By Paul Gardner
We're now reaching the stage of the World Cup when we are forced to put up with a good deal of crap about coaches and coaching. From the coaches themselves, of course, but also from their players (how would they dare contradict their coach?), and from their followers in the media.
Of the latter, just one example will do: it appeared yesterday in an Associated Press story on the Mexico vs. France game, and read thus: “Mexico coach Javier Aguirre outcoached [French coach Raymond] Domenech, with all three substitutes making an impact.”
As far as Aguirre’s first substitution goes, this is arrant nonsense -- he was forced to make the change by the injury to Carlos Vela.
Then, the argument that late substitutes who score goals prove what a genius the coach is for inserting them in the game, is fatally flawed. What if the coach had put them in earlier? Or maybe had started them? Maybe they would have scored more goals? We don’t know. There is absolutely no proof either way. Anyway, Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s goal was a penalty kick -- are we to assume that, had he not been on the field, any other taker of the kick would have missed it?
Blind adulation of the coach requires such shutting down of one’s brainpower. Both for fans, and for players. Take a look at Greece. Widely acknowledged as the most coach-ridden team of recent times, Greece plays soccer a la Otto Rehhagel. Which means it barely plays soccer at all. Defense, counterattacks, set plays, right-angled passes, boring, boring, boring. That dreadful formula won Greece the 2004 European Championship, and it sneaked the Greeks into this World Cup. But it let them down atrociously in the first game, when they were run off the field by the lively South Koreans.
What did Greece have to offer to counter the spirited, speedy and pretty skillful Koreans? They had Rehhagel’s Scrooge-soccer and it was hopeless. The 2-0 defeat left Greece desperately needing a win against Nigeria yesterday. The desperation turned almost to sudden death when Nigeria scored first. Then came a slight reprieve, when Nigeria’s Sani Kaita got himself red-carded. Greece’s only hope now was to sweep forward looking for goals. That is not the Rehhagel way, but that’s what it came down to. Suddenly we saw Greece Unchained, players free of coaching shackles and tactical impediments -- we saw that these Greeks can indeed look like a soccer team. They rejoiced in their freedom -- and they won the game.
They now have a hope of qualifying for the second round -- if they beat Argentina. But you know that the Rehhagel mentality will take over again, and Greece will be back to being dull defensive Greece, and they will lose, and that will be that.
Spain’s coach Vincent del Bosque is being told that he got it all wrong against Switzerland -- fair enough, he lost the game. The winning coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, is a genius for stopping the unstoppable Spain. In turn, Hitzfeld praises the USA’s Bob Bradley for showing the way during the USA’s 2-0 victory over Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup.
Beware when coaches start turning modest and slapping each other on the back. It only happens when tactics have taken over. And that means defensive tactics. That, in turn, means that the sport will suffer.
It is possible that, as a result of Switzerland’s 1-0 victory, it will advance to the second round, and Spain will not. That will be a Bradley/Hitzfeld coaching triumph. Well, I do have a problem with that. I really don’t care which team advances, provided it plays soccer, and provided it doesn’t bore me. If Albania can do that, then I’m an Albania fan. As seen on Wednesday, Switzerland obviously cannot do it. I’ll be perfectly happy never to see the Swiss again. That was soccer? Well, no -- but it was coaching you see. Oh, please.
The same considerations apply to Dunga and his Brazil. No coach has such a wealth of skillful and creative players at his disposal -- and we get the Brazil that stumbled to a 2-1 win over North Korea.
Diego Maradona, we all know, is not a coach -- hasn’t a clue really, that’s what we’re told. For sure, he doesn’t seem able to unveil the winning formations and make the clever tactical comments that any self-respecting coach should be able to reel off. But he’s not doing too badly, and Argentina is one of the pitifully few teams to actually light up this tournament so far.
Another is, of all teams, Germany. They played exuberantly against Australia and got their just reward with a 4-0 victory. Of course, they were playing what may be the worst team in the competition -- the Socceroos looked frankly clueless -- but the Germans’ spirit was irresistible and -- I would hope -- infectious.
Of the rest of the Europeans, we know enough not to expect any explosions of joyous soccer from the Italians or from England. The Italians have always been a dull first-round team because it suits their slow-start mentality. The English are dull because they are dull. Having an Italian coach is unlikely to makes matters any better.
The Portuguese have the players -- in particular they have the marvelous Cristiano Ronaldo -- but against Ivory Coast they too put on a dire, defensive show. Just another dose of coach-inspired mediocrity. There’s always hope for the Dutch -- their coaching is supposed to release, not enchain, the players. Maybe -- though I’ve never seen a Dutch team, at any level, that didn’t strike me as having a pretty rigid systematic approach to the game. But this 2010 team looks promising.
The USA has potential - both for winning, and for playing pretty good soccer. It is unlikely to realize both under Bob Bradley. So forget the good soccer. Bradley’s coaching at last year’s Confederations Cup brought early failure. Losses to Brazil and Italy -- not a disgrace, for sure, but clever coaching is supposed to conjure results out of games like that.
The two losses left the USA in the same position that Greece found itself in yesterday: they had no alternative but to get out there and simply score goals, hoping for a miracle. Playing that way the USA looked exciting -- they swamped Egypt and they got their miracle. Some of that swashbuckling approach survived into the victory against Spain, and it gave Brazil quite a fright in the final. A loss, ultimately -- but the USA had shown what it is capable of. That approach has, of course, been abandoned, and the USA now has its dour Bradley face on again. Against England it was pedestrian, with very little of the Confederations Cup sparkle remaining. Do we have to wait until it’s backs-to-the-wall time again for the USA to start playing?
I started with Mexico, and I’ll finish there. Mexico not only beat France, one of Europe’s strongest teams, it looked great doing it. Of all the teams so far, Mexico is the one that has moved the ball around with most skill and purpose -- and with speed. In the past, Mexico has often been guilty of building its attacks too slowly and deliberately, but that fault was not apparent against France.
Maybe it is all down to Aguirre’s coaching (it’s certainly difficult to imagine Mexico playing this way under his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson). But the individual quality of the players is the most telling factor. It was the smooth, neat ball control of the Mexicans -- all of them -- that was so impressive, enabling them to sustain passing sequences, and to break out of defense with purposeful, accurate passes.
This is a different Mexico. It now has a core of players experienced in the European game -- nine of the current 23-man roster are with European clubs. It is building on a solid World Cup record -- but a record that has never seen the Mexicans advance beyond the quarterfinals.
In Germany 2006 Mexico was desperately unlucky to get knocked out by an overtime wonder-goal from Argentina’s Maxi Rodriguez -- after what was arguably the best game of the tournament. Mexico placed 15th in that tournament, in the middle of the pack, an average team.
That has been what Mexican players have expected of themselves -- an average performance. The confidence to go further has been lacking, a failing that Aguirre once described to me as the “fear of winning.” In other words a deep internal belief that the team could only get so far, that it didn’t really belong up there with the semifinalists and the winners.
But that lack of confidence, a sapping internal enemy, may now be a thing of the past. Surely, there was no lack of confidence or ambition against France.