VfB Stuttgart head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo has lived an incredible journey from growing up in New York with Italian parents to becoming a coach in the Bundesliga, earning a mathematics degree along the way.
Speaking to bundesliga.com, Matarazzo opens up on his journey from the US to Stuttgart, deciding in favour of a coaching job ahead of an office job and how his friendship with RB Leipzig head coach Julian Nagelsmann has helped shape his coaching style.
bundesliga.com: How do you feel about being a head coach in the Bundesliga?
Pellegrino Matarazzo: "It's a fantastic feeling to have such a big responsibility at a club like Stuttgart. It's a club with so much history and culture and such a big fanbase. I'm very excited for the opportunity and for the chance to work with the guys on the team. I think we have a very good team on board and a good spirit in the team, as well as good people at management level. I have a good feeling about everyone on board and look forward to the season."
bundesliga.com: Stuttgart are 5th in the all-time Bundesliga table and the city is home to many high-tech and world-renowned companies. How big is the sense of expectation at Stuttgart, even as a newly-promoted team in the Bundesliga?
Matarazzo: "Of course, we sense the pressure from our surroundings, but I think it's important to filter that pressure before it reaches the players. The players need to be free and have a clear head, an open mind and have a good feeling about being on the pitch. I understand the responsibility, but it is important to filter that pressure before it gets to the players."
bundesliga.com: What aims and expectations do you have for this season?
Matarazzo: "I think we have a very young and inexperienced squad and we have only just got back into the first division, so it's realistic to have the goal to stay in the league for the coming season. Anything above that will be a positive surprise."
bundesliga.com: Your parents were Italian immigrants and you grew up in New Jersey. How did your passion for football develop?
Matarazzo: "That's a question that goes far back into my past. My parents are Italian immigrants who came to the United States to find work and they carried the passion for the game with them. I think my dad was the first one to instil that passion in me. Growing up with my brothers and cousins, we always had a soccer ball lying around when we were together and that was a big part of it. It wasn't always easy growing up in New Jersey in the States because soccer wasn't a very popular sport at that time. It grew during my time and when I was in college, it had a certain acceptance. I realised after college that I wanted to continue to stay in the game and this is why I took the step to go overseas and come to Germany."
Watch: Matarazzo's side earned their first three points of the season at Mainz!
bundesliga.com: You woke up in the early hours to watch European football on TV. What are your childhood memories of football?
Matarazzo: "We used to watch soccer games on my father's little TV in his bedroom and we used to lay in his bed together when I was little and watch the Serie A games very early in the morning. That was the beginning and we used to watch Napoli battle against AC Milan at the time when AC Milan was also very strong. Those were good times."
bundesliga.com: When did you first become aware of the Bundesliga?
Matarazzo: "I didn't watch the Bundesliga at that time. There was nothing being broadcast overseas in the States and there was pretty much just Serie A at that time when I was growing up. In the time before I came over to Germany, I started to hear about teams like Bayern [Munich] and [Borussia] Dortmund in the Champions League and I followed the bigger clubs. But it was only when I first came to Germany that I gained a big interest in the Bundesliga."
bundesliga.com: How much did you know about American players, such as Wynalda or Dooley, in the Bundesliga?
Matarazzo: "To be honest, I didn't watch them much when they came over because it was hard to watch the games when we were in the States. You heard about them in the news a bit, but not as much as I'd have liked to. It was a long time ago and I don't think I'm the right expert to give them a comment on their styles of play. Of course, I know who they are and I know a bit about how they play, but I'm not an expert."
Watch: The top US talent in the Bundesliga met up for a chat!
bundesliga.com: What role do football and the Bundesliga play in the United States?
Matarazzo: "They've made a big step in the United States with developing talents, and interest in the sport has grown a lot over the years. The coaches are getting better and there are established academies, so you see a lot of US talents coming overseas and doing well over here. The Bundesliga is a great platform for young talents coming over from the States, or even for those coming from England or France. A lot of people recognise that young players are getting a chance to show themselves in the Bundesliga and there are young coaches who are also courageous enough to give them a chance. It's a good fit and I'm excited to see how the young American players do this season."
bundesliga.com: How has football developed in the United States?
Matarazzo: "Of course, it hasn't grown bigger than the NFL or basketball or baseball because these are just big cultural sports that have deep roots, but the interest has grown and there are a lot of young boys and girls playing soccer. It's not the 'girls' sport' anymore because at the time when I used to play soccer in the States it was frowned upon. This isn't the case anymore."
bundesliga.com: How was your time as a footballer in New York, in The Bronx, and at Columbia University?
