International soccer managers like Diego Maradona are the strangest men in sports.

The stadium scene.
June 16 2010 12:18 PM

World Cup Weirdos

International soccer managers are the strangest men in sports.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

(Continued from Page 1)

This can be seen most clearly in England, where the stern-jawed Italian Fabio Capello took over the English national team three years ago. Capello's predecessor, Steve McClaren, had been, in the popular conception, pathetic, a dunce, his tenure symbolized by the image of him wilting under an oversize umbrella during a rainy loss to Croatia. ("The Wally With the Brolly," the Daily Mail called him, it being an inviolable convention of international sporting protocol that real men do not avail themselves of precipitation-diversion technology.) McClaren was seen as being too soft on his pampered star players. His failure to help England qualify for the 2008 European Championship threw the country's always-sensitive sports-media machine into the "apocalyptic purge" phase of its worship-resentment cycle.

Thus arrived Capello, a tough disciplinarian who had won multiple league titles in Italy and Spain. He was only the second non-English manager in the history of the England team, and it was perceived as a disgrace by many in England that there was no English coach who seemed capable of restoring the team to its (increasingly remote) glory. Still, there was a clear understanding in the press that a crackdown was necessary: not only a tacticalcrackdown, designed to improve the team's focus and help it win, but in some sense a moral crackdown, designed to punish the players on the fans' behalf—a great deal was written around this time about lifestyle excesses and inflated salaries—and to restore an order that only the fans' investment in player-celebrity culture had allowed to be toppled in the first place.

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Capello seized the situation brilliantly, treating every training camp as an excuse to leak exciting tidbits about the rules he'd put in place and the minor humiliations he'd inflicted. No texting during team meals, the papers crowed; no sex at major tournaments. He told the country a story it was longing to hear. Since England's draw with the United States last week, Capello's tactics have been fiercely criticized. But at the time, the cheesy Fabio Capello-is-the-Godfather narrative, which was endlessly repeated in the media, managed to restore a semblance of calm to a hyperventilating sports scene—which in turn helped the team win matches.

At this World Cup, more than one-third of the coaches are non-natives like Capello. Foreigners are managing the Australian, Greek, and Chilean squads, and only one African team, Algeria, has an African coach. (When Ghana beat Serbia last week, both teams' managers were Serbian.) Most often, these foreign-born coaches are acquired in the hope that they'll bring the arcana of an established soccer country to one that has farther to go. In other words, the foreign-born manager is something of a get-rich-quick scheme—a Dutch or Brazilian savior for an otherwise hopeless nation. Think of Baron von Steuben teaching Prussian military tactics to American troops in the Revolutionary War.

For my money, the quintessential manager at this World Cup is Sven-Göran Eriksson, once of England and Mexico, now of Côte d'Ivoire. (He's Swedish.) Since he arrived on the international scene, Eriksson—a thin-lipped, goggle-eyed mad scientist with a stare that flutters from mockery to panic—has leapt from scandal to controversy with the grace of a determined mountain goat. In no particular order, he has: been caught in an affair with his secretary in England; gotten himself fired after just eight months in Mexico; been involved in a weird plot by a group of mysterious Middle Eastern investors to take over the tiny English club Notts County; been the manager of choice of deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra; and been caught in a sting operation in Dubai by a newspaper reporter disguised as a sheikh. Most recently, during his Ivory Coast team's World Cup run, he's been maneuvering for the open job at Liverpool by declaring that he's a lifelong Liverpool fan, a fact that he somehow managed to keep secret during the six years he spent at two previous coaching positions in England.

Yet despite the fact that his on-field record over the last decade is mixed, Eriksson keeps getting jobs, in part because he's the most shameless self-promoter in soccer and in part because he's forever leaping ahead to the next thing before any characterization can stick. More than any of his peers, the Swede seems to possess an innate understanding of his line of work: To succeed in a fundamentally absurd job, it doesn't hurt to be a fundamentally absurd character.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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