Assuming the role of national team coach comes with great peril. It puts managers in a position where they are representing an entire country in competition that often transcends mere sport. The manager has a chance to attain a legendary status that can have lasting effects on their career, legacy and even on the direction of football in their country. However, an abyss filled with fiery despair sits between accepting the position and this glory.
Setting a national side’s roster can be some tricky business. No need to look past the media fire storm that Roy Hodgson has had to endure to confirm that. National team selections are often viewed as all-star selections in other sports. It is validation that the selected are the best players in their country. All-star squads are not always the best current players in the sport. Players are often chosen due to popularity or as a sort-of lifetime achievement award. When a single manager (as opposed to a consensus) is making these selections these types of players are less likely to get called upon. However, if they don’t make these picks the manager is going to feel the pressure. This ready-made point of contention will come out quick if the team fails to perform.
It is clearly in the best interest for the manager (and therefore the national team) to select a squad that will play well together and match a tactical approach that he/she will employ (assuming they have one). The problem with choosing a squad for tactics is that tactics generally require time. That is something a national team manager does not have the luxury of. All of the work that would come in during training time simply doesn’t exist. How can players know their role and how those roles work with the others on the pitch in such a short amount of time? How can the manager know how the players will perform in their roles with others around them? These things come with time. It can get really ugly.
Football history is littered with managers who had lasting impacts on the game at the club level but were unable to replicate that success on the international stage. Jonathan Wilson’s great book, Inverting the Pyramid points out a few, such as: Ukrainian Valeri Lobanovskyi and Argentine Osvaldo Zubeldia. They used the day-to-day training with their players to make a well-oiled unit. But lacking the amount of interaction with the national team, they came up short.
Sven-Goran Eriksson had a promising coaching career in the 80s which blossomed in to great success in the 90s. He led both Benfica and Lazio to great success and trophy-laden cases. Then he took the England manager’s position. These could be the fatal last words to many upward trending careers. Yet, Eriksson was not a train wreck of a manager for England. He at least led England to their typical performances. I can’t say the same for his work with El Tri. Nothing went right during Eriksson’s eight months in Mexico. But things didn’t get better for him. In October, Eriksson was sacked from English Championship division squad, Leicester City. He led teams to the Scudetto and a runner’s up in the Euros. Now Leicester City has fired him.
Things can even look great for the national team manager before they turn south, and when they do those prior successes are melted away quickly. Raymond Domenech led his French national team to the World Cup Final in 2006. He was a Zidane head butt away from capturing the ultimate prize. Two years later in the lead-up to Euro 2008, he was accused of treating his players as slaves. At the last World Cup, his squad led a player revolt that was probably the lowest point for the French national team in its history. Domenech is now retired.
The greatest successes for national teams have a lot in common. When a well defined mode of play is employed with the national squad that is already ingrained in the majority of the players, the job of the manager becomes a whole lot easier. For years, managers of the Italian national team needed little time to organize their squad. So many of their players plied their trade in Italy, and so many Italian teams employed a similar defensive style. Historically, no squad has consistently looked more like a cohesive unit than that of the Germans. In the past, a large number of national team players came from few clubs. In recent years, a more deliberate approach has been taken. Jurgen Klinsmann details the strategy here. If all players learn a similar style of play from early on, when this “all star squad” is formed the cohesiveness should foster much more easily. The situation that Vincente del Bosque has found himself in speaks to this as well. The in-fashion style passing game of the Spanish had led the national team to great recent successes. This is a method of play that is thoroughly ingrained in the majority of their players from an early age. It also doesn’t hurt that so many of their players have come from only two club teams.
Nearly two years ago Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was named manager of the Mexican national team. Since then he has done little to disappoint. He led El Tri to a championship in his first tournament with the squad, the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. His squad has looked solid in friendly competition. This is all through trouble with players not getting club playing time, tainted meat scandals, and of course questions over player call-ups. Chepo’s most recent success came this past weekend in the squad’s final friendly before World Cup qualifying begins. Mexico defeated the Brazilian squad 2-0 on Sunday. It was just a friendly match with a less than perfect Brazil squad, but it was not the final result that made the lasting impression. The overall play of Mexico was ridiculously impressive. They played like a squad that had a single vision. They played as a real unit. They were able to play superior team defense and stifle Brazil’s strong attacks. There was a real game plan in play. This is with a team consisting of players scattered across Mexico and Europe. The use of Severo Meza and Jorge Torres Nilo in the back looks like a master stroke. Chepo’s stock could not be higher at the moment.
Mexico is expected to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. They usually do. But if they do it in less than stellar fashion, will Chepo come in to question? And what will be expected of this Chepo-led squad in the World Cup? If things go poorly for Mexico in the World Cup, will we remember how impressive Chepo was in his first two years on the job?
Considering the great risk that come with being appointed a national team manager, one has to wonder where the motivation comes from to even accept the position. If a manager is taking the role in their home country it is a chance to become a legend. Leading your country could come with a sense of duty and the possibility of lasting glory. If the manager is taking the reins of a foreign squad, they could be looking at the oversized check, the potential career springboard, or maybe just free time. Flying around and “scouting” players from luxury boxes beats the regular season grind. Taking one of these jobs is a gamble. In some countries it’s blackjack and some the daily lottery. The chances of striking gold are not equal. Or maybe if we look to Sven, it’s not really much of gamble at all.