By Paul Gardner
I found Hans Backe's vision of soccer, and his teams, quite appalling. Under Backe, the Red Bulls were never particularly worth watching as they lumbered along, over-weighted with their cumbersome Scandinavians, under-skilled with their naive college-style Americans.
A formula that was never going to work. It came unstuck, yet again, last week. The loss to D.C.United -- in front of the Red Bulls' own fans -- marked the end of the Hans Backe era. In soccer terms, it came hardly as a surprise. Indeed, it had been too long delayed.
But Backe’s departure is a bittersweet moment for me. I loved the guy. In the prancing and preening world of soccer coaches, a world where ego and image and machismo count for so much ... what on earth was the amiable, straightforward, impeccably honest Backe doing there?
I had many conversations with Backe, many disagreements ... but never a confrontation. Confrontations with Backe were not possible. His disarming honesty, his calm patience, his refusal to be flustered, his beautiful sense of humor rendered the very idea of a serious disagreement simply out of the question.
Earlier this season, at the press conference following what I thought had been a dreadful game (I don’t recall the score, the Red Bulls may even have won it), I suggested to Backe that his team was playing crude soccer. Backe ignored the provocation. I repeated the charge of crude soccer and asked him “Would you agree?” Backe smiled the friendliest of smiles and answered with a scornful “No!”
But the smile left me wondering. Did it mean “No, and you’re an idiot for asking”? Or was there another layer to the scorn, one that said “No, for the record -- but we both know the truth.”
I’d like to believe that -- not because it makes me correct, but because it reveals Backe as man without self-deception, a man who knew that his team was dysfunctional, a man who must already have known that, barring an absurd miracle, the 2012 season was set to be yet another shambles, and that his days as the Red Bulls’ coach were drawing to a close.
As my admiration for Backe the man grew, my disdain for Backe the coach kept pace. It is true that Backe had the misfortune to be mixed up with the front-office chaos that masqueraded as management at the Red Bulls. Even so, he must bear his share of blame for the constant muddle of player signings, virtually all of them involving such ordinary players. The procession of ineffectual Scandinavians, the increasing emphasis on physical, high work-rate players, left no doubt that Backe was not the slightest bit interested in the beautiful game.
Backe never seemed much attracted by the subtleties of soccer. He had, actually, hinted at his preference for a no-frills game at his very first press conference in 2010, when he told us that “too much possession can be boring.” His descriptions of players and of games were always strong on the physical and the tactical aspects. There was not much room in his version of soccer for artistry.
The nadir came with the sudden signing, and the almost immediate trading, of Dwayne De Rosario. One of the best players in MLS had been hastily unloaded to make room -- we were told -- for salary money for a totally ordinary goalkeeper who arrived from Germany commanding a DP’s salary.
Even worse, De Rosario’s nominal replacement in the deal with D.C. United was Dax McCarty. Could Backe really believe that the Red Bulls were going to get anywhere by replacing the sheer class of De Rosario with the souped-up college banalities of McCarty?
I protested to Backe. His eyes lit up at my mention of McCarty -- “What a player!” he exclaimed. Eh? Yet again, I was left wondering whether the answer was for real -- I mean, he couldn’t be serious, could he? -- or whether Backe’s beaming smile contained a taunting wink.
A couple of DPs arrived, Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry, who never lived up to their billing. At the beginning of this year, there was much talk of adding a third DP. The names of many top players were mentioned. Time crept on, no signing was made, until -- out of the blue -- came the news that Tim Cahill had been signed. One name that had never been mentioned. The sudden, opportunistic signing of yet another overtly physical player. How much thought had gone into this deal? This was going to end in tears.
The three DPs had little impact. The character-less, style-less Bulls struggled to make the playoffs with their hopelessly inconsistent performances. And Backe continued to baffle with his eccentric lineups and substitutions. No one would have put their money on this team.
Even when hurricane Sandy handed the Bulls the advantage of staging the second game against D.C. United, things didn’t work out. It wasn’t just that the Bulls got beaten in their own stadium, it was the manner in which its own players -- its DPs in particular -- made the crucial errors. Henry -- closely followed by Cahill -- led the brainless charge of encroaching players that forced the penalty-kick retake and the failure to score. Marquez then got himself red-carded for a deplorable tackle in midfield.
I shall not miss Backe’s teams and their higgledy-piggledy soccer -- it corresponded, more or less, to Rossini’s description of Wagner’s music: “lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour.”
But I shall miss the ever-friendly Backe and his admirable dignity. He came over as a thoroughly decent human being, whose even-tempered courtesy I shall not forget -- the smiling man who always gave quick and clean answers, who never dodged a question, who never dissembled ... even if he did leave me wondering at times whether I was getting the full meaning of his answers. Good luck Hans, wherever you’re headed.