fairer is, of course, to be welcomed but some decisions that are being made seem to contradict others. The offside rule is something that needs to be discussed. The other problem is the addition of match officials... first there was one, then three and then four. It’ll end up that there will be more officials than players on the pitch.
Youssef En-Nesyri arrived at Malaga during your time as sporting director, and he's now in the running to be top scorer in La Liga with Sevilla. Has his success surprised you?
It’s hard to say, as he was only eighteen when he came to Malaga. But even at that time I could see his potential even though he was far from the finished article. I think that his strengths always lay in his physicality and his eye for goal, but he had room for improvement tactically speaking and in his movement.
Can a club like West Ham justify spending upwards of €30 million on players?
Of course. If West Ham think a player will be important to the team and will have good resale value, then yes. However, you must always keep sight of financial fair play rules.
How long do you think it will be before Malaga are back among the elite?
Aside from some sort of miracle, I think the only way Malaga can get back to where they were is through the club being sold to a suitable buyer. Even then, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to come and pump millions into the club, and the salary cap makes things more difficult anyway. In the Segunda División, there’s something of a level playing field among teams and, therefore, player recruitment needs to be good if you want to get promoted. Also, you have to hold on to your best players. When I came to Malaga, the decline had already begun. The big-name signings like [Santi] Cazorla and [Roque] Santa Cruz, who had propelled the club into the Champions League, had to be sold and I had to be much more selective in who was signed.
Much has been said about new investors arriving at Malaga. But, given the club’s difficult legal situation, how likely do you think it is that there are people interested in getting involved?
I think there are people who would definitely be interested in buying the club. Malaga is a very attractive option for potential investors both in terms of the club and the location, not to mention the fanbase. However, the issue is that people don’t want to inherit the issues that the club currently has, but I think some positive steps are already being taken to resolve these.
Was getting into the Champions League worth it given the position in which the club now finds itself?
Absolutely. It was something wonderful. I remember the decades before that when the club had very little to celebrate. I think that many fans want excitement and emotion from football, and Malaga’s journey has definitely provided this.
Do you feel that you’re an unpopular figure among Malaga fans at the moment?
I don’t think so, but I’ve had seven different spells at the club and know that people can feel fed up at times. When I came into the club the most recent time, they’d taken just one point from their first eight games. I knew where they were going, but my heart told me to go.
Will you ever make some kind of return to Malaga CF?
As sporting director, no because this can be a very taxing role. But I’d like to use the experiences I’ve built up at other clubs in some capacity. Malaga is my club and my home. I could never say never to some sort of return.