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The book is called How to Win the World Cup, but actually it’s harder to compete when you’re a host nation out of your depth…
The idea of a home World Cup being used as a watershed moment to beckon in a new era for a national team has become a more common strand in recent decades, with more emerging football nations earning automatic qualification for the finals as hosts.
By selecting non-elite nations, the onus on what those host countries can achieve has changed, since winning is unlikely. Instead, the pendulum of expectation has swung from home fans expecting victory to just a hope they aren’t found totally out of their depth. That brings no less pressure for managers, as well as providing a different challenge entirely.
“I had never been the manager of a host nation in a World Cup before and the emotion and feeling is completely different,” explains Carlos Alberto Parreira, who managed hosts South Africa in 2010. “The population is involved, to be part of it for three-and-a-half years, to be part of the stadium construction, preparing the team, the players, until the final moment. It was a very, very positive experience.
“When I got there, someone asked me why [I accepted the job] and I said, “The only reason I came here was because I really wanted to be the manager of a host nation,” and it was a really good experience.”
South Africa went into the tournament as the lowest-ranked side to ever host the finals. At 83rd, the Bafana Bafana were drawn in a group alongside France, former champions Uruguay and regular qualifiers Mexico. Suddenly the fear was they would be humiliated in front of a global audience. To become the first hosts not to win a match at their home tournament – or worse, fall meekly to three defeats – would undermine the positive legacy the South African FA and FIFA hoped the tournament would leave. And since this was the first World Cup to be held in Africa, the continent wanted a strong showing.
“South Africa’s group was a very hard one,” Parreira says. “I remember to this day being at the draw and they put up the eight groups and due to technical results and past World Cups, France was not a top seed. Then Jerome [Valcke], who was FIFA’s secretary general, joked that we will now draw a group for France to go in. And guess where France went in? South Africa’s group.”
To help with Parreira’s task, the South African Premier Division ended two months earlier than normal to give the Brazilian more coaching time on the run-up to the World Cup. This has become an increasingly common technique used by federations of lesser-ranked nations over the years, which aims to create a sporting advantage by getting more time on the training pitch.
In fact, getting an uninterrupted four months ahead of the 2002 World Cup was a specific demand Guus Hiddink made to the Korean Football Association before taking charge. The K-League obliged and rescheduled. While that represented a victory off the pitch, Hiddink needed to find a way to do the same on it. In five previous World Cup appearances, South Korea had failed to win a single match and had gone 14 matches without a victory.
Hiddink’s plan was to drill his players in the months leading up to the tournament, focusing on fitness and instilling more self-belief in the South Koreans to give them an edge on the opposition. Both of those factors were critical as the Reds shocked the world to become the first-ever Asian semi-finalists, so it’s hard now to believe the Dutchman’s methods were questioned when he first took charge in 2001.
Within months of arriving, Hiddink had earned the name Mr Five-Nil as South Korea suffered heavy defeats to France and Czech Republic, alongside other underwhelming results against strong opposition. He’d been at loggerheads with the national press for what he perceived to be preferential coverage of baseball rather than football and was in turn accused of being lazy and disrespectful because of a public relationship with his girlfriend – something frowned upon in Korean culture.
“I had us playing tough European and African teams then and people wanted me to go home,” Hiddink said triumphantly after South Korea won their opening group match against Poland. “But I stuck to my plans and look at us now. People had short-term views and didn’t appreciate what I was doing.”
The former Real Madrid boss tried out 60 players in the 18 months leading up to the tournament, dropping several senior players to reawaken their hunger for the national team, then reintegrating them again later. Eventually it started to pay off on the eve of the tournament, thrashing Scotland 4-1, drawing with England, and going toe-to-toe with world champions France in a 3-2 loss.
Expectations suddenly ballooned from pessimism to belief they’d not only win a match, but progress into the knockout phase. One win turned into two, turned into three, then turned into a semi-final against Germany. But for all that Hiddink and the players achieved, midfielder Park Ji-Sung believes what made the vital difference was being hosts.
“If it happened abroad or in other countries, then we probably couldn’t do this or perform like that,” says the former Manchester United star. “The preparation for the whole one-and-a-half years, there were many training camps for the national team and it won’t happen again. The whole country was just together for the goal of getting through the group stage of the World Cup. Then at the right time, a great manager came to Korea and everyone just followed what he said. It’s not just only one thing that can make the success, it’s everything together – the whole country makes that unbelievable thing.”
