“Off the Pitch with Active” is a program of interviews with people involved with junior sport in some capacity for the benefits of children’s development. I am hoping that these interviews will help recognise people who donate a massive amount of their time to the community and create opportunities for children to excel in sport.
I also like parents to get a better understanding of who these people are and why they are spending a lot of time for the benefit of other parent’s children.
By Ken Willner 22 March 2017
AI: Welcome to Off the Pitch with Active. I am here with Diego Pelegrini, founder of Eastern United. You had a very rich history as a professional football player in Italy and you even represented Italy U21 ’90-’91?
DP: Yes, U21 but 3rd division. Not the proper U21 from Seria A, back then I played in a club called Empoli. Now they are in top division Seria A, but back then when I started playing they were in 3rd division, Serie C, that’s when I represented Italy for 3 games.
AI: Fantastic and one of your highlights in your career would have been winning UEFA Cup with Parma ’94/95. At least that would have been one of them?
DP: For sure it was my best year even though I was a fringe player but still being a part of that amazing team it was something very special. Because you can consider that we had 13 national team players. This meant that each game we had 2 National team players starting from the bench.
AI: Wow! so it would have been a tough team to get a game in?
DP: I was roughly the 18th player but it was something surely amazing and it was a great experience to also travel in EUFA Cup with them. Lifting the EUFA cup in San Siro Stadium [big smile]. That was amazing.
AI: That would have been amazing. I have so many questions I would like to ask you, I could sit here for hours but today I like to focus on some of your experiences and how you help junior players here in Adelaide.
I want people to understand a little about yourself and the mental capacity required on the top level. I would like to start with asking, how did you develop the mental attitude as a junior to be successful in football? It is an extremely competitive sport to play with the best.
DP: Especially in Italy and Europe in general. Since I came here to Australia I have always been telling my boys and their parents, that the mental side of the game is huge. And I always tell them my story when I was a young player and the coach was pushing us and treating us as like men.
AI: How old were you then?
DP: Well, 10 to 11 years old so very young, very young. And I remember a story that we belonged to a team in my city which was Latina. The senior men of our club were in the professional league in 4th Div. We had a very strong team and we won every game by many goals and one day we conceded one goal and at half time we were 2-1 up. In the break the coach was yelling so hard that parents could hear him a kilometre away.
AI: What [laughing]
DP: And we ended up winning 7-1 but in saying this, I am not saying that, that’s the right thing to do but for sure you grow strong and if you are not strong you disappear (as soccer player). Especially in a country which the sport is highly competitive you must be strong. Otherwise you cannot have a professional career. In fact, I know many, many, very talented players which are weak mentally and they didn’t achieve a professional career.
AI: Tell me more about your tougher times, when you felt mentally challenged. What went through your mind and how did you overcome it?
DP: Many, many times sometimes you have problems with the team mates or with the coach or if you are part of a weak team which concedes many goals. I remember when I was 14 I decided to quit.
AI: Oh, really!
DP: Yes and my dad, he has always been a great psychologist, probably my first and best coach. He told me, in that occasion, just to enjoy the summer, just relax and don’t think about soccer. That helped me regain my enthusiasm. In fact, 3 months later I tried for juniors for a professional club, I made it.
At the end of that year I got signed by a top division club, Avellino, in their U16 juniors team, but nothing happened because my club asked for too much money. That was another really tough time for me; for a young player that always wanted to become a professional player. Seeing the chance fading away.
AI: Without your control?
DP: Yes, that was another very tough moment but then few months later I was lucky and good enough to sign for another club which was Empoli. So many times my mind was challenged but if you really want it then you get over it. If you have a clear image of your target in your mind I think you get there or at least try your best and you don’t give up.
AI: How much is talent and how much is persistence?
DP: AH! of course both but I would say the mind counts for a good 70%.
AI: Really! We will go into to that in a moment but tell me about some of your highlights in your career and how you felt at the time? For example; winning EUFA CUP and being part of it, that would have been an amazing feeling?
DP: That was very, very important for me but not the most important because I wasn’t one of the main actors.
AI: you mean because you were a fringe player?
DP: Yeah, instead I won 4 championships and every championship we won was amazing of course the feeling is,…[ehm].. the feeling is just great.
As a sports person, you play to win, you play to succeed and then you are also a business person because it is a job. Signing contracts and earning a good amount of money and having security in life. It makes you feel very satisfied.
AI: Did you have an agent?
DP: Yeah, it was funny because my dad tells me off, he still tells me off now a days. I made few mistakes in my career, one of them was to change too many agents [laughing].
DP: I changed 4 to 5 times, I think. Of course, it wasn’t a very good thing to do and all of them were with big names. It really, didn’t help me because I wasn’t a top player. I was a decent player but not a top player so I didn’t have the big name.
In fact when I was young I signed for Parma. Before signing for them, I went to the home of Brescia’s coach Lucescu and the President was also there. Lucescu was very famous for producing young players; but instead of listening to my dad, I followed the suggestion of my agent and I ended up in Parma. If I had gone to Brescia with Lucescu I probably would have gone to Parma with higher credentials later.
