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.

Diego Maradona. Click image to expand.
Argentina's coach Diego Maradona 

You've seen them on the sidelines during the World Cup, prowling with their hands in their pockets, baying after every bad call. There's Joachim Löw, the reed-thin coach of Germany, whose papery cheeks and limp mane of jet-black hair make him look like an early sketch from Coraline. There's Diego Maradona, Argentina's sagging ex-superstar, whom age and stomach-stapling surgery have lent the aspect of a sorrowing, dignified (albeit recently bearded) grandmother. There's Bob Bradley, of these United States, with his accountant's domed forehead and his cold lieutenant's eyes. They are international managers, and along with their counterparts from England, Brazil, and the rest, they are among the strangest men in sports.

All soccer coaches do a strange job, of course. Compared with the men who preside over, say, NBA teams, the soccer manager is a passive, theatrical figure. His power to change the course of a match is limited, partly because there are no timeouts, partly because he can make so few substitutions. His pre-match planning may be heroic, but once the whistle blows, he's reduced to shouting from the sideline and performing broad emotional pantomime. On television, especially, the manager seems to spend much of each game in the uneasy zone between tennis coach, unable to impart any wisdom to his harried charges, and unhinged Little League parent, reduced to screaming at nobody in particular.

The managers of domestic clubs, like Manchester United and Real Madrid, counter this seeming inefficacy simply by being constantly on hand. Domestic league seasons grind through nine long months, and the endless march of narrative—practices, press conferences, rumors, scandals, feuds—gives the managers a chance to stamp their personalities onto their teams.

International managers aren't so lucky. For most of the year, their players are off with club teams. The managers are left to wander the soccer world alone, like the generals of disbanded armies. Because the most important part of their job is simply to select the players who will appear on the team, they turn up at a lot of league games, where they glower impassively from wonderful seats that they're paid lavishly to sit in—essentially the fan's breathing antonym. Their appearances create minor press furors: Whom are they here to watch? Will he start at left back against Turkey? When the squads do assemble—it happens for a few weeks each season—they spend most of their time playing friendlies, glorified practice games with nothing on the line. The major international tournaments, brief windows when the managers assume indisputable importance, are spaced out with years between them.

The fact that national team bosses are rarely relevant doesn't mean they're ignored. In the soccer-loving precincts of the world, they're major figures, their intentions prophesied over and their decisions fiercely scrutinized. In Argentina, all eyes have been on Maradona, the lavishly troubled former star player who's coaching his country in a tournament he helped them win in 1986. Maradona warrants the attention: His vast fame, lack of coaching experience, and bizarre sideline antics make him a frighteningly compelling personality. When he accidentally ran over a cameraman on the way to the news conference he'd called to announce Argentina's World Cup squad—this is the kind of thing he does with regularity—he rolled down his window to shout that the man was an "asshole." To Maradona-watchers, the only surprising thing was that he didn't throw the car into reverse.

When they actually get around to coaching, managers can drastically alter the fates of their squads. The Dutch manager Guus Hiddink has been a hero on three continents for his work with South Korea, Australia, and Russia, all of whom he led to achievements it's unlikely they could have reached on their own. Managers can change their team's personality as well. Jürgen Klinsmann, the former coach of Germany who's been doing studio commentary for ESPN, led the Mannschaft to the semifinals of the last World Cup by convincing his normally somewhat dour and fearsome charges to have fun. The Brazilian manager, a former holding midfielder called Dunga, has turned the free-flowing seleção into a cautious, counterattacking unit, one that thumbs its disciplined nose at the country's samba-football legacy. The country howls, but he keeps his job because Brazil never seems to lose important games.

Much of the time, however, the manager's main function is to serve as an avatar for the hopes and fears of the nation. When the team isn't playing, he's less a coach than the central attraction in an ongoing media sideshow, one that reflects (and exaggerates) the highs and lows of the country's self-esteem. These days, every coach needs to know how to handle the media. But the international soccer manager may be unique in the extent to which being represented in the media is part of the basic substance of his job.

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.

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.