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Interview

To the limit

Running through deserts and cycling up mountains, Luis Enrique has continued to push his mind and body to extremes since hanging up his boots – and now his insatiable thirst for competition is focused on leading Paris Saint-Germain to perfection

WORDS Graham Hunter

If you’re a friend of Luis Enrique Martínez, you’ll regularly receive mobile phone pictures of deer, wild boar, wide-winged birds of prey, foxes or forests draped in snow. If you’re his really good friend, you’ll occasionally be asked to go through hell with him. 

The former stems from his need, his obsession, to use any spare time to pedal several hundred kilometres per week – sometimes by road, more often on mountain tracks or through dense wooded areas where the terrain is rough but the natural world is at its finest. The latter comes from the Paris Saint-Germain coach’s penchant for tilting at tortuous physical challenges, recruiting fellow buccaneers and then ‘achieving the unachievable’.

Few of us properly understand the regimen of an elite footballer. It’s a gilded, lucrative, often highly enjoyable prison. But something of a jail nonetheless. It’s hugely well rewarded, of course, but your time is rarely your own. Your family can often come off second best. Your body and your health are, in many ways, co-owned with the club which pays your salary. And although playing for a professional club is like working in a benign dictatorship, the fact remains that it’s not a democracy. 

What you eat, your hours at work, days off, your weight, what hobbies you have, how you de-stress, what you say or do in public – none of these are wholly in the hands of the individual player. In some instances, the rules which dictate your lifestyle are ironclad.

Once a career is finished, the bonds are broken. The prohibited is no longer proscribed – Thomas Gravesen went gambling in Las Vegas, Mathieu Flamini ventured into biochemical engineering (hugely successfully), Gareth Bale golfed (even more), Victor Valdés followed his passion for windsurfing, Romário and George Weah became politicians, while Gerard Piqué bought football clubs and the Davis Cup. 

Luis Enrique, by comparison, decided that he wanted to test his body, mind and character through extreme sport, up to and beyond what most people would consider the outer limits of human endurance. A clutch of marathons, triathlons, Ironman contests followed – and then the ultimate challenges. 

In 2008, he and ex-basketball star Toñín Llorente took on the Marathon des Sables. It’s a jaw-dropping commitment. Six straight days of running across the Sahara Desert to complete, or attempt to complete, a marathon per day. Almost inconceivable pain, mental torture and mile after endless mile of sand in both extremes of temperature, all of this while carrying your food on your back. 

Then, a couple of months before taking over in Paris, Luis Enrique assumed Lion King status. The Cape Epic is an eight-day race covering around 700km with some 17,000m of climbing. It’s the Tour de France of mountain biking, and finishing just once is a huge achievement. Finishing three times makes you a legend, earning you entry to the exclusive Amabubesi club.

A Zulu word, Amabubesi means ‘pride of lions’, and with Luis Enrique being the linchpin various teams have functioned around, that makes him the leader of the pride. And what that means for Paris Saint-Germain is that the French side are now being sculpted and reset by a man whose communicative talents, coaching ability and commitment to front-foot, daring, attacking football are matched by his burning desire to test himself to, and beyond, breaking point. 

He agreed to meet at the club’s new training ground in Poissy, about 40 minutes west of central Paris, and explain a little bit about his side passion. About his apparent need to suffer.

“I do like to undertake extreme tests and I don’t know exactly why,” he says. “I simply like it. I always felt very lucky to be a professional footballer and I really enjoyed my career. But I remember in the last few years telling my team-mates that as soon as I stopped playing football, I’d start running marathons, long-distance challenges, bike races… I wanted all the things professional football doesn’t allow you to do when you’re playing – skiing, for example. I only learned to ski when I was 38.

Luis Enrique with Juan Carlos Unzué (top right); Luis Enrique and his team-mates after completing the 2023 Cape Epic (right)

“I’ve always had that competitive aspect – it’s what I enjoy the most, regardless of the sport. We all want experiences to give us something positive. That’s the spark you’re looking for. But when you retro-analyse things, you realise that the worst times are when you learn the most. Negative situations leave the deepest memories, not only in sport but also in life.” 

That’s a phrase to return to. We must if the aim is to understand this energetic, pugnacious and hugely talented man a little better. But, for the moment, more about his leonine status. He happily warms to his theme: “There’s a famous race in South Africa, which we mountain bikers know, called the Cape Epic. The pain of competing is quite sharp. An Amabubesi is someone who manages to complete this race in three different years, consecutive or not. They join the Amabubesi club, and I’m one of the relatively few people in it. 

