The curious world of the soccer manager

They're a rum bunch, endlessly beloved by sportswriters and TV sports news. In the news channels, they are paraded before the cameras, solemnly making pronouncements which are awesomely banal, usually with the gloomiest of faces. Among the British football managers most often paraded, in news clips, most mutter in thick accents, either foreign or densely regional, and generally appearing unremittingly glum.

Well he would, wouldn't he?

They feed into the growing genre of Near News (analogous to Near Beer which contains no alcohol) in which a news bulletin is crowded with stories of what MIGHT happen, or what someone thinks could happen. Usually, the manager is stumblingly insisting that his team will win their next game. Real news is the actual outcome of the game, and perhaps it would also be actual news if a manager announced that his team was so awful it was certain to lose. When I am told that this or that manager predicts success for his team, I remember the immortal Mandy Rice-Davies, a pretty young woman involved in a series of sex and politics scandals in the 1960's. When in court it was put to her that Lord Astor, alleged to have been involved with her, had denied this, her reply has become legendary: "Well he would, wouldn't he? " she responded.

Domenech: Nobody Loves Raymond

Some of the managers are eccentric, but also clumsy and impaired in basic social skills, such as the controversial French manager, Raymond Domenech, whose behaviour in the South African World Cup has been so questionable. He is said to select players based on astrology. Apparently he especially prefers not to play Scorpios, and has concerns about playing a Leo in defence. He has turned up at press conferences wearing an unappetisingly tight red devil suit. He proposed to his then girl-friend live on French TV after his team's disastrous performance in the Euro 2008 contests. Attending the recent ATP Paris Masters tennis tournament, when his face was shown on the large court-side TV screen, he attracted loud boos from the crowd, and his own players sitting nearby, laughed at him. A former porn actress released a CD track called 'Je Kiffe Raymond' (I Fancy Raymond). He is said to have played show tunes at practise sessions. Legend has it that as a player for Lyon, he concreted over his front garden, complaining that green grass reminded him of the colours of the rival team St Etienne. (Yet he wasn't bothered by the grass they routinely played on?)

He's quoted as having said: "I am not superstitious, it brings bad luck". Hmmm.

Pacing and Pantomime

Maybe the managers are keen to make inane comments between games, because they are so limited in what they can do during a game. They sit, literally, on the sidelines, or prowling back and forth, glowering and gurning, howling and baying at the pack, but with very little ability to intervene. Their role is often theatrical rather than strategic. Apart from limited power to substitute players, they can't advise their team except through wild pantomime.

These international managers we see at the World Cup are even odder, as theirs is a strictly part-time team. Most of the year the men are scattered and playing for other managers, other teams. They can watch other games, to help them eventually elect a national side. They become important only intermittently when the grand tournaments arise.

A patriot for hire

Some wander the world, coaching different nations, becoming a sort of very highly paid temporary patriot. So long as the team is successful, they are feted, and when the team fails, they're often reviled. They need to be adept at handling the media, though not many show much skill here - as whatever tactics or selections they are considering need to remain confidential they actually have very little they could usefully say, yet they need to remain in the media spotlight, as a sort of national avatar, uttering banalities which the usually hysterical and hyperventilating sporting journalists can examine, massage and try to construe as having profound meaning.

The media, eager to lionise them while successful, will rapidly turn on them when times are bad. I remember a former English manager caught by a photographer sitting under a large umbrella while his team lost, followed by the headline in a national newspaper: "The Wally with the Brolly".

An indulgent dictator

They're often portrayed as either too soft on their temperamental and wealthy players, or as stern disciplinarian dictators. And sometimes both. As players have become both enormously wealthy and absorbed into the flashy bling of the celebrity world, they become obviously more difficult to manage. If their latest excesses will get them on the covers of the glossy magazines, will they care that the manager is unhappy?

When like Fabio Capello they crack down on life-style trivia (no texting during meals), the reader feels somehow vindicated. They don't easily relate to the nation whose teams they control - over one-third are non-native. Only Algeria, of the African teams, has an African coach. Maybe it's assumed that the foreigners will bring usable secrets from other countries.

Sven-Göran Eriksson is an interesting specimen. A Swede who's managed England and Mexico, and now Côte d'Ivoire, he has been most successful at three things - self-promotion, surviving scandals, and getting jobs, though not necessarily succeeding in them. He was in the headlines for an affair with his secretary, he's been caught by the press in a sting operation with a phoney sheikh, dabbled with the deposed Thai Prime Minister, and all with a wild gleam in his eye. His teams haven't done all that well, and he usually seems to be working towards his next job, rather than on the present one. He's like one of those folks who ask you for a dance, and spend the whole time looking over your shoulder, choosing their next partner.

Still, in a tournament of mainly low-scoring and often drawn games, the managers at least give you something entertaining to watch.

(Prof M. A. Simpson, Health24's Cybershrink, June 2010)

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