AI: So why did you come to Australia?
DP: Yeah well this is another good story. I played in Seria A ‘98/’99 with Perugia and after the 2nd season the coach decided to bring in more experience players to make the EUFA CUP qualifications. They signed players like Materazzi who was in my position on the field, another player Calori, so all these players had big experience and for me there wasn’t much space.
And I then made another big mistake. I signed for the first club that came along. I signed a contract and in fact I was earning more money than I earnt in Seria A in Perugia so that is why I left straight away. But it wasn’t the right place for me.
AI: Which team was that?
DP: Savoia, the 2nd team of Naples.
We actually played derbies against Napoli back then. Those two years were very tough, we ended up relegated. The year after there were some more dramas and then the club went broke.
In 2001 I found a club which belonged to Perugia, last club of Seria A I played for. They asked me to go there and help them to win the league and we won the league but it was a crazy year. We had some …………..funny moments, the supporters are very…ehm….
AI: Passionate or a bit more than passionate
DP: Let’s call them passionate. One game we lost 1-0 against the bottom team at home and we got locked in our changeroom for 4 ½ hours [both laughing]. We left the stadium in police cars and the police advised us not to go to our home but go to where we were born [laughing]. To run away as far as possible.
AI: And they were the club supporters [laughing]?
DP: [laughing] But since that day we won every game and we made the Play Off and won the Championship. Then we were kings [laughing].
AI: So it is a fine line between being killed and being a king.
DP: So this is why I needed a break, mentally. And I knew a friend of mine Lagati, who last year coached Blue Eagles. We also played together in Adelaide City Force in the National Soccer league here in Australia. That’s why I came here.
Actually it was fantastic for me, seeing AUSTRALIA! for me it was like seeing the moon. I didn’t know AUSTRALIA! [big smile].
AI: So you didn’t know much about Australia?
DP: Especially with regards to soccer, you know what I mean. Especially in Italy, you think soccer is just in Italy [both laughing] but leaving the country for Australia I just needed a break. Just enjoy and not think about anything or being stressed. I was 32 years old back then and started to play soccer when I was 16 so already 16 years of stress [laughing]. I needed a break and then I discovered a great country so I decided then after 2 ½ years back in Italy, I decided to move here for good because I wanted this to be my hometown.
AI: So then you decided to start Eastern United. Why did you start Eastern United?
DP: Actually I didn’t start straight away because I got sponsored by Blue Eagles. I got a permanent Visa as a footballer and coach and I coached young kids for Blue Eagles for 7 years. Then I saw the club was more for seniors than juniors. I always wanted to work with juniors and try to give as many players as possible the opportunity to do what I did. I joined a few people and we started Eastern United.
The aim of this club is to create an environment totally different from the others. They are very much focused on seniors results than development. Because I have so many, many contacts in Europe, I said if I can produce some talent then I can also give them the chance to become a soccer player because I can send them there.
So far in 4 ½ years of life we have done very, very well with great
success. We sent 2 players to Perugia the first year then the year after one to Luton Town in England. The year after we sent 5; one to Switzerland, one to England and 3 to Italy. This year we achieved probably the best success, preparing this Italian born player, who was part of the local soccer system.
AI: Franz Pjetri?
DP: Franz Pjetri yeah. He didn’t get a picked by AIS because he wasn’t ready. We sent him to Udinese then he made the U17 National Team for Albania. They also called him into U18.
AI: I followed the story and I like to come back to that in a bit more details later. So in your opinion what is the formula for success for junior players to achieve something in Europe even if it is not the highest leagues. Obviously you can still play professionally in divisions 2, 3 and sometimes 4 in Europe. What do you believe is the formula for success?
DP: First of all to become a professional player is unbelievable hard. There are billions of players who start as a young player but only a few in the world become actually, really, soccer
players. I want to… [hesitation] underline this because this is important because we don’t go to every player saying come to us and become a soccer player. Actually we say the opposite. We can improve you for sure 100% but we don’t know where we are getting up to because it is up to many, many things.
Secondly when you work on a young player…Ehm!.. first of all you need to see potential and the potential can be technical, physical or can be tactical or how the player reads the game or if he has a soccer brain and stuff like that. But of course as we said before the most important part is mental.
Living in this country, where let’s say life is “pretty easy” there are jobs and there is no desperation to become a professional player.
This is very, very hard, the hardest part because I found a fantastic country but very, very hard to make people understand how hard it is and how hard they have to work. And how to approach this sport mentally.
But the key to success is of course making players able to use their mind as much as possible. That allows them to make the right decisions and making the right decisions on the pitch is what’s make the difference. Of course you need to improve them technically, tactically, physically and as I said mentally. But a player can have a chance to try to become a
soccer player when he knows what to do at that particular time, in that particular scenario on the pitch and he is able to do it.
AI: What would you tell parents if you see someone with talent. I mean for a 13 to 15 year old, they have big dreams and then these are slowly eroded. What do you say to parents with talented kids which meet some of the aspects you are looking for?