“The race takes place each year in March/April, and you’re on a mountain bike for one week, or eight days. Each stage is about 80 to 110km. There are some shorter 20 to 30km stretches. The conditions are what they are: if it rains, it rains. If it’s very hot, it’s very hot. These are endurance races and you get to share these experiences with professionals, even if only on the campus. It’s a test I really appreciate.”

In the past, one of the many friends who volunteered to go to hell and back was former Barcelona goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, Luis Enrique’s assistant coach while winning the treble with the Blaugrana in 2014/15. This year, Luis Enrique’s team wore Unzué’s name on the back of their shirts. The 56-year-old now suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), formerly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mobility has been devastated and, wheelchair bound, his challenges have changed dramatically, from the ‘who dares wins’ variety to the involuntary and unavoidable kind. 

“Carrying Juan Carlos’ name on our backs was a way of bringing awareness to his ALS. He’s an example for all of us – always a positive attitude, no matter what life throws at him. Juan Carlos is a great motivator and inspires all of us in my group of friends. We used the number he wore when he was a goalkeeper, the number one, and ‘Unzué’. Our way of dedicating our effort to him.”

But if rising to Amabubesi status sounds difficult (catch him in a rare moment of self-assessment and Luis Enrique will admit that this year’s Cape Epic was his toughest yet… and that age might just be a factor), it’s nothing compared to what he went through while traversing the Sahara on foot. 

“The hardest challenge I’ve done, where the competition caused me the most pain, was the Marathon des Sables. It’s a mighty challenge and extremely tough because you have to rely on yourself for one week and you’re running a daily marathon through the desert. You can do a double marathon one day and then the next day only 20km; self-reliance implies you bring and carry your own food, your own bed. These circumstances are very different from the day-to-day life of a normal person. They take you out of your comfort zone and force you to experience new things in life.”

He ran with sand in his socks and shoes, bleeding feet and blisters causing him misery. His team-mate, equally determined to finish, was reduced to walking most of the final two days. Luis Enrique drove himself on by repeating over and over in his head that if he didn’t finish then, by some demonic vicarious process, he’d be doing damage to his family. 

A small madness, but it eventually got him to, and across, the tape. “Being competitive is a hallmark of everyone in any professional sport. But it shouldn’t be a blind obsession. In my case, it’s one of the reasons I keep on embracing personal challenges.”

I don’t think it’s inappropriate, here, to remind readers that, in his private life, Luis Enrique suffered one of the most painful experiences imaginable. When Barcelona won the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin, he and his youngest child, Xana, gambolled around the pitch post-match, dancing in a joyful father-daughter celebration that dad’s work was done for the season, that it had been historically successful and summer was coming. 

Four years later, Xana’s bone-cancer diagnosis turned out to be terminal. Luis and Elena lost their beautiful daughter, Pacho and Sira their lovely sister. Luis Enrique had temporarily stood down from his job as Spain coach, went through a few months of mourning and then, typically, threw himself straight back into work. 

“We all want experiences to give us something positive, but the worst times are when you learn the most”

He and his family are keen to have Xana talked about, commemorated to keep her spirit and memory alive. It’s my personal perspective, having talked to him quite often about the subject, that his immense capacity to test himself, to find strength in physical suffering, unintentionally prepared him for the greatest agony a parent can suffer. But when he says of his endurance sports that “the worst times are the ones when you learn the most,” it’s a phrase that resonates beyond the athletic realm. 

Having endured such anguish has doubtless inured Luis Enrique to the hardships of life as a professional coach, even at a club like Paris Saint-Germain, where seven different managers have tried things their way in the 12 years since December 2011. The 53-year-old has been applying his own philosophy since taking the reins in July, but the man in charge admits: “It’s a really long process. The goal is to open their minds. You need to create a collective idea, the one you believe is the best to win matches, both in attack and defence. 

“That entails some attitude changes, depending on the moment: knowing how to prepare for matches, how you should play depending on the scoreline, and whether or not we need to make substitutions. It’s like a jigsaw. You set the pieces and begin with the straight lines to build the frame. This is similar. How long does it take to build the frame? No idea! 

“It depends on the feedback the players give you. You want to make progress quickly, but that’s impossible. Just as it is with kids, the learning process is slow. You take two steps forward and then one step back, and over time the pieces might fall into place quicker than you expected.

