How Barcelona 'keeper coach Jon Pascua learned to lead from the heart in Africa

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Barcelona goalkeeper coach Jon Pascua, a man of meticulous preparation according to his former charges, honed his craft in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns, and says the biggest lesson he learned in Africa was to coach from the heart.

Barca are unbeaten since returning from the COVID-19 break in early June, and goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen has been key to that strong restart, thanks in some part to Pascua, who joined the club in January along with embattled manager Quique Setien.

By Pascua's own admission, he had limited influence over his goalkeepers during the three-month absence of competitive football, given he had less than two months with them before that, coaching alongside fellow GK mentor Jose Ramon de la Fuente, who is Ter Stegen's primary coach.

But evidence from the defending champions' first five matches back in action suggests Ter Stegen followed all given advice regardless. The German, showing little sign of ring rust, added four clean sheets on the trot in wins over Mallorca, Leganés and Athletic Club and a draw against Sevilla, before a 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo.

Pascua learned plenty about adapting to difficult situations, though none as demanding as a global pandemic, during his stint at Sundowns from 2010 to 2015, helping the then-struggling club become one of the powerhouses of African football.

Brought in from Spain's CD Badajoz to work under Antonio López Habas, he was in uncharted territory at what was then a minor club in Pretoria. Pascua weathered the storm and left with a South African Premier Division title to his name.

He survived López Habas' exit and went on to work under Ian Gorowa, Johan Neeskens, and current coach Pitso Mosimane.

Pascua picked up a valuable coaching skill, which during these uncertain times has been more significant than ever.

He told ESPN: "The greatest career lesson was learning to coach from the heart.

"From designing training methodology for the goalkeeper that is aimed at supporting and nurturing their talent and developing it even further, to having to know when to isolate myself from European ways and rather customise, while searching for answers within the environment I was in.

"Most of these lessons, I only realised after leaving the country and over time."

Orlando Pirates 'keeper Wayne Sandilands, who was the number one stopper at Sundowns for much of the time Pascua was there, agreed with the coach's takeaway.

Sandilands told ESPN: "Not only was he a good goalkeeper coach in terms of his knowledge of the game, and the way he orchestrated training, but he was a coach who understood the humanities side of a player.

"He would really try to look at the human being first and the footballer afterwards.

"It was amazing to see that he's now the [goalkeeper] coach of Barcelona, Who would have even thought that? It's amazing -- I'm really happy for him. I just think it's like a fairytale story, almost."

Nevertheless, he knows Pascua's rise did not come about by chance: "He's at that level, and what he's given to football, football has rewarded him with.

"If I look at Real Betis and their goalkeepers, Pau López has signed for Roma, so he's gone on to better things. That's the 'keeper he was coaching. I think [Pascua's] work speaks for itself."

While veteran Sandilands continues to hold onto his Pirates place, another of Pascua's former Sundowns players has become a coach himself. Calvin Marlin, who battled Sandilands for a starting berth at Sundowns, is now the caretaker coach at Ajax Cape Town.

His best years as a player were arguably behind him by the time he began working under Pascua. But although it is said that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks, Marlin learned a fresh approach to his craft under his last Sundowns goalkeeper coach.

"He brought a different thinking towards training, and a lot of video analysis," Marlin recalled.

"That's something that we never really had in the past -- that you'd sit and watch your game and analyse it through your video. You'd watch your game in a way, but not the way he used to look at it.

"I think there are a lot more [South African] clubs that are doing that, they're using video analysis a lot more than before, but under him it was pretty much the first time I was exposed to it.

"He was a lot more focused on your ability with the ball at your feet -- playing out and becoming a lot more comfortable with that. I spent a lot of time doing that. Movement was something he spent a lot of time working on, so that kind of thing has just stuck with me all the time."

Just as Africa left its mark on Pascua, so too did he leave behind a lasting legacy on goalkeeping on the continent as a whole.

Uganda international Denis Onyango, who joined Sundowns under his watch and initially struggled for game time, went on to make the CAF Team of the Year in 2016 and 2018.

"In the early years of my five-year tenure at Mamelodi Sundowns, Denis Onyango did not play because Wayne Sandilands had an advantage over him for the work he had been doing," Pascua recounted.

"After two years of work and on his return from loan, games were piling up and Denis started to compete, showcasing his potential - which I always knew he had.

"By the time I left the club, Denis was at his peak and solidified his place at Mamelodi Sundowns. The secret? All the work we did with him behind the scenes for more than two years when he was not playing."

According to Pascua, who has worked at Athletic Club B and Real Betis, the Ugandan shot-stopper could have succeeded in Europe had he been given the same advantages.

"Undoubtedly, he would have had the potential to play in Europe if he was born here and his talent was nurtured from a very young age -- the age of nine or 10 years, as is the norm here," Pascua said.

"With this, African goalkeepers haven't been well-regarded in Europe and I do not agree. Africa has a lot of talent, but not many specialised goalkeeping coaches working at the development, and that is important.

"Many goalkeepers in Africa become professionals without specific training, which works to their disadvantage compared to the European goalkeeper."

After leaving Sundowns, Pascua Ibarrola spent a year as the Philippines national team's goalkeeper coach, before moving to Betis and then Barcelona under Setién.

The task of improving a world class goalkeeper such as Ter Stegen is not easy, but Pascua is utilising the same meticulous approach which has served him well previously, even though he's not the German stopper's main coach.

"There is always a need to improve, but it is also true that the best talent requires less room to manoeuvre," he said.

"For me, coaching must be directed towards the development of the talent of the player and to his improvement. So with the best of the best, you have to go to very specific details -- the coaching experience and your knowledge as a coach help you to do this.

"Thereafter, you have [to look at] how those aspects which you work on together will have a good impact and improve the goalkeeper's game."

Away from the net, one of the joys of Barcelona training for Pascua is that he is able to witness the magic of Lionel Messi up close. Despite his belief that even the best players can fine-tune aspects of their game, he struggles to envision how football can find an improved version of the Argentine superstar.

"Lionel Messi is the most unique football player in the world," Pascua said, adding: "He is intelligent, fast, strong, precise, scores goals, makes goals [with] passes, understands the game like nobody else and has an exquisite technique.

"It will be hard to ever find another player as talented with such consistent performance."

Life for Pascua now is worlds away from what he experienced at Sundowns, but to their credit, his former club has continued to thrive. They have won four of the last six Premier Division titles and their 2016 CAF Champions League triumph was only the second ever by a South African club.

"I keep in touch with many [former Sundowns colleagues] with some sporadic messages or through WhatsApp and on social networks," Pascua revealed.

"Part of me is still Mamelodi Sundowns, as I care about the club, and I regularly go on the internet to view their performance and results.

"Moving to a new country is exciting, stimulating and exhilarating. With this, there were very tough months, but not a single day goes that I don't miss the club, the country and the people I met along the way."