The art of international football management – by those who’ve done it | World Cup

The pinnacle of the game. A job reserved only for the very best. That was how an international manager’s role was viewed for decades. The World Cup was where the globe’s top coaches would meet in the dugout, just as the best players were doing so on the pitch. While the growing importance of domestic leagues and the Champions League has curbed international football’s reputation in the 21st century, there remains a special enchantment to leading a national team to glory. No other job in football gives a manager the chance to bring such unbridled joy to so many people.

The pressure of such an influential job is not for everyone. Neither are the different challenges and styles that need to be adapted to. Some of football’s greatest club managers and former players have tried to replicate their exploits on the international stage, but it takes a distinct character to get it right. This has created a band of international specialists, experts whose temperament and approach suit a different type of football. So what type of manager suits international football and how can those leaving the club game adapt?

If somebody had asked Roberto Martínez three months before he became Belgium’s manager if international football was on his horizon, he would have given them a straight answer: no. He was a Premier League mainstay, having taken charge of a side in England’s top flight for every match of the past seven seasons. He was the quintessential club manager and, while his third campaign at Everton had not gone to plan, his decision to take the Belgium job took many people by surprise. Not least Martínez himself.

“It’s something you don’t plan,” he tells me. “You always say international football is the start for a coach if you’re a former player and it’s a first job that’s an introduction to management; or at the end of your career if you’re a very experienced coach and you don’t want to be in the day-to-day anymore. In my case, I was open to another project.”

The prospect of working with a supremely talented Belgian generation enticed him to switch from the club game at the age of 43. A big readjustment was necessary. “It was very difficult and I was constantly fighting the way I’d been working,” Martínez explains. “Club football is a 24-hour job and it’s always about looking forwards – it’s very rare you get the opportunity to look back. Everything is about what you can do to affect the next game. Even the press conference straight after the 90 minutes is about the next game and the way you can affect the preparation.

“International football is the opposite. It’s about a very intense period, after which you don’t share any emotions with the players, which does change the strength of relationships and the group – whether you win or lose, the players just leave. At that point it becomes about preparing for the next game by looking back, reassessing, and I enjoy that.”

Moving to a slower-paced role with greater retrospection isn’t for everybody. The lack of regular contact with players, the inability to work on the training pitch each day and the comparatively pedestrian pace of the fixture list has led to some coaches becoming restless. Antonio Conte yearned for what he described as the “cut and thrust” of the club game during his two years in charge of Italy.

Martínez had to grapple with similar instincts at first, but he soon settled into a new rhythm. “At club level, you have 60 pre-season sessions to prepare for your first game. When you go to international level, you’ve got three days,” he says. “We have five camps every year, so it’s not the same as meeting the players every day. I thought the way to prepare games and try to affect the players would be the same, but I was wrong. I had to change my mindset and focus on what was essential in this job and try to learn very quickly how to prepare the players in the best way in a short period of time.

Roberto Martínez talks to Belgium forward Dries Mertens during Euro 2020.
Roberto Martínez talks to Belgium forward Dries Mertens during Euro 2020. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

“When you change that mindset, everything becomes a lot easier. It’s impossible to manage internationally the way you do at club level. When you realise it’s completely different, then you can evolve. Letting go of those preconceptions is a crucial part of a club manager’s transition to the international game. It’s more hands-off, and patience becomes the buzzword for managers as new ideas swill round inside their heads as they watch weekend after weekend of club matches, where the closest they come to a touchline is sitting in the stands.

“At a club, managers have the chance to control every aspect of match preparation, and, for those who like to run a tight ship, entering an environment where they’re on the outside looking in at players can be difficult. International bosses need to check themselves so not to become an impertinence to their players or club managers.”

“I didn’t have too much contact with the players when they were with their clubs as they had to concentrate on their club football,” recalls former Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld. “As I was a club coach myself, I knew you shouldn’t interfere. When it’s the international break again, you have the players and can communicate things to them, but I let them be when they were at their clubs, unless they contacted me.”

Hitzfeld is one of only five managers to win the European Cup with two different clubs – Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern Munich in 2001 – but even he admitted the move to international management was a “big adjustment”. “You see a club team every day and can better develop the players on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “You can have a lot of discussions and manage more intensively. With a national team you see the players, have a match and then go off again for three or four weeks. You have to communicate openly and be sincere with the players. You have to talk clearly about your aims and discuss them clearly, be very consistent and determined about what you do.”