“It’s beautiful, yet it can be frustrating because you’re asked to get results from the off, and when you don’t get them, it becomes tougher. Doubt creeps in. Here at PSG, from day one, I have to say I found the disposition of the club’s board to be amazing – it couldn’t be any better – and the attitude of all the players was great. Even though I can sometimes get frustrated, that gives me confidence. 

“What we’re trying to convey, to my players and our fans, is that we’ll approach matches in the same way, no matter if we end up playing well or not. But that’s the idea. That’s how we’re going to play. I love to convey this idea to my players because it’s appealing to think that you’ll have the ball much more and create more chances than the opposition.

“I don’t care if we are winning 2-0 or 3-0. We keep playing in the same way. If you do something right, repeat it over and over. It leads to perfection. I think this is very appealing, not only for the players but also the fans.”

The ultimate perfection, of course, would be to end the club’s long wait
for Champions League glory. But before he heads back to his (this time) static bicycle in the gym, Luis Enrique urges caution once again. “The only thing I don’t think would be good for the club, the city or the fans is for it to become an obsession. There’s a minimum of eight sides who can win that trophy, and the Champions League isn’t a competition which rewards consistency. 

“It’s not a normal league, nor a tournament that the best team of the year wins. You have to be on top form now to get through the group, then you’ve got to be very good again in March. There are a lot of factors and a lot of teams on our level who want to win it. That doesn’t mean we feel sorry for ourselves. No, it means we’re one of the favourites – call it what you want – to fight for it.

“The competition eventually starts putting teams where they should be, but in terms of potential, I don’t think there is anyone better than us. And I mean that. There are a lot of similar sides to us, and we have to give it our best shot in order to have a realistic chance. My approach and planning for it is one thing, but having a real chance is another.

“What’s important for us is not to be obsessed but excited and ambitious, because players who are scared never write their names in the history books. You can’t be scared – what’s the point in being scared?”

Words that come from his heart, just as much as from his brain. The words of an ultra-competitor. 

Insight
‘Best in the world’

Luis Enrique’s admiration for Kylian Mbappé has only soared since taking over as Paris coach 

As Luis Enrique chases success with Paris Saint-Germain, he is delighted to have a potent weapon in his armoury – forward Kylian Mbappé, who recently passed 300 goals for club and country at just 24 years of age.  

“I obviously knew Kylian as a footballer before coming to the club,” says the French side’s coach. “What I can add now is that the sheer amount of technical and physical potential he has reinforces that, right now, he’s without a shadow of a doubt the best player in the world. 

“He really is in the upper echelon of three or four elite players who can take it upon themselves to win a game single-handedly. For me, Kylian is number one. And even though it seems impossible, Kylian the person is even better than Kylian the player, purely because of what he brings off the field: his attitude, what he brings out of his team-mates, the smile on his face in every training session. 

“He’s demanding, he’s competitive. We’re lucky to have such a unique player who brings important values and is such a good role model for any young player or fan.” How long their association endures is anyone’s guess, but for now Luis Enrique has precisely the player he wants to lead the charge at the Parc des Princes.

If you’re a friend of Luis Enrique Martínez, you’ll regularly receive mobile phone pictures of deer, wild boar, wide-winged birds of prey, foxes or forests draped in snow. If you’re his really good friend, you’ll occasionally be asked to go through hell with him. 

The former stems from his need, his obsession, to use any spare time to pedal several hundred kilometres per week – sometimes by road, more often on mountain tracks or through dense wooded areas where the terrain is rough but the natural world is at its finest. The latter comes from the Paris Saint-Germain coach’s penchant for tilting at tortuous physical challenges, recruiting fellow buccaneers and then ‘achieving the unachievable’.

Few of us properly understand the regimen of an elite footballer. It’s a gilded, lucrative, often highly enjoyable prison. But something of a jail nonetheless. It’s hugely well rewarded, of course, but your time is rarely your own. Your family can often come off second best. Your body and your health are, in many ways, co-owned with the club which pays your salary. And although playing for a professional club is like working in a benign dictatorship, the fact remains that it’s not a democracy. 

What you eat, your hours at work, days off, your weight, what hobbies you have, how you de-stress, what you say or do in public – none of these are wholly in the hands of the individual player. In some instances, the rules which dictate your lifestyle are ironclad.