Allowing coaches more time to work with their players has a clear correlation with success in the modern game especially when – like Hiddink – the majority of their players aren’t playing in the elite leagues. And when it came to creative thinking to make up the gap, South Korea’s 2002 co-hosts Japan went even further.
“I said to the JFA that I needed to take care of three categories: the first team, the Olympics group for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, plus the under-20s preparations for the World Youth Cup a year later,” explains Japan coach Philippe Troussier.
“I explained my target was to bring through a new group of players. Because when a national coach creates his team, it’s coming from a minimum of 60 or 80 players, not from [only] 20 or 30. It’s coming from the players that are ready now, others that might be able to play in the next six months, and others that will be ready to play in three years… so that’s why I wanted to identify immediately who were the right people to respond to me at the right moment in four years’ time.”
It seems like an impossible job to manage three teams at once, but thanks to the JFA’s flexibility and the luxury of having no qualifiers, Troussier managed it. He set a philosophy for every age group, graduating the top players from his under-20s squad to join the older group for the Olympics, before doing the same to create his senior World Cup side.
It ended with the Frenchman’s Japan squad being among the youngest in the tournament, yet the group had developed a cohesion comparable to considerably more experienced sides. Troussier had taken advantage of a unique situation to create a group that some feel could have gone further than the last-16 of the tournament.
“It’s impossible to repeat what I did,” he affirms. “The only way I did it was because 99 per cent of the players were local players and I automatically got camps with our own internal organisation between federations and leagues. We released the players differently. Now to be international coach of England, France or Germany, you have to follow the FIFA rules and you have players only five days before each match and it’s completely different.
“Because my players weren’t big names or big stars, my attitude was that of a teacher, I imposed how I wanted to play. I was like the conductor of the symphony. I had my musicians, each one is unique – this one plays violin, this one plays guitar, this one plays drums. And me as the conductor… I adjusted the timing of each one.”
But if Troussier’s four-year hosting plan sounds like it stands out as the most ingenious, then Bora Milutinović may just pip that. The old hand had already managed Mexico in their home tournament in 1986 by the time he arrived as USA boss ahead of the 1994 World Cup, so had an idea of what was required to be successful.
With no professional league in the States at the time, Milutinovic created an intense four-year schedule of friendlies, playing 91 full internationals in that time so the players could get a flavour of what was going to happen when the tournament began.
“What is so important is that the players needed to feel what it meant to play at the highest level,” the Serb explains. “We made a tour around the world. We played Sweden in Russia, went to [South] Korea and South America, and played four games against Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay. It was simple – you can learn a lot about what you need to do and teach the players for many hours, but you can learn more when you play against teams like these. We learned what we needed to do to be better.”
Milutinovic was working with a completely blank canvas and gave out central contracts to a group of college players to join him on the tour he created. Even this was alien to the vast majority of Americans, as most had never been on the books of a club previously. As defender Alexi Lalas describes, the players’ experience was ‘completely backwards’.
“Bora recognised he needed to blood us and this advantage, this strange silver lining of not having a lot of players playing around the world, enabled us to function for all intents and purposes as a club,” Lalas says. “It was spun to us as, “you’ve got this opportunity. There’s the World Cup, then there’s hosting the World Cup, then there’s hosting the World Cup in a country like the United States, where you can do something that’s going to be memorable and for your game”. That sense of opportunity and responsibility was a constant, day in and day out. “There’s something coming, don’t waste this opportunity, grab hold of it, be confident, be optimistic”.
“It was this strange advantage that Bora had. We all know one of the biggest challenges and obstacles for national team coaches is the limited time you have together. So for the core of the team to be based day in and day out in residency in southern California and then to play basically seasons of games, that was a real advantage that Bora recognised and we used.”
Players came in and came out just as quickly as Milutinović ran the rule over dozens of hopefuls. He carefully honed and picked what he wanted within the camps, forming an environment of individuals who had the talent and mentality to succeed.
Milutinović may say it was ‘simple’ to identify the approach he did, but it remains the only World Cup preparation of its kind. And it created an environment where he’d managed to make a group of rookies feel entirely at ease with the idea of facing the world’s best international teams in front of a cynical home support.
“When we stepped on the field to play at the World Cup, I had no reference in a club situation, the international game was just what I did and what I had done for two years, so that didn’t faze me,” Lalas recalls. “I know it’s the same game and you’re kicking a ball and it’s the same laws. But in a strange way, none of us were fazed by the national game on a big stage like that because of the sheer amount of international games we had played in preparation for it.”
Extracted from the new book How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers by Chris Evans (Bloomsbury, £14.99) – available to buy now.
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