Matarazzo: "The time in New York was fantastic and I grew a lot with that experience and playing soccer. We had to take a subway or one of the small buses almost to The Bronx to get to our soccer field and everything was closed in. It was a nice complex, but you didn't want to go too far away from the complex because you didn't feel very safe. It was still possible to get passionate about the game and to have the camaraderie on the team with the guys. Playing soccer and being part of a team was also a big part of my time at Columbia University."
bundesliga.com: In New York, the German coach and former US national team player Dieter Ficken was a great inspiration for you. What are your memories of him?
Matarazzo: "Dieter was a German coach who had some German expressions which I didn't really understand at the time, but now I do understand what everything meant. He was there for all four years."
bundesliga.com: You achieved top grades at school, you have a mathematics degree, and you had a prestigious offer to become an investment banker. Instead, you went as an unknown footballer to the fourth division in Germany. Why?
Matarazzo: "Because I wasn't ready to go into the office. I always had that spirit of adventure in me and I was very curious to know if I could play soccer at a high level, so the step to Germany was as a footballer and not as a coach. The step towards becoming a coach came about at the end of my soccer career when I realised I had a feeling of unfulfillment. I always enjoyed coaching at camps when I was younger, so I realised that it might be a good way to stay in the game. When that fork in the road came about whether or not I was going to be a coach or go back to the States and get a real job, I decided to stay in the game."
bundesliga.com: Are you able to use your academic background in football?
Matarazzo: "I think football is not mathematics, but a lot of the decisions you need to make are based on logic and systems. I think analysing situations and going into detail on certain topics is one of my strengths, but running a team is more about leading a group of human beings. This is not maths and instead, you need to know how to feel, talk, and communicate. It may be an advantage to one part of the game, but it's not everything."
bundesliga.com: How difficult was it to break into German football as an unknown American student?
Matarazzo: "It was certainly difficult. Not being from the country and having not played 200 Bundesliga matches, you need to prove your worth through content and quality. There were no gifts being given to my person and I needed to earn every step of the way. In that case, if you make that comparison, then yes, there is a disadvantage."
bundesliga.com: Julian Nagelsmann was your rival in the Junior Bundesliga, your roommate during your license training, and you were his assistant at Hoffenheim. How much of an influence have you had on each other?
Matarazzo: "It was a conscious decision to share the same room. I knew Julian before our soccer licences because we played against each other several times with the U19 teams. We decided to share a room because we have always had mutual respect for one another. The time during the licences was not as important as the time he pulled me up to his first team to be an assistant coach where we worked together at a higher level. That one and a half years was more important to fill in certain gaps and to confirm certain ideas that I always had within me. Of course, we have similar styles, but they're not the same styles and there are differences. It was important to sense who I am and who I want to be and I wanted to see what works and what I needed to change. I don't think it was the football that I learned from him, but rather one or two topics of gap-filling. His principles in the offensive third and the way he structured them are very interesting. I learned a lot from the way he trained them on the pitch and a lot was confirmation because I don't think he would have pulled me up to the first team if we didn't have similar ideas of how we wanted to play."
Matarazzo: "Reyna is doing a fantastic job. I like the way he moves on the field and I like his vision and passing technique. He's very creative, good on the ball, and very quick. Mateo Klimowicz is also a player with immeasurable potential in the way he moves and his speed of thought. He sees the space to make the run very quickly and when his finishing starts getting stronger, he's going to have a fantastic career. I prefer not to make a comparison to their fathers because I think those comparisons are made too often. We need to get the players away from making that comparison because they should see themselves for who they are. That's the way I approach Mateo Klimowicz and his development is to make sure that he knows that he's not his father and that he has his own strengths."
bundesliga.com: What is your vision for VfB Stuttgart?
Matarazzo: "I'm sort of living it but, to be honest, it's not over yet. I prefer to focus on where I am right now and my goal is to be as successful as I can be at VfB Stuttgart. The rest will show itself when it's time."
bundesliga.com: You're an American with Italian roots who lives in Germany. How are you shaped by your various cultures?
Matarazzo: "I don't know anymore! I prefer to think that I take the best of each culture, but I'm sure that there are some parts of me that also soak up the negative aspects. I'm just a mix and I am who I am and I appreciate every culture. I appreciate the Italian culture and I've learned from the German culture immensely in the last years that I've been here. Of course, growing up in the States has also had an impact on who I am."