At work with volatile talent

A. VINOD

IT is quite easy to define the role of a coach. For, a coach is a person who, at any level of the game, puts out his team and decides on its strategies. And during a match he has the right to make three substitutions, generally to replace an injured player, strengthen his team in desired departments or allow for a make or break situation depending upon the pace of play.

But beyond this simple theory what is often overlooked are the other responsibilities that a coach has to shoulder in the discharge of his duties, all the while keeping in mind the best interests of his team. Indeed, not an easy task when one also has to combine diverse passions, interests and opinions in the making of the team and ensuring its success, especially in a campaign where nothing less than the World Cup is at stake.

Ask Bora Milutinovic, the 'miracle man' who, despite having secured his place in history, is now under pressure to ensure that China, like the other four teams earlier under his charge, reaches at least the second round in the World Cup. The genial Serb, given his experience, might be made of a different mould when he puts up a brave front, "Every country has to have some goals as you need to know where you are in world soccer. And if you don't have a realistic goal this is a tragedy."

But then, Milu's realism, as he explains further, only shows that it is a self-evolved mantra, like that of any other good coach, to keep his players motivated throughout in what is going to be a tough campaign. "During the World Cup, with one win and one good tie we will have the possibility to advance. But you can't win unless you bring in everything - tactics, physical conditioning and mental preparation. The biggest challenge facing the team is to play without pressure. If they can play without pressure it will be perfect."

Bora, for sure, might be an exception having taken Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Nigeria into the second round through the last four World Cups. But, it could be a different story altogether for someone like Marcelo Bielsa who has suddenly been left behind with an amazing sequence of injuries to his key players. And, who is still unsure whether to go to the World Cup unless and until the Argentine FA clears all the salary arrears due to him.

Of course, it would be hard for Bielsa to quietly put in his papers after having worked wonders with his team right through the qualifiers and having helped it earn the 'favourite' tag to win the World Cup in Asia. A third-title triumph for Argentina could well be a defining moment in his own career that no riches can compensate. Perhaps, what also sets Bielsa apart is his understanding of the techniques and the tactics which he has sewn into the Argentine squad by now.

Bielsa, in fact, after being brought from Espanyol in Spain, in 1998, to replace Daniel Passarella as national boss was criticised initially for bringing too European a style to the Argentine team when he chose the unconventional 3-3-1-3 formation compared to the 4-4-2 disposition that was used by his predecessors. However, relying heavily on Juan Sebastian Veron, in a free role, and a dynamic, fast, attacking style that focussed on pressuring opposing sides when in possession, Bielsa has only gone from strength to strength while leading Argentina to an unbeaten 17-match run through the last one year.

That he is no longer referred to as "El Loco" (the madman) is itself a tribute to the tactical genius of Bielsa who has also been successful in blending the traditional Argentine skills within a more rigid European team ethic. Exactly what the much harangued Luis Felipe Scolari, his Brazilian counterpart, has been trying to achieve during the same period of time. Much to the discomfort of his countrymen who can hardly digest physical and tactical football, having been used to the art of attacking and the joy of winning through attractive football over the years.

Scolari, 53, has certainly had a rocky ride so far in that context as there could be few more high-pressure jobs in football than managing Brazil - a country which expects to win every World Cup. Scolari, though one of his country's most successful club managers, could also see the roof cave in if Brazil, under him, fails to achieve anything substantial in Asia without Romario, whom the coach has kept out so far for "tactical reasons," defying a public outcry and a request from none other than the Brazilian President himself. However, on the positive side, what should give added confidence to Scolari is the return of Ronaldo from injury and the fine form shown by the Inter-Milan striker alongside the tried and tested Rivaldo in recent friendlies.

If Bora, Bielsa and Scolari have earned their names in football as professional managers, the World Cup could also see Rudi Voller, a legend as a player, come in search of more glory. True, he is just following in the footsteps of his more illustrious predecessor, Franz Beckenbauer, who, too, had practically little experience in coaching before being appointed German manager in 1984. But then, Voller definitely seems to be placed in a tight spot what with the Germans lacking the same firepower or determination that had helped them win three World Cups previously.

The Germans, in fact, are aiming for a quarterfinal place in Asia and hopefully anything more would be bonus for Voller, who, despite the struggle that his side faced in the qualifiers, is contracted to remain in charge until 2006 when Germany itself would be hosting the next World Cup. Voller, for now, could still be expected to transfer his vast experience to the younger brigade and help mould the current unit into a strong outfit through the next four years.

