Mediocre managers

Australia's GUUS HIDDINK looks much the best of the hardly inspiring bunch in Germany, if only for his ability to get the best out of unfancied teams.

The more one looks at the managers in the current World Cup, the less one is impressed. Let us first take Brazil, the hit favourites.

Their manager is Carlos Alberto Parreira. I have a treasured memory of Parreira during the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when he was managing Kuwait.

In Valladolid, his team, being well beaten by France, conceded a goal when the whole defence stopped, deluded by a whistle blown in the crowd. The infuriated Kuwaitians protested vigorously and refused to play on. Their supremo, the country's Crown Prince, beckoned them off from the stand. Eventually he came down on to the pitch, changed his mind after a parley with the referee, and succeeded in getting the goal ruled out. The game went on. Asked about it at the subsequent Press Conference, Parreira insisted, apropos of the Crown Prince's initial gestures, "No, no, he was telling them to stay on!" At which a heavily ironic German journalist responded, with a beckoning gesture, "So when he is going like this, he is telling them to stay on the field?"

Parreira has had various incarnations as the Brazilian team manager. I remember the first, a brief one, when he brought his team to play England at Wembley, Previously known as a physical trainer rather than a football coach, his philosophy then decreed that Brazil should play a more `European' game, which seemed to mean an emphasis on the physical rather than the technical.

He was back in charge of the team that sought to qualify from its South American group for the 1994 World Cup finals and things went horribly wrong. Not least because he had fallen out with the brilliant little striker Romario, whom he had incensed by leaving on the bench when he had come all the way back home from Europe to play in a friendly. Parreira dropped Romario till it came to the crunch. Brazil had played so poorly in the eliminators that unless they defeated Uruguay in their last game in Rio they would not automatically qualify. So Parreira put his pride in his pocket and recalled Romario, who duly scored both goals in a 2-0 win and went on to become arguably the finest player of the ensuing World Cup that Brazil won.

Then Brazil had `Big Phil' Scolari, now the manager of Portugal. He won the last World Cup with them in Japan, but was it despite him or because of him? His reputation as manager of the Gremio club was a harsh one. He actually encouraged his players to commit fouls in midfield to break up moves by the opposition. In Japan, his cautious dispositions were in the end swept aside by the brilliance of such stars as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, and therefore Brazil duly won the trophy, but not without a good deal of trouble in the final against a moderate German team which lacked its chief inspiration in the shape of the suspended Michael Ballack.

As manager of Portugal, in the 2004 European Championship, with home advantage, Scolari got his team to the final but there saw them lose to the limited, dogged but determined Greeks. And it is most doubtful whether they would have survived the Lisbon quarterfinal against England if Wayne Rooney had not been kicked out of the game. Even then, penalties alone decided the game.

Dull, greedy Sven-Goran Eriksson of England is in his last weeks as manager. The news that his unexciting deputy Steve McClaren will succeed him makes you wonder whether you would prefer to be shot or hanged. After a meaningless 6-0 friendly victory against feeble Jamaica — still all too capable of embarrassing England in attack — Eriksson pronounced that his team would be capable of beating Brazil. This, though there were still doubts whether his star turn Wayne Rooney, with his injured metatarsal, would be able to play even in the latter stages, and even if he did play whether he would possibly be match fit.

England under Eriksson went out in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, beaten by Brazil reduced to 10 men for the last half hour, and crashed out at the same stage of Euro '04 in Portugal. A monumental fatuity, a cheap gimmick was Eriksson's sudden choice, ahead of experienced strikers, of the 17-year-old attacker Theo Walcott, who had not kicked a ball for Arsenal's first team since his transfer from Southampton. Walcott has made only a fleeting appearance as substitute for England B before the World Cup finals. Eriksson is all too often given to fatuous tactical experiments, such as, in games against Wales (drawn) and Northern Ireland (lost) not to mention the penultimate friendly before the World Cup when the England team which played Hungary was a fiasco of men played out of position, with Michael Owen deployed alone up front. Peter Crouch, the 6 ft 7in centre forward, was reinstalled as a partner for Owen against Jamaica and responded with a hat-trick of sorts plus a missed penalty, but the defence looked anything but sound and could well have conceded several goals. Above all, Eriksson, who twice negotiated with Chelsea and once with Manchester United behind the backs of the Football Association, who actually gave him an extra GBP1 million, shows no imagination when things go wrong during a game. As an England defender bitterly remarked after defeat by Brazil's 10 men, "We needed Winston Churchill and we got an Iain Duncan Smith." The second named was, at that time, the limp leader of the Tory Party.

Guus Hiddink looks much the best of the bunch, if only for his ability to get the best out of unfancied teams. Taking over Australia very late in the day, he guided them to success in the double leg play-off against Uruguay, a team that has a rich World Cup finals history. In 2002, his South Korean team, which had never won a game in the World Cup finals, went all the way to the Third Place match; though as the Dutchman who has succeeded him in that role, Dick Advocaat, says, Hiddink had his players available for a year, he himself just for a few weeks. England would have been well advised to appoint Hiddink, but instead he is going to take charge of Russia and no doubt he will make them a force.

Jurgen Klinsmann, once a formidable German striker, has largely been managing his team from distant Los Angeles, though he now makes optimistic noises and says that if things go well he might well consider staying on. That is if he is ultimately wanted. It was hardly encouraging though when after a very shaky home draw 2-2 with Japan, his own captain, Michael Ballack, criticised his defensive methods.