The niche men

LUIS FELIPE SCOLARI is the leading representative of a new breed of football managers who choose to specialise in the international game. At the other end of the spectrum are names such as Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho who, ironically, are united in that at some stage or the other they have made public their apathy for international management, writes N. U. ABILASH.

Portugal manager Luis Felipe Scolari's proficiency of the English language is such that it would give a confidence boost to a kindergarten student whose parents' second language is English. Yet, the man at the helm of affairs when Brazil won the 2002 World Cup could rather choose to manage the England national team after the World Cup, when his contract with Portugal ends, rather than be the head honcho of leading Portuguese or Spanish clubs, including Real Madrid, where managerial jobs are up for grabs.

In late 2002, when Barcelona President Joan Laporta was unhappy with incumbent manager Radomir Antic, Scolari's name was being bandied around as a possible replacement. In early 2003, Scolari gleefully decided that the less glamorous job of national manager of Portugal would put food on his table for the next few years.

"I am a pure football manager," explained Scolari. "I have coached Brazilian clubs, but I like to concentrate on international football because club management involves combining commercial and technical decisions. My skills lie in spotting and developing talent and that is what motivates me, not managing the transfer budgets." Scolari is the leading representative of a new breed of football managers who choose to specialise in either clubs or country but not both. At the other end of the spectrum are names such as Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho who, ironically, are united in that at some stage or the other they have made public their apathy for international management.

Though more high-profile managers choose to specialise in club management, Scolari certainly has like-minded people on his side of the managerial divide, the most prominent being Australian manager Guus Hiddink, who managed Holland and, blimey, South Korea to World Cup semifinals in 1998 and 2002.

Hiddink, though, is more complicated a case study than Scolari. The Dutchman has a long history of managing high-profile European clubs, dating back to winning the European Cup — the precursor of the Champions League — in 1988 with PSV Eindhoven. He returned to PSV in 2003, after his revolutionary stint with Korea, but his contract with the club left little to the imagination of football pundits as to where his heart lay. Hiddink took up the job only after inserting a clause in his contract that he would be allowed to combine national management with his job at PSV.

In July 2005, two months after his young PSV team gave a scare to AC Milan in the Champions League semifinal, Hiddink became the new Australian manager with the country facing a tough double-legged World Cup Qualifier Play-off against Uruguay in November in order to enter its first World Cup since 1974, also in Germany.

"Managing a country in the World Cup is the ultimate experience," said Hiddink, who was successful in his mission when Australia defeated the Latin Americans in the penalty shoot-out in the second leg in Sydney. "I'll never forget the love I got from the public in Korea. The Australian public is sports mad, and I realise I carry a great responsibility on my shoulders." For the play-offs, Hiddink took a break from PSV only during the international weeks. "Because most of the Australian players play in Europe, and I had seen them play, talent spotting was not a problem. This helped me to do justice to both jobs." Hiddink, whose club has already won the Dutch league, will organise a training camp for his Australian squad in Europe after the club season is over. The Dutchman has announced that he will not be in either of his two jobs after the World Cup; he has already pledged his future as the manager of the Russian national team to help the country qualify for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

England's outgoing manager Sven-Goran Eriksson represents the `obverse' of Hiddink. The Swede has managed clubs such as Lazio successfully — he took the modest Serie `A' club to the league title in 2000 at the expense of giants such as Juventus and AC Milan — before his England stint and it was no secret where his loyalties lay. "I miss club management," said Eriksson even as he was busy ensuring that England qualified for the 2002 World Cup. "It demands a more hands-on approach which is what I like."

Eriksson, though, was quick to add in a lighter vein that the England job demanded identical skill sets to club management because of the unparalleled media spotlight that comes along with it. As the `fake sheikh' sting operation of tabloid Daily Mirror earlier this year illustrated, Eriksson has always been nursing ambitions to return to club management and his trusted lieutenant, England captain David Beckham, might well help him get the job at Real Madrid after the World Cup.

Italy's current and previous managers, Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni, have had exceptionally successful managerial stints with Serie `A' giants. While Trapattoni, who was in the job between Euro 2000 and 2004 including the World Cup in Korea and Japan, made no bones about his preference for clubs, Lippi has a more balanced view which subtly gravitates towards international football. "In the international game, you see the players only for a week once every couple of months. For all of that, you have the privilege of working with a highly motivated group and the country's most talented players, which gives you the opportunity to build something special," said Lippi recently. "It is therefore essential to be flexible and not just stubbornly pick the players who fit in with your favourite formation and personal view of how football should be played. Big clubs in Italy, or anywhere else, are afraid of ending up in mid table and therefore they stick to stars and established names and don't want to risk fielding young players."

Strong and independent souls such as Scolari and Hiddink loathe making commercial compromises, which are part of the club manager's daily life. Scolari, for instance, knew that Brazilian legend Romario was not the player he wanted in the squad for the 2002 World Cup, and though there was massive pressure from the football crazy public of the nation he did not select the 1994 World Cup star. Similarly, he substituted public favourite Luis Figo during the second half of Portugal's Euro 2004 quarterfinal against England. Decisions like these would be almost impossible in modern club management; a Real Madrid manager was sacked for leaving Ronaldo on the bench. However, club management too attracts strong-minded managers to it. This is primarily because it gives scope for the manager, in Lippi's words, "to gradually transmit (his) way of thinking to the players, both in terms of football and life."

This is something which Sir Alex Ferguson loves doing; he recently spelt out his managerial philosophy, hardly an exercise in modesty, thus when talking about Wayne Rooney: "You need young players with an attentive mind who trust the coach and the manager to do the best for them. Wayne gets that at United."

Ferguson's bete noire Arsene Wenger is drawn to club management because of its internationalism. "Football is not about passports; it is about developing quality performers," Wenger, who has turned down the offer of managing France, said recently in the wake of criticism that the Arsenal side that entered the Champions League final contained only a single Englishman, Sol Campbell, and that too only in the second leg of the semifinal.

June and early July are when people like Wenger and Ferguson switch off from football. Cruelly, in 1986, Ferguson had to be the ad-hoc manager of Scotland for the Mexico World Cup because of the death of incumbent manager Jock Stein. He prepared by having extensive discussions with Alf Ramsey, the legendary England manager, but Scotland crashed out of the tournament in the first round. One strong-minded individual then decided that international management is not for him come what may.

The divide between club and country has only grown since.