Once a career is finished, the bonds are broken. The prohibited is no longer proscribed – Thomas Gravesen went gambling in Las Vegas, Mathieu Flamini ventured into biochemical engineering (hugely successfully), Gareth Bale golfed (even more), Victor Valdés followed his passion for windsurfing, Romário and George Weah became politicians, while Gerard Piqué bought football clubs and the Davis Cup. 

Luis Enrique, by comparison, decided that he wanted to test his body, mind and character through extreme sport, up to and beyond what most people would consider the outer limits of human endurance. A clutch of marathons, triathlons, Ironman contests followed – and then the ultimate challenges. 

In 2008, he and ex-basketball star Toñín Llorente took on the Marathon des Sables. It’s a jaw-dropping commitment. Six straight days of running across the Sahara Desert to complete, or attempt to complete, a marathon per day. Almost inconceivable pain, mental torture and mile after endless mile of sand in both extremes of temperature, all of this while carrying your food on your back. 

Then, a couple of months before taking over in Paris, Luis Enrique assumed Lion King status. The Cape Epic is an eight-day race covering around 700km with some 17,000m of climbing. It’s the Tour de France of mountain biking, and finishing just once is a huge achievement. Finishing three times makes you a legend, earning you entry to the exclusive Amabubesi club.

A Zulu word, Amabubesi means ‘pride of lions’, and with Luis Enrique being the linchpin various teams have functioned around, that makes him the leader of the pride. And what that means for Paris Saint-Germain is that the French side are now being sculpted and reset by a man whose communicative talents, coaching ability and commitment to front-foot, daring, attacking football are matched by his burning desire to test himself to, and beyond, breaking point. 

He agreed to meet at the club’s new training ground in Poissy, about 40 minutes west of central Paris, and explain a little bit about his side passion. About his apparent need to suffer.

“I do like to undertake extreme tests and I don’t know exactly why,” he says. “I simply like it. I always felt very lucky to be a professional footballer and I really enjoyed my career. But I remember in the last few years telling my team-mates that as soon as I stopped playing football, I’d start running marathons, long-distance challenges, bike races… I wanted all the things professional football doesn’t allow you to do when you’re playing – skiing, for example. I only learned to ski when I was 38.

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Luis Enrique with Juan Carlos Unzué (top right); Luis Enrique and his team-mates after completing the 2023 Cape Epic (right)

“I’ve always had that competitive aspect – it’s what I enjoy the most, regardless of the sport. We all want experiences to give us something positive. That’s the spark you’re looking for. But when you retro-analyse things, you realise that the worst times are when you learn the most. Negative situations leave the deepest memories, not only in sport but also in life.” 

That’s a phrase to return to. We must if the aim is to understand this energetic, pugnacious and hugely talented man a little better. But, for the moment, more about his leonine status. He happily warms to his theme: “There’s a famous race in South Africa, which we mountain bikers know, called the Cape Epic. The pain of competing is quite sharp. An Amabubesi is someone who manages to complete this race in three different years, consecutive or not. They join the Amabubesi club, and I’m one of the relatively few people in it. 

“The race takes place each year in March/April, and you’re on a mountain bike for one week, or eight days. Each stage is about 80 to 110km. There are some shorter 20 to 30km stretches. The conditions are what they are: if it rains, it rains. If it’s very hot, it’s very hot. These are endurance races and you get to share these experiences with professionals, even if only on the campus. It’s a test I really appreciate.”

In the past, one of the many friends who volunteered to go to hell and back was former Barcelona goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, Luis Enrique’s assistant coach while winning the treble with the Blaugrana in 2014/15. This year, Luis Enrique’s team wore Unzué’s name on the back of their shirts. The 56-year-old now suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), formerly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mobility has been devastated and, wheelchair bound, his challenges have changed dramatically, from the ‘who dares wins’ variety to the involuntary and unavoidable kind. 

“Carrying Juan Carlos’ name on our backs was a way of bringing awareness to his ALS. He’s an example for all of us – always a positive attitude, no matter what life throws at him. Juan Carlos is a great motivator and inspires all of us in my group of friends. We used the number he wore when he was a goalkeeper, the number one, and ‘Unzué’. Our way of dedicating our effort to him.”

But if rising to Amabubesi status sounds difficult (catch him in a rare moment of self-assessment and Luis Enrique will admit that this year’s Cape Epic was his toughest yet… and that age might just be a factor), it’s nothing compared to what he went through while traversing the Sahara on foot. 

