Now that none of the above coaches has been of much help to the team, Dutch Guus Hiddink is taking over at the helm of it. What is he like?
About Guus Hiddink
Certainly, he is a coach of world renown. His playing career, which began with the Dutch clubs De Graafschap and NEC, was undistinguished. He later found success at Eindhoven at the beginning of the 1980s. 2002-2006 saw the second stage of Hiddink's career at the club, with which he won five national championships, four Dutch Cups and achieved brilliant victories in international tournaments, including his most remarkable win at the 1987 Champions Cup. In addition, Hiddink has coached such clubs as Real Madrid, Real Betis, Fenerbache and Valencia, and the national teams of the Netherlands, South Korea and Australia.
Russian fans should be most interested in his career with the two latter teams. Hiddink's leading the Dutch team to the 1998 World Cup semifinals in France, where they were considered favorites, was not a surprise, but when he repeated the success with South Korea four years later, it was no less than a sensation.
He provoked much speculation and a lot of debates, but many of those who criticize him for this "referee" win often downplay the merits of the team itself, especially its head coach. Hiddink transformed the South Korean team beyond recognition in 18 months. The coach took advantage of his players' strong points - their hard work, persistence and discipline - to teach them a unique kind of football based on common strategies and techniques. Some people sneered at the intricate combination of simple passes - for the Korean football players were hardly talented enough to have mastered the Brazilian "lacy" technique in 18 months - and the specific but quite effective Asian tactics, while others were surprised or even awed.
The physical strength of the South Korean team was perfect. Due to rigorous training and the famous Ginseng tea, they played the first five matches with gusto and lost only to Germany and Turkey after yielding to fatigue. So those who say that South Korea did not deserve fourth place in the 2002 World Cup had better reconsider their stances.
A few things about the Australian team, which played in the recent World Cup in Germany with Hiddink as coach. Many Russians supported the green continent's team just because it was led by "our" coach. The Australians' impressive display was hardly due to Russians' support, rather it was achieved through the efforts of the team itself and Hiddink, who took advantage of his players' strong points again.
Since many Australian footballers play for the British Premier League, Hiddink coached the team using the British "speed and force" model, based on a tenacious defense, a mobile and skillful back line, active wingers, and aggressive forwards who are good at headers. Their adamant character, desire to win and high morale - the qualities often missing in Russian players - became the trump card of the "starless" Australian team.
This was demonstrated in the first match against Japan, which did not go smoothly for Hiddink's team. Down 0-1, the Australians managed to pull themselves together and score three goals 10 minutes before the end of the match.
In the next match against Brazil they found themselves on the defensive again but continued to press forward and made many shots on goal. As Class-A ex-champions, the Brazilians snatched the victory.
In a crucial match to get into the play-offs, the Croatians, who had just scored a goal, made it hot for the Australians. They turned the match, which looked boring at first, into a thriller. After missing two curious goals due to silly mistakes and having lost two matches, they achieved a satisfactory 2-2 and qualified for the round-of-sixteen finals to play Italy. A paradoxical thing happened there: the sending off of Italy's Materazzi made things worse for Australia. Now it had to concentrate on offense, but they failed to find the key to the Italian defense, which used all its strength and skills to compensate for their lost player. Francesco Totti scored a crucial penalty goal edging out the Australians from the quarter finals. Who knows how the World Cup would have ended if not for that controversial penalty?
This was how foreign teams played with Guus Hiddink as coach. Yet even this information is not enough for us to assess him. He will probably choose different tactics for Russia, since Russians are different from the Dutch, or the South Koreans, or the Australians. Naturally, Hiddink will consider both our weaknesses and trump cards - the coach's talent should not be doubted. Yet, whether he will be a success as coach of the Russian team will depend on another aspect...
About national mentality
Foreign coaches who have worked for the Russian Premier League know best how it affects Russian football. They may consider the Russian stage in their careers a failure.
Let's go back to 2004. Before the start of the season, four Russian clubs hired foreign coaches with respected reputations and international fame: Arthur Jorge, Nevio Scala, Jaroslav Hrebik and Rolland Courbis. But less than six months after the start of the championship, each of them quit due to insurmountable obstacles in their relations with players and club managers. All of them wondered why they had come there at all. The four examples are hardly coincidental, rather they indicate a pattern.
Are we really unique? There are some successful examples, like Vlastimil Petrzela, who coached Zenit for 3.5 years and led it to the UEFA Cup quarter finals, and Slavoljub Muslin, who is now coaching Lokomotiv.
Besides, what matters is whether a foreign coach leads a club or a national team. A club coach is always with his team, communicating a lot with the players and conducting a full-fledged training program. The efforts of a coach alone are not enough for success; the whole team must join in. The success of such a coach depends a lot on his relations with the team, their confidence in and attitude towards him. If the most prominent coach fails to take a correct approach to the team or is unable to overcome the psychological barrier between Russians and foreigners, which manifests itself in aloofness and suspicion, he will be a failure.
Meanwhile, players can often afford to spend only three or four days with their national team, and the coach does not have time to establish contacts with them. All he can do is explain his tactics for the next match, while football players must put his ideas into practice on the field. This does not require months of training - they play and say goodbye. In these circumstances, the coach shoulders a lot of responsibility, and much depends on his communication with the team. The notorious "language barrier" is irrelevant here - all it takes is instructions, not a private chat. That is why foreigners are more often invited to coach national teams, not clubs.
Hiddink must have been aware of the misfortunes of foreigners in Russia when he accepted the invitation of the Russian Football Club, and hopefully he will be able to adjust to the team, for we are not out of this earth.
Forward with hopes
What shall we expect of Guus Hiddink? Let's not have any illusions: he is unlikely to place our team among the world's giants. This requires deeper, more scrupulous work - building new football schools and artificial fields, and raising funds for junior coaches; in short, reviving everything lost in the troublesome 1990s.
There are two possibilities for us: either this problem will be solved in the most effective way at a government level, with the powers-that-be showing a lively interest in developing a national football, or we will have to reconcile ourselves to a mediocre role.
First, the community should assume a different approach to football. How can Russia dream of becoming a football empire if the performance of the national team leaves everyone indifferent, and the public, who cannot expect the team to win after the notorious draw with Slovakia, crack jokes and return to their daily routines as if nothing happened? Or when mediocre TV shows leave World Cup broadcasts far behind, according to TV ratings? Or when football pitches are used for any purpose except sport? Hopefully, the PR move to appoint Hiddink will pay off, and people will be more interested in the performance of our team and truly support it.
High hopes are also pinned on Hiddink. The sad thing about the Russian team is that even the most famous and ambitious foreign coach may fail to lead it anywhere and mar his own reputation. Hopefully, this will not stop Hiddink, and he will be able to improve our team, increasing the number of successful matches like those described above and reducing failures, like the 1-7 loss. Then, perhaps, the press will not say that the Russian team has "exhausted its attacking potential" after a 5-1 victory against Luxembourg.