Is a strong friendship between two former soccer players enough to make one of them heed the other’s call and travel to work together on the other side of the world? Jaime Vera proves so, as the 56-year old Chilean manager has left his homeland to travel to Greece for work, in response to the call by OFI technical director Yiannis Samaras and his more famous son, and is now close to saving the historic Cretan team from relegation.
Soccer players often make friends in teams that last for long. It is less frequent for those friendships to be between different nationalities. Even less, when it concerns a local and a foreigner, and it becomes quite special when these two players become the godfather of each other’s son…
This is the story of Vera, who three decades ago became the godfather of former Greece and Celtic striker Giorgos Samaras before Yiannis Samaras named Vera’s son after himself. Now young Yiannis Vera has joined his father, a former midfielder who played for OFI from 1987 to 1992, in the Chilean manager’s first coaching venture in Europe.
“Yiannis was born in Mexico, but his godfather is Greek,” coach Vera tells Kathimerini English Edition, proud of his son being his assistant in the OFI coaching team. He does not deny that he feels a little bit Greek himself, and is happy with his command in Greek, after all these years since returning to Latin America in 1992.
“OFI was my second professional team, I played for five great years here, and I have great affection for the club and its people as well as Greece in general,” says the former Colo Colo star. We ask whether it would be right to say that if Chile were his wife, Greece would be his girlfriend, and he agrees laughing. “The people here are so lovely and life here is easier than at home,” he says.
Adjusting to living at Iraklio was never too difficult for Vera, even when he arrived as a 24-year-old Chile international to play in one of Greece’s best teams outside Athens and Thessaloniki at the time. “People in Chile and Greece have the same idiosyncrasy, and love their soccer too,” he explains, sparing no compliments for this country and its people, but especially Crete. He even says he loves Greek music: “It is wonderful, and with great instruments,” he notes.
He gets more serious but equally affectionate when the conversation turns to OFI. He admits he did not find what he had imagined when he resigned his post at Chilean top flight club Curico Unido to travel to Europe for OFI in February: “I thought it would have been easier, but OFI has found itself in a difficult situation, being one spot above of the bottom of the table when I arrived. Since then we have improved, we have gone to a better level and scored victories,” he says, a couple of weeks after OFI stunned Panathinaikos in Athens with a come-from-behind 3-1 win. “This is a great challenge for me,” he adds.
OFI returned last summer to the Super League after languishing in the second division for years, its crisis seemingly being in line with the Greek financial crisis. Now the sole representative of Crete in the Super League has managed to climb out of the drop zone, but will need to get a result at Atromitos on May 5 to avoid direct relegation. Depending on other results, it may well face a relegation play-off with the runner-up of the second division.
“Whoever it is we face in that case, we will be ready,” promises Vera, “but first we have the game against Atromitos to consider” he adds, staying loyal to his positive coaching style.
Notably a figure such as Olympiakos manager Pedro Martins was full of praise for OFI and its attacking style after the two sides met in Piraeus a few weeks ago. The Portuguese manager said he was impressed by the creative approach of a team that played as an underdog against a stronger host, with Vera stating after that game he will stick to his style even if his team were to concede 10 goals.
His coaching career to date has concerned top-flight clubs in Chile, but he has also served as assistant coach to Chile’s manager Claudio Borghi and went on to coach “La Roja” for four games. Would he dream of permanently being the national team’s coach? “Yes, this is a dream, but it would be very difficult now. I am far away, I have a two-and-a-half year contract and I am very happy here.”
One of his predecessors on the OFI bench, Gennaro Gattuso is now the coach of AC Milan. Would Vera aim at a similar step up, to a bigger league? “I have a project here, and when that is done we will be able to look further,” he says.
He goes on to note that, while the game in his country has shown an improvement recently, Greek soccer is not what it used to be when he was an OFI player three decades ago: “The Greek game is not as good as it was then. Greece’s teams are not as strong as they used to be, while the opening up to European Union players has rendered it all the more difficult for foreigners [from third countries],” the man nicknamed “Pollo” back home tells Kathimerini.