“The hardest challenge I’ve done, where the competition caused me the most pain, was the Marathon des Sables. It’s a mighty challenge and extremely tough because you have to rely on yourself for one week and you’re running a daily marathon through the desert. You can do a double marathon one day and then the next day only 20km; self-reliance implies you bring and carry your own food, your own bed. These circumstances are very different from the day-to-day life of a normal person. They take you out of your comfort zone and force you to experience new things in life.”

He ran with sand in his socks and shoes, bleeding feet and blisters causing him misery. His team-mate, equally determined to finish, was reduced to walking most of the final two days. Luis Enrique drove himself on by repeating over and over in his head that if he didn’t finish then, by some demonic vicarious process, he’d be doing damage to his family. 

A small madness, but it eventually got him to, and across, the tape. “Being competitive is a hallmark of everyone in any professional sport. But it shouldn’t be a blind obsession. In my case, it’s one of the reasons I keep on embracing personal challenges.”

I don’t think it’s inappropriate, here, to remind readers that, in his private life, Luis Enrique suffered one of the most painful experiences imaginable. When Barcelona won the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin, he and his youngest child, Xana, gambolled around the pitch post-match, dancing in a joyful father-daughter celebration that dad’s work was done for the season, that it had been historically successful and summer was coming. 

Four years later, Xana’s bone-cancer diagnosis turned out to be terminal. Luis and Elena lost their beautiful daughter, Pacho and Sira their lovely sister. Luis Enrique had temporarily stood down from his job as Spain coach, went through a few months of mourning and then, typically, threw himself straight back into work. 

“We all want experiences to give us something positive, but the worst times are when you learn the most”

He and his family are keen to have Xana talked about, commemorated to keep her spirit and memory alive. It’s my personal perspective, having talked to him quite often about the subject, that his immense capacity to test himself, to find strength in physical suffering, unintentionally prepared him for the greatest agony a parent can suffer. But when he says of his endurance sports that “the worst times are the ones when you learn the most,” it’s a phrase that resonates beyond the athletic realm. 

Having endured such anguish has doubtless inured Luis Enrique to the hardships of life as a professional coach, even at a club like Paris Saint-Germain, where seven different managers have tried things their way in the 12 years since December 2011. The 53-year-old has been applying his own philosophy since taking the reins in July, but the man in charge admits: “It’s a really long process. The goal is to open their minds. You need to create a collective idea, the one you believe is the best to win matches, both in attack and defence. 

“That entails some attitude changes, depending on the moment: knowing how to prepare for matches, how you should play depending on the scoreline, and whether or not we need to make substitutions. It’s like a jigsaw. You set the pieces and begin with the straight lines to build the frame. This is similar. How long does it take to build the frame? No idea! 

“It depends on the feedback the players give you. You want to make progress quickly, but that’s impossible. Just as it is with kids, the learning process is slow. You take two steps forward and then one step back, and over time the pieces might fall into place quicker than you expected.

“It’s beautiful, yet it can be frustrating because you’re asked to get results from the off, and when you don’t get them, it becomes tougher. Doubt creeps in. Here at PSG, from day one, I have to say I found the disposition of the club’s board to be amazing – it couldn’t be any better – and the attitude of all the players was great. Even though I can sometimes get frustrated, that gives me confidence. 

“What we’re trying to convey, to my players and our fans, is that we’ll approach matches in the same way, no matter if we end up playing well or not. But that’s the idea. That’s how we’re going to play. I love to convey this idea to my players because it’s appealing to think that you’ll have the ball much more and create more chances than the opposition.

“I don’t care if we are winning 2-0 or 3-0. We keep playing in the same way. If you do something right, repeat it over and over. It leads to perfection. I think this is very appealing, not only for the players but also the fans.”

The ultimate perfection, of course, would be to end the club’s long wait
for Champions League glory. But before he heads back to his (this time) static bicycle in the gym, Luis Enrique urges caution once again. “The only thing I don’t think would be good for the club, the city or the fans is for it to become an obsession. There’s a minimum of eight sides who can win that trophy, and the Champions League isn’t a competition which rewards consistency. 

“It’s not a normal league, nor a tournament that the best team of the year wins. You have to be on top form now to get through the group, then you’ve got to be very good again in March. There are a lot of factors and a lot of teams on our level who want to win it. That doesn’t mean we feel sorry for ourselves. No, it means we’re one of the favourites – call it what you want – to fight for it.