Being successful at international level requires the ability to work succinctly with players. Less time means being more selective about which instructions to give, the focus of training sessions and the level of detail surrounding certain sequences of play. But it’s not simply about stripping down technical and tactical information. It’s also important to make sure the messages a manager conveys are interpreted in the way that’s intended, depending on each player’s background. There isn’t the time for communication to fail.

“When you manage the Seleção, everyone comes from different places, they’re used to playing in different game situations and they need to adapt to the new environment,” says Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazil manager when they won the World Cup in 2002. “You need to be more observant and the tactics need to be very well defined for the whole group because in a club you can work things out daily. In a national team you don’t have that time. So you need to be a lot more observant, collect more data, take special care with certain players and try to create a game situation that all these players from different clubs around the world can adapt to.”

Luiz Felipe Scolari at the World Cup in 2002.
Luiz Felipe Scolari at the World Cup in 2002. Photograph: Roberto Candia/AP

Explaining a tactical approach is one thing, but a winning team also requires emotional strength. Creating a special bond among the squad and with the coaching team is key for any side. This is also more difficult in an international setting. “It’s a special situation,” Scolari says. “Every player has next to them another player who is very different to them. They have different characteristics, so there needs to be a very big, general adaptation process. In order for the players to develop their football, they need to adapt and comprehend their teammates.”

Some coaches are loyal to a core group of players and are not as tough on them as they might be at club level. “He was very straightforward,” remembers Terry Butcher as he looks back at Bobby Robson’s time as England manager between 1982 and 1990. “If you did the business for him, he’d be very happy and he was very loyal to the players who did that. He’d speak to you in a way that’s very familiar and passionate, but also in a way that’s very structured, ordered and disciplined.”

Butcher was Robson’s captain when the two worked together at Ipswich, so the big centre-half was more familiar with the inner workings of the much-loved England boss than most. After long briefing sessions, players would ask him if this was what Robson was like at Ipswich and, while Butcher would joke the meetings were longer, he says there were some subtle differences to his manager’s approach at international level. One of his biggest changes was the way he dealt with the players, to create a fondness that blossomed throughout his tenure. Working with Robson became one of the big appeals of joining up for an England camp.

“The thing I liked about Bobby was that he’d take you to one side, put his arm round you and say ‘come with me son’, then we’d go and speak,” says Butcher. “Every player likes to be told if you’re doing things right or if you’re doing things wrong and how you can improve. He did that very well, particularly for England. He didn’t see the international players a lot, but he’d speak to them in such a way that you felt wanted, loved and as though you’d run through a brick wall for him. He was like that at Ipswich but, because it was day-to-day, he was probably more strict and more aggressive in how he spoke to you because he demanded results pretty quickly. He couldn’t do that with international players because they weren’t the property of England. They were loaned to England from the clubs.”

Bobby Robson offers a comforting word to Glenn Hoddle after England’s defeat to Argentina in the World Cup in 1986.
Bobby Robson offers a comforting word to Glenn Hoddle after England’s defeat to Argentina in the World Cup in 1986. Photograph: Popperfoto

With all of these different aspects to balance, it’s no wonder the international manager has become a specialist position. In recent years, career national team bosses have become more common within the major nations, with coaches such as Gareth Southgate and Joachim Löw moving up the age groups just as a player would. They are institutionalised to the way a federation works and familiar with what it takes to be successful in a national team role – meaning there are fewer growing pains during the metamorphosis from club to national coach.

That method of hiring is not how many international sides appointed managers in the past. Legendary former players often went straight from retirement into their national team’s managerial post, with their reputation enough to earn them a crack at the big job. This approach had mixed results as the sink-or-swim nature of football management spat out those not ready for the role, while others grabbed the chance with both hands to show they were just as effective on the touchline as on the pitch.

The impact of having such a strong figurehead at the top of the national team is powerful, as West Germany found when Franz Beckenbauer replaced Jupp Derwall in 1984 – a matter of months after Der Kaiser had hung up his boots. Beckenbauer was one of the world’s biggest stars and appeared in two World Cup finals as a player, winning in 1974 after defeat to England in 1966. He’d been an innovator long before getting his first coaching job, concocting the libero role behind West Germany’s defence to make the most of his defensive and ball-playing talents, and lending guidance to his managers to maximise the team’s potential.

While Beckenbauer’s path to West Germany’s top job may have seemed obvious, his appointment marked a change compared to his predecessor. Derwall had enjoyed a fine playing career himself and had worked his way up the coaching ranks to get the international job, but his profile wasn’t nearly as prestigious.