DP: Well a big advice is always support them but don’t try to play for them. Don’t try to use the kids to do what they (the parents) dreamed of doing. Is it the kid that actually has got to want to do it? The parent can only support and help them to do
what they (kids) love to do but at the same time they also have to be careful to not over protect them. This means they can’t find an excuse
if something goes wrong and tell them that it is everybody else’s fault.
AI: So you don’t wrap them in cotton wool to protect them?
DP: Correct so that is very, very, important. At the same time they cannot be too aggressive and to pushy and too critical because I think it is important to have a balance. It is important to support, but not too much, and it’s important not to be too critical. It is always a balance in the way parents manage their kids.
I can talk in first person because my dad always, always supported me. He always came to watch, never took the place of my coach, never said the coach is wrong. Actually he has been a very big psychologist
because whenever he saw me coming out with a bit of arrogance when I knew I had played well, he always told me I could do better. And when I lost a game, I wouldn’t talk for two days. So when I was upset for a loss he always said “you didn’t do that bad”. So he never put me down and he never put me up.
AI: So he never put you up on a big pedestal. Likewise what do you say to juniors who say that yes, I want to be a professional player, I am committed and will do anything you say. What do you say to them and how do you work with them?
DP: The first thing I say to them YOU HAVE TO LOVE THIS GAME!if you want to be a professional player you need to love the game.
There are young kids that already have the right mindset. However it might fade away as they grow but you be surprised to see the numbers of kids who want to get there (pro levels) and of course you cannot talk about professionalism with them when they are too young. You have to teach them and make sure they enjoy the game.
AI: What age is the right age to go into the more professional aspects. Of course, you have to have fun and be talented but is there a “blanket” age or does it depend on the maturity of the kids to determine if they are ready to become more serious and professional?
DP: Correct it depends on the kids. It changes from kid to kid and it’s something that shows up. There are players that up to 14 you would never say they could do something but they develop late. For example in my academy I have a couple of kids who are 9 years old turning 10. Already last year they were training every day. They are loving it and force their parents to take them to training everyday. But for me the age… probably for me the perfect age to start doing things more seriously is when they turn 12 to 13. When they are 15 they already have to be mature.
Perfect age to go and try something is 15 years of age turning 16. That is the perfect age. Then they are older and each year will be harder and harder but still a chance if you are in the right country. For example in some countries they still give you the opportunity if you win one or a couple of championships in a lower Div club to move to a professional club.
I can give you examples of players I knew, one of them , up to 24 had never played higher than 4th division then 5 years later got called into the National team. He played with me, actually he wasn’t 1st 11 when he played with me then he became 1st 11, then we won the league, he moved up and won the league again. Then he went to a Seria A club and 1 ½ years later he got called into the National team.
This does not exist in Australia. very, very, very impossible. First this is due to the obvious lack of professional teams. 2nd because when you go local you get a stamp that you are not good enough to be a professional. It is very hard to go down and then break through again.
AI: Just to finish off, can you tell me about some of the players you have developed. Especially Franz Pjetri, and Cristian Sotira. These are two great stories. Can you tell me a bit about how you worked with them?
DP: There is another one, probably as good as them which is Sebastian Goode.
Franz is a defender and Sebastian is a striker so everybody needs different specific training. And everybody has a different personality so Franz he has got a big body, very skilful and very fast for the size but had to improve in other areas. I was surprised he had been in the system so long and some of those areas had not been worked on.
Sotira is mentally very, very strong, he needed to improve technically and some other aspects. Instead Sebastian has a different personality and different mind-shape and again you needed different work. You keep in mind that Sotira and Franz were part of the system and they got out of the system. But Sebastian Goode was part of U16 local club and after 2 years ,he will most likely sign for a Seria A team and that is amazing.
There is no magical stick behind this. There is work and a bit of knowledge and a lot of efforts from kids and parents. That is important. For example Sebastian Goode was travelling from Semaphore to Athelstone every day. The way I have set up the academy allows the players to train every day of the year or out of 365 days they would train a good 330 days if not more.
AI: So you work with them mentally as well as the technical aspects?
DP: For sure
AI: So you identify what you need to work on. So with Franz he is a defender so did you set up a specific program for him?
DP: I work with the club and the team. I worked also with him personally and then with the academy. We do drills with everybody trying to focus on the talented ones needs. Then if they need something specifically, I will work with them one on one. So I try to make them as good as possible in order to make them ready to be successful at trials.
AI: It has been a pleasure talking to you, Thank you!
To contact Diego Pelegrini click on the link https://easternunitedfc.com.au/
About Off the pitch with Active is a creation of Active Illustrated.
Interviewer: Ken Willner
Photos provided by Diego Peligrini
©Active Illustrated 2017
12th Feb ’17 Lions do fly an interview with Paul Maio & Michael Crescitelli, founders of Adelaide Futsal Club. They talk about their success in their first year (2016) and the coaching philosophy behind it.
26th Feb ’17 A taste of the Big League Part 1 Chris talks about the start of his career and his experience in Glasgow Rangers and Middleborough. He also tells the story why playing in America inspired him to continue with coaching in Australia.
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