Badalona Dracs HC Oscar Calatayud draws on shortened playing career for European coaching success

Every football career comes to an end. If you’re a part of the lucky few, you get to bow out on your own terms. Most see the door closed as their talent fades or the level available to them exceeds their ability. Some see their bodies devastated, simply unable to take the field again.

That’s a story that Oscar Calatayud knows all too well. Coming of age in Spain during the late ’90s, he experienced a much different brand of American football than the one we know today. It was an era of dirt field where American coaches were still a rarity and without the internet most Spanish staffs found their strategies in the tattered pages of books written in the 1960s that detailed cutting edge concepts for their era but were now horribly outdated.

“At that time, football and coaching were not developed and I paid the consequences over time,” Calatayud now admits.

He played wherever he was needed in that rough and tumble world, starting out as a quarterback and even helping out in the trenches in a pinch before finding his niche as a receiver and free safety. As a young player with the Badalona Dracs in 1998, Calatayud won a national title under one of the first coaches to revolutionize Spanish football, Mexican Carlos Barocio-Leon, and saw his talents take him further afield. He spent a season in Mexico playing for the Universidad de Las Americas and then a season with the Swarco Raiders in Austria before returning to Badalona. By the age of 26, Calatayud’s body was wrecked. He’d already had six or seven surgeries for various injuries and doctors were telling him he had to hang up is cleats. The Dracs were in equally rough shape, facing severe budgetary difficulties, and the successful organization was in dire need of a reconstruction. The board turned to the retiring Calatayud to fill its vacant head coaching position in 2005 and the rest is history.

In the 15 years since he exited the game as a player and first picked up the coaches whistle, Calatayud has helped shape the Badalona Dracs into a Spanish powerhouse, including winning the last four straight LNFA titles. More importantly however, the Dracs have become a competitive entity in European competition, a remarkable feat for a team coming from one of the continent’s weaker football nations.

“It is true Spain is far from being a European power. Nobody can argue that, it would be foolish. We are well below most major leagues.” Calatayud explains. “France is just over the mountains, but the players there are more athletic. You go to Italy and it’s the same. They are taller, faster and stronger. That’s the advantage of a bigger player pool. And when we play them, they see a team from Spain and they think it’s easy. They will just run the ball and kill you.”

Photo: 1st Down Photo

Yet somehow despite this deficit, the Dracs have proved themselves capable of competing with the upper echelon of European club teams. In acknowledging the odds stacked against them, Calatayud has shaped a strategy for growing a winning team.

“If you understand this [deficit], then you actually have a chance to be competitive and win games,” he says. “That has been the change for the Dracs over the last 15 years.”

How does a European welterweight land punches on the heavyweight champ? Simply by playing to your team’s strength. The Dracs have learned to spread the field and play fast on the perimeter, forcing bigger teams to play by their rules.

“Its important to have a playbook and strategies that play to the strengths of Spain. We don’t really have the possibility to run the ball, for example. If you play in Germany or in France, you have the types of players to run the ball. Here you have to throw the ball and you have to complete it fast because you don’t have the same strength in pass protection,” Calatayud says. “You usually don’t have the advantage of having the bigger, stronger guys.”

That quick passing strategy has worked extremely well for Badalona both at home and abroad, but it also has an added advantage that is extremely important to their head coach. By spreading the ball wide and focusing on the passing game, the smaller Dracs absorb less contact and don’t fall victim to the war of attrition in the run game. Year after year, Calatayud’s team finishes as one of the healthiest in Europe, something the coach sees as his proudest accomplishment.

“A lot of it is my experience. I lost my career to injury. There are still players on my team that I played with,” he says. “It’s very important to me that the players stay healthy.”

Don’t mistake this strategy for softness or pure sympathy however. Calatayud’s teams benefit in the short and long term from his focus on health. Star players are rarely unavailable, the team is always fresh for important games and their development is never hampered.

“The strategy is this: if you don’t have injuries you will have better players,” he says with conviction. “You have more time to work on them, more time to practice. After five or six seasons with very few injuries, you’ve had the possibility to improve as a team because players aren’t missing time and facing setbacks.”

As a result, the Dracs are able to remain competitive in their annual European games, even after the rigors of a LNFA season. Badalona is the only Spanish team that routinely plays out of country, only missing out this year because of the pandemic. It’s a feature of the club that Calatayud believes is essential to their success.

“We don’t practice for the Spanish championship, we practice for the European games,” he says. “These are very hard games but the experience for the players is very important, so that they understand there is another level. That you have to work harder, play faster and have more intensity to win the game.”

Those are things Calatayud tries to convey to his team every practice.

“I try to always stay aggressive, always stay yelling,” he admits. “The intensity is hard for me, its hard for the players, but its good for the team. You don’t train for last season or to win the last game, you train for the next play.”

The results speak for themselves. The Dracs have become firmly established as Spain’s best team, creeping ever closer to European top ten consideration. Calatayud has himself earned the reputation as one of the continent’s best homegrown coaches, so far winning five national championships, including the last four straight, and recording his 43rd consecutive victory in Spanish action earlier this month. It’s personal praise that the coach is uncomfortable accepting. Humble by nature, he’s too aware of the mistakes he’s made along the way and all the other people who have helped get him to this point.  But there is something else there as well, a “competitiveness that borders on disease” he calls it, that doesn’t allow him to revel in past accomplishments.

“I fight in everything, that is the most important thing to me. To fight for every point,” he explains. “It’s hard mentally but that is the point. To work and to fight. My job is just to make everyone understand that this fight is important.”

Inside the coach, the player ripped from the field too soon still longs to escape and his competitive fire can never be satisfied. That will continue to be the case when the new Spanish season resumes after the holidays and the Dracs look to claim their fifth straight league title. Even though Calatayud has discovered a smarter way to battle on the field, the fight is no less fierce and the standard is raised yearly.

“Our pressure is not to win the championship, our greatest pressure is not to lose the next game. When a team dominates a league for so long, what it seeks is not to lose dominance,” he says. “You cannot lose any of the fourth quarters, you cannot afford two bad offensive series in a row. Any drop in intensity or play is considered a weakness by the other teams.”

That’s something Oscar Calatayud has yet to show as a coach. While his playing career may have come to an abrupt end, his upward coaching trend is one you can expect to continue for years to come.

Photo: 1st Down Photo.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.