“They were two very different coaches,” explains winger Pierre Littbarski, who was a member of the Germany sides that reached the 1982 and 1986 finals before finally winning the trophy under Beckenbauer in 1990. “Derwall was more like a father type. He was a little naive but very kind and trusting of the players. Whereas Beckenbauer knew all the tricks already, so we couldn’t cheat him – if we performed badly, he could see it directly. We wouldn’t embarrass ourselves with our performance. There was a lot of respect for Beckenbauer in every training session and everybody was very focused.”

Beckenbauer’s presence alone extracted that extra performance from his players and, even though he was quite hands-off in terms of tactics, his experience and strong understanding of the game came to the fore when necessary. As a legend of the German game, he maintained a hold over his players in a way many others wouldn’t have achieved. The image of him standing on the touchline was enough to inspire his charges.

“With Beckenbauer, everybody had the motivation to deliver 100% in every minute because he was accepted as a football player by the strong personalities in the squad,” adds Littbarski. “The players had a lot of respect and wanted to show Beckenbauer they could deliver something similar to what he delivered as a player. That was maybe different than with Derwall.”

Not every national icon has the sustained success Beckenbauer enjoyed but others have given teams a short-term bounce, as happened when Diego Maradona was brought in to coach Argentina in 2008 during an ailing World Cup qualification campaign. The prospect of working with a man many players had grown up worshipping created a renewed buzz in the squad.

“It was the first time I’d met Maradona and I’d never seen him face to face,” says Jonás Gutiérrez. “It was something special to be with him because I loved him when I was a child and my parents talked about him – so when he takes charge of the national team, it’s a special moment.” While Maradona’s time in charge lasted fewer than two years, his impact was immediate, with La Albiceleste winning four of their first five matches after he took charge. The only drawback was if his status created nerves among his starstruck players.

“I was really nervous,” Gutiérrez continues. “He came into my room. I was with [Ezequiel] Lavezzi and was in shock. There was a block and I couldn’t say anything. When Maradona left the room, Lavezzi was laughing at how I reacted. I was sweating a lot. I listened to him but I could say nothing to him. Maradona had something special. He brought something you can’t explain in words. You had to feel it. It was the first time I had met my hero. He was talking to me like a normal person and it was something I will always remember.”

Diego Maradona in 2008.
Diego Maradona in 2008. Photograph: Valéry Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Maradona’s managerial prowess may not have matched his talent on the pitch, but the prospect of playing under him and not wanting to let him down was similar to the way Littbarski spoke about Beckenbauer. That prestige alone might not be enough to hang a career in club management on, but in an international environment perhaps there’s an argument for a famous profile holding more sway than in a day-to-day role.

Traditionally, it was thought that managers needed to be ex-players, although that view has softened in recent decades given the success of José Mourinho and Julian Nagelsmann. So does Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who never played professionally, agree that having a strong playing CV helps an international boss? “Speaking openly, I believe you’d be a much better international manager if you’ve been a national team player at a World Cup,” he says. “It would be so much easier to be accepted by the players, there’s no doubt about that.”

Parreira’s route to winning the World Cup started in 1958 after he witnessed the Brazil masseur Mario Americo’s role in the country’s maiden World Cup triumph. Americo was famous for being sent on the pitch to pass messages from manager Vicente Feola to Pelé, Garrincha et al during matches, and a young Parreira dreamed of one day being the national team’s fitness coach as well.

Yet he worked his way up to become part of Mario Zagallo’s coaching staff as Brazil won the trophy in 1970, before being asked to take the Kuwait job in 1978 after initially going there as Zagallo’s assistant. After leading Kuwait in their first World Cup campaign, Parreira’s stock steadily grew until he was asked to end Brazil’s 24-year wait for a fourth World Cup trophy. He duly obliged, proving it’s possible to succeed at the top level without having played at it. In fact, he makes it sound as though it was easier than if he’d been working at grassroots.

How to win the World Cup by Chris Evans is out now.
How to win the World Cup by Chris Evans is out now.

“The players respected me,” Parreira adds. “I didn’t need to teach big players like Rivellino, Romário or Bebeto how to kick or control a ball. I had to organise them as a team – and this was OK because I knew how to do that. My responsibility was to organise them as a team, which is where I was successful and I did this well, especially in 1994. If a manager of a national team is a player who played in the World Cup before, the hire is more acceptable [to the public] and easier for them to be successful. In my case, I didn’t have to fight the system, people pushed me.” While that might have been the case for Parreira, not everybody with ambitions of reaching a World Cup has had the same luxury.

This is an extract from How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers (Bloomsbury) by Chris Evans, which is out now.

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