“The competition eventually starts putting teams where they should be, but in terms of potential, I don’t think there is anyone better than us. And I mean that. There are a lot of similar sides to us, and we have to give it our best shot in order to have a realistic chance. My approach and planning for it is one thing, but having a real chance is another.

“What’s important for us is not to be obsessed but excited and ambitious, because players who are scared never write their names in the history books. You can’t be scared – what’s the point in being scared?”

Words that come from his heart, just as much as from his brain. The words of an ultra-competitor. 

Insight
‘Best in the world’

Luis Enrique’s admiration for Kylian Mbappé has only soared since taking over as Paris coach 

As Luis Enrique chases success with Paris Saint-Germain, he is delighted to have a potent weapon in his armoury – forward Kylian Mbappé, who recently passed 300 goals for club and country at just 24 years of age.  

“I obviously knew Kylian as a footballer before coming to the club,” says the French side’s coach. “What I can add now is that the sheer amount of technical and physical potential he has reinforces that, right now, he’s without a shadow of a doubt the best player in the world. 

“He really is in the upper echelon of three or four elite players who can take it upon themselves to win a game single-handedly. For me, Kylian is number one. And even though it seems impossible, Kylian the person is even better than Kylian the player, purely because of what he brings off the field: his attitude, what he brings out of his team-mates, the smile on his face in every training session. 

“He’s demanding, he’s competitive. We’re lucky to have such a unique player who brings important values and is such a good role model for any young player or fan.” How long their association endures is anyone’s guess, but for now Luis Enrique has precisely the player he wants to lead the charge at the Parc des Princes.

If you’re a friend of Luis Enrique Martínez, you’ll regularly receive mobile phone pictures of deer, wild boar, wide-winged birds of prey, foxes or forests draped in snow. If you’re his really good friend, you’ll occasionally be asked to go through hell with him. 

The former stems from his need, his obsession, to use any spare time to pedal several hundred kilometres per week – sometimes by road, more often on mountain tracks or through dense wooded areas where the terrain is rough but the natural world is at its finest. The latter comes from the Paris Saint-Germain coach’s penchant for tilting at tortuous physical challenges, recruiting fellow buccaneers and then ‘achieving the unachievable’.

Few of us properly understand the regimen of an elite footballer. It’s a gilded, lucrative, often highly enjoyable prison. But something of a jail nonetheless. It’s hugely well rewarded, of course, but your time is rarely your own. Your family can often come off second best. Your body and your health are, in many ways, co-owned with the club which pays your salary. And although playing for a professional club is like working in a benign dictatorship, the fact remains that it’s not a democracy. 

What you eat, your hours at work, days off, your weight, what hobbies you have, how you de-stress, what you say or do in public – none of these are wholly in the hands of the individual player. In some instances, the rules which dictate your lifestyle are ironclad.

Once a career is finished, the bonds are broken. The prohibited is no longer proscribed – Thomas Gravesen went gambling in Las Vegas, Mathieu Flamini ventured into biochemical engineering (hugely successfully), Gareth Bale golfed (even more), Victor Valdés followed his passion for windsurfing, Romário and George Weah became politicians, while Gerard Piqué bought football clubs and the Davis Cup. 

Luis Enrique, by comparison, decided that he wanted to test his body, mind and character through extreme sport, up to and beyond what most people would consider the outer limits of human endurance. A clutch of marathons, triathlons, Ironman contests followed – and then the ultimate challenges. 

In 2008, he and ex-basketball star Toñín Llorente took on the Marathon des Sables. It’s a jaw-dropping commitment. Six straight days of running across the Sahara Desert to complete, or attempt to complete, a marathon per day. Almost inconceivable pain, mental torture and mile after endless mile of sand in both extremes of temperature, all of this while carrying your food on your back. 

Then, a couple of months before taking over in Paris, Luis Enrique assumed Lion King status. The Cape Epic is an eight-day race covering around 700km with some 17,000m of climbing. It’s the Tour de France of mountain biking, and finishing just once is a huge achievement. Finishing three times makes you a legend, earning you entry to the exclusive Amabubesi club.

A Zulu word, Amabubesi means ‘pride of lions’, and with Luis Enrique being the linchpin various teams have functioned around, that makes him the leader of the pride. And what that means for Paris Saint-Germain is that the French side are now being sculpted and reset by a man whose communicative talents, coaching ability and commitment to front-foot, daring, attacking football are matched by his burning desire to test himself to, and beyond, breaking point. 