Though not placed in the same boat like Voller, Jose Antonio Camacho is also expected to have a tough ride in Asia as he marshals the Spanish hopes and battles high expectations of his own countrymen. What exactly makes his job all the more tough is the reputation of the Spaniards as perennial underachievers of world football. In his fourth season at the helm, Camacho, once a hard-nosed defender for Real Madrid, has, however, shown that he means business, sowing seeds of fighting spirit and determination among the players under his charge.

This, even as he remains at the receiving end from some commentators who have time and again questioned his tactical awareness and his inability to establish a definitive first-choice team with a clear style of play. Camacho has responded that this criticism against him is because of the high expectations that the countrymen have for their team. "If and when Spain wins a World Cup, then we can talk about styles and patterns of play. Until then, we just need to go out and try and win."

Camacho prefers to a settled 4-4-2 formation and with Raul in fine form he should be hoping that the side under him would be performing well beyond its true worth. As a self-confessed football addict, the 46-year-old is also known to be meticulous in his preparation and that by itself could provide room for Spain to spring quite a few surprises in the World Cup as it takes on its Group B rivals, Slovenia, Paraguay and South Africa in the first round.

Incidentally, having caught up in the uproar surrounding his appointment as Paraguayan coach, Cesare Maldini, who had trained Italy at France 98, has a point a prove. His measured composure notwithstanding it could still be a daunting task for the 70-year-old as he prepares himself to prove his detractors wrong. Maldini is known more for his defensive approach rather than the attacking football most Paraguayan players are known for. It was his ultra-defensive tactics which paved the way for Italy's quarterfinal exit in France and should he insist that the Paraguayans follow the same style of play it could spell more trouble for the Italian whose only solace now should be the support of senior players such as goalkeeper and skipper Jose Luis Chilavert.

As coach of South Korea, the co-host, it is only natural that Guus Hiddink would remain in the spotlight all through the tournament. But again he is one of those coaches who would be fighting for survival as the Koreans, despite their fine track record of qualifying, are still to win a World Cup match in five appearances. The Dutchman, who led his country to the semifinals in France before the team was beaten by Brazil via penalties, has a proven track record on the world stage as well as at club-level and is also a known tactician.

He may have only been in his current job through the last 16 months but Hiddink definitely seems to be a man on a mission. "I started with a lot of pressure and a lot of ambition. So far, we've made good progress and now the final step is for well-organised play and to finish it off with some good results." An idea shared by Frenchman Philippe Troussier whose four-year reign has given enough confidence to the whole of Japan, the other co-host, to think big about the team. Notably after he led Japan to the Asian title in 2000 and to the runner-up spot behind France in the last Confederations Cup. However, only time will tell whether Troussier would be able to say "sayonara" to Japan with a smile or sigh.

It is creditable of Sven-Goran Erikkson that he finds himself as the coach of England today, considering the fact that most of the English supporters were quite unhappy with his appointment, until he gained their confidence by inspiring the side under his charge to that famous win over Germany in the qualifiers. What strikes most about this Swede is his indepth knowledge of the game and more importantly his eye for detail. However, what could still stop him from helping England repeat its home-triumph of 1966 is the streak of injuries to his key players, notably David Beckham and Gary Neville.

And finally, a word about Roger Lemerre, who, after expectedly taking over from Aime Jacquet, has guided the Les Bleus to near invincibility through the last four years. Asia, however, could represent the biggest challenge to this Frenchman who, to his credit, has done little tinkering to the team left behind by his predecessor and has taken care to keep the side in high spirits with his no-nonsense approach. This, despite the fact that the French side no longer can boast of the presence of Didier Deschamps or Laurent Blanc, two vital cogs which had helped France to its maiden World Cup at home in 1998.

But that does not seem to spoil the confidence of Lemerre, though he continues to be cautious with his utterings. "It looks like we will be able to come back with a team at least as competitive as the one we had in France in 1998." But that Lemerre's side has lost just two of its last 23 games should make grim reading for its rivals as the team launches itself into what could be a second successful campaign.

Apparently, the general trend to talk about football managers is only when things go wrong, whatever the cause might be. Of course, they don't win matches on their own. But then, that they play a definite role in the making or marring of a team is something which cannot be dismissed lightly. Particularly, on the eve of what looks like an exciting World Cup.