He agreed to meet at the club’s new training ground in Poissy, about 40 minutes west of central Paris, and explain a little bit about his side passion. About his apparent need to suffer.

“I do like to undertake extreme tests and I don’t know exactly why,” he says. “I simply like it. I always felt very lucky to be a professional footballer and I really enjoyed my career. But I remember in the last few years telling my team-mates that as soon as I stopped playing football, I’d start running marathons, long-distance challenges, bike races… I wanted all the things professional football doesn’t allow you to do when you’re playing – skiing, for example. I only learned to ski when I was 38.

Luis Enrique with Juan Carlos Unzué (top right); Luis Enrique and his team-mates after completing the 2023 Cape Epic (right)

“I’ve always had that competitive aspect – it’s what I enjoy the most, regardless of the sport. We all want experiences to give us something positive. That’s the spark you’re looking for. But when you retro-analyse things, you realise that the worst times are when you learn the most. Negative situations leave the deepest memories, not only in sport but also in life.” 

That’s a phrase to return to. We must if the aim is to understand this energetic, pugnacious and hugely talented man a little better. But, for the moment, more about his leonine status. He happily warms to his theme: “There’s a famous race in South Africa, which we mountain bikers know, called the Cape Epic. The pain of competing is quite sharp. An Amabubesi is someone who manages to complete this race in three different years, consecutive or not. They join the Amabubesi club, and I’m one of the relatively few people in it. 

“The race takes place each year in March/April, and you’re on a mountain bike for one week, or eight days. Each stage is about 80 to 110km. There are some shorter 20 to 30km stretches. The conditions are what they are: if it rains, it rains. If it’s very hot, it’s very hot. These are endurance races and you get to share these experiences with professionals, even if only on the campus. It’s a test I really appreciate.”

In the past, one of the many friends who volunteered to go to hell and back was former Barcelona goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, Luis Enrique’s assistant coach while winning the treble with the Blaugrana in 2014/15. This year, Luis Enrique’s team wore Unzué’s name on the back of their shirts. The 56-year-old now suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), formerly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mobility has been devastated and, wheelchair bound, his challenges have changed dramatically, from the ‘who dares wins’ variety to the involuntary and unavoidable kind. 

“Carrying Juan Carlos’ name on our backs was a way of bringing awareness to his ALS. He’s an example for all of us – always a positive attitude, no matter what life throws at him. Juan Carlos is a great motivator and inspires all of us in my group of friends. We used the number he wore when he was a goalkeeper, the number one, and ‘Unzué’. Our way of dedicating our effort to him.”

But if rising to Amabubesi status sounds difficult (catch him in a rare moment of self-assessment and Luis Enrique will admit that this year’s Cape Epic was his toughest yet… and that age might just be a factor), it’s nothing compared to what he went through while traversing the Sahara on foot. 

“The hardest challenge I’ve done, where the competition caused me the most pain, was the Marathon des Sables. It’s a mighty challenge and extremely tough because you have to rely on yourself for one week and you’re running a daily marathon through the desert. You can do a double marathon one day and then the next day only 20km; self-reliance implies you bring and carry your own food, your own bed. These circumstances are very different from the day-to-day life of a normal person. They take you out of your comfort zone and force you to experience new things in life.”

He ran with sand in his socks and shoes, bleeding feet and blisters causing him misery. His team-mate, equally determined to finish, was reduced to walking most of the final two days. Luis Enrique drove himself on by repeating over and over in his head that if he didn’t finish then, by some demonic vicarious process, he’d be doing damage to his family. 

A small madness, but it eventually got him to, and across, the tape. “Being competitive is a hallmark of everyone in any professional sport. But it shouldn’t be a blind obsession. In my case, it’s one of the reasons I keep on embracing personal challenges.”

I don’t think it’s inappropriate, here, to remind readers that, in his private life, Luis Enrique suffered one of the most painful experiences imaginable. When Barcelona won the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin, he and his youngest child, Xana, gambolled around the pitch post-match, dancing in a joyful father-daughter celebration that dad’s work was done for the season, that it had been historically successful and summer was coming. 

Four years later, Xana’s bone-cancer diagnosis turned out to be terminal. Luis and Elena lost their beautiful daughter, Pacho and Sira their lovely sister. Luis Enrique had temporarily stood down from his job as Spain coach, went through a few months of mourning and then, typically, threw himself straight back into work. 

“We all want experiences to give us something positive, but the worst times are when you learn the most”

He and his family are keen to have Xana talked about, commemorated to keep her spirit and memory alive. It’s my personal perspective, having talked to him quite often about the subject, that his immense capacity to test himself, to find strength in physical suffering, unintentionally prepared him for the greatest agony a parent can suffer. But when he says of his endurance sports that “the worst times are the ones when you learn the most,” it’s a phrase that resonates beyond the athletic realm. 

Having endured such anguish has doubtless inured Luis Enrique to the hardships of life as a professional coach, even at a club like Paris Saint-Germain, where seven different managers have tried things their way in the 12 years since December 2011. The 53-year-old has been applying his own philosophy since taking the reins in July, but the man in charge admits: “It’s a really long process. The goal is to open their minds. You need to create a collective idea, the one you believe is the best to win matches, both in attack and defence. 

“That entails some attitude changes, depending on the moment: knowing how to prepare for matches, how you should play depending on the scoreline, and whether or not we need to make substitutions. It’s like a jigsaw. You set the pieces and begin with the straight lines to build the frame. This is similar. How long does it take to build the frame? No idea! 

“It depends on the feedback the players give you. You want to make progress quickly, but that’s impossible. Just as it is with kids, the learning process is slow. You take two steps forward and then one step back, and over time the pieces might fall into place quicker than you expected.

“It’s beautiful, yet it can be frustrating because you’re asked to get results from the off, and when you don’t get them, it becomes tougher. Doubt creeps in. Here at PSG, from day one, I have to say I found the disposition of the club’s board to be amazing – it couldn’t be any better – and the attitude of all the players was great. Even though I can sometimes get frustrated, that gives me confidence. 

“What we’re trying to convey, to my players and our fans, is that we’ll approach matches in the same way, no matter if we end up playing well or not. But that’s the idea. That’s how we’re going to play. I love to convey this idea to my players because it’s appealing to think that you’ll have the ball much more and create more chances than the opposition.

“I don’t care if we are winning 2-0 or 3-0. We keep playing in the same way. If you do something right, repeat it over and over. It leads to perfection. I think this is very appealing, not only for the players but also the fans.”

The ultimate perfection, of course, would be to end the club’s long wait
for Champions League glory. But before he heads back to his (this time) static bicycle in the gym, Luis Enrique urges caution once again. “The only thing I don’t think would be good for the club, the city or the fans is for it to become an obsession. There’s a minimum of eight sides who can win that trophy, and the Champions League isn’t a competition which rewards consistency. 

“It’s not a normal league, nor a tournament that the best team of the year wins. You have to be on top form now to get through the group, then you’ve got to be very good again in March. There are a lot of factors and a lot of teams on our level who want to win it. That doesn’t mean we feel sorry for ourselves. No, it means we’re one of the favourites – call it what you want – to fight for it.

“The competition eventually starts putting teams where they should be, but in terms of potential, I don’t think there is anyone better than us. And I mean that. There are a lot of similar sides to us, and we have to give it our best shot in order to have a realistic chance. My approach and planning for it is one thing, but having a real chance is another.

“What’s important for us is not to be obsessed but excited and ambitious, because players who are scared never write their names in the history books. You can’t be scared – what’s the point in being scared?”

Words that come from his heart, just as much as from his brain. The words of an ultra-competitor. 

Insight
‘Best in the world’

Luis Enrique’s admiration for Kylian Mbappé has only soared since taking over as Paris coach 

As Luis Enrique chases success with Paris Saint-Germain, he is delighted to have a potent weapon in his armoury – forward Kylian Mbappé, who recently passed 300 goals for club and country at just 24 years of age.  

“I obviously knew Kylian as a footballer before coming to the club,” says the French side’s coach. “What I can add now is that the sheer amount of technical and physical potential he has reinforces that, right now, he’s without a shadow of a doubt the best player in the world. 

“He really is in the upper echelon of three or four elite players who can take it upon themselves to win a game single-handedly. For me, Kylian is number one. And even though it seems impossible, Kylian the person is even better than Kylian the player, purely because of what he brings off the field: his attitude, what he brings out of his team-mates, the smile on his face in every training session. 

“He’s demanding, he’s competitive. We’re lucky to have such a unique player who brings important values and is such a good role model for any young player or fan.” How long their association endures is anyone’s guess, but for now Luis Enrique has precisely the player he wants to lead the charge at the Parc des Princes.

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