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How the National Team Coach Went from Patriotic Symbol to Globe-Trotting Mercenary

Whistles for hire

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday night, Russia marks its return to the World Cup after missing out on South Africa 2010. At the helm is Fabio Capello, the itinerant Italian who has previously managed everywhere from Spain (Real Madrid) to Italy (Juventus, AC Milan, and Roma) to England (the English national team). Below, Noah Davis charts the rise of the Capellos of the world: how national-team managers went from being an afterthought in the nineteenth century to indispensable modern-day mercenaries. This piece originally appeared as a part of  Howler Magazine's mega World Cup Timeline, which can be downloaded here

In the spring of 1993, Alexi Lalas was a relatively unknown 22-year-old defender hoping for a chance at greatness. The former Hermann Trophy winner found himself with the rest of the United States’ best soccer players going through the paces during a Bora Milutinovic training camp. The goal: a spot on the 1994 World Cup squad. 

The eccentric, charismatic coach, a Serbian who got Costa Rica to the second round of the 1990 tournament, needed a group of players who bled red, white, and blue. One day, Lalas got that chance to prove he belonged. A team administrator made it known that Milutinovic didn’t approve of his young defender’s trademark long red hair. In his hotel room, Lalas hemmed and hawed and yelled and screamed, but he eventually went to a barbershop. 

“I came back to the team meeting that night, and Bora looked at me and said, ‘You look very nice,’” Lalas recalls. “That was all he said. From that moment on, I started growing my hair back out, and I grew a goatee. He never said a single other thing about my appearance or about the way that I looked. It was a test, to see how I would react and how badly I wanted to be there.” 

Lalas made the World Cup squad, the U.S. reached the second round, and the rest is history. But this isn’t a story about him. It’s about Milutinovic—who has gone on to coach seven more national teams and is one of two men to coach at least five different teams in the World Cup—and others like him. Men who understand tests, who thrive in the weird world of coaching players who come together once a month, if that. Men who specialize in coaching national teams. 

The Origin of the Nation Team Coach

In 1872, England and Scotland famously played the first international, a listless 0–0 draw in front of 4,000 spectators at the West of Scotland Cricket Club’s ground at Hamilton Crescent. Neither side had an official coach, although FA Cup creator Charles Alcock—unable to play due to injury—assisted on the English sideline. 

The concept of a national team coach developed slowly, truly coming into wide use in the 1910s and 1920s. Thomas Cahill led the United States squad on a tour of Scandinavia in 1916. Francisco Bru won four of the five games he coached for Spain in 1920 as he led La Roja to a silver medal at the Olympics. Adolfo Frías Beltrán went 4-1-1 at the helm of the Mexican team in 1923. Otto Nerz took over Germany in 1926 and led the country to a third-place finish at the 1934 World Cup. 

The idea of a full-time manager is even more recent. England didn’t have one until 1946, when the FA appointed former Manchester United midfielder Walter Winterbottom. Though he had never before been a manager, he lasted 16 years in the position. (The fact that he was not allowed to select his own players might have had something to do with his staying power.) Similarly, a selection committee chose the Scottish team until 1954, when Andy Beattie took over full-time. He resigned midway through the 1954 World Cup, disgusted with the team that had been chosen for him. 

In the past, a coach could last with the same national team for a decade or more. Helmut Schön spent 14 years with West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, while Enzo Bearzot managed Italy at the 1978, 1982, and 1986 World Cups. In today’s game, however, a man like Morten Olsen, who has been head coach of Denmark since 2000, is the exception. National team coaches get one World Cup cycle (if they are lucky). Anything more and the list grows short. American Bob Bradley took over the U.S. team after the World Cup in 2006 and managed through the 2010 tournament, then signed on for another stint but was let go in 2011 after a loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Loyalty is no longer a priority; results are. 

As the role of the national team coach has grown both in prestige and scope—recruiting players, developing tactics, acting as figurehead—an increasing number of men have specialized in coaching countries rather than clubs. They bounce from nation to nation, rarely staying long in one place but always seeming to find enough success to rise up somewhere else. 

The Rise of the Mercenary

Here’s Lalas on why Milutinovic was so good: “The very thing that turns it off for some people is what he loves: that vagabond, gypsy type of lifestyle, or maybe even that pirate, marauding type of lifestyle. Coming in, fixing something quickly, and trying to find out quickly what the strengths and weaknesses are.” 

These are traits you’ll find shared in the most successful mercenary national team coaches. Consider seven names: Bora Milutinovic (Mexico x2, Costa Rica, United States, Nigeria, China, Honduras, Jamaica, and Iraq), Carlos Alberto Parreira (Ghana, Kuwait, Brazil, United Arab Emirates x2, Saudi Arabia x2, Brazil x2, South Africa x2), Guus Hiddink (Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Russia, Turkey), Philippe Troussier (Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, Qatar, Morocco), Luiz Felipe Scolari (Kuwait, Brazil x2, Portugal), Sven-Göran Eriksson (England, Mexico, Ivory Coast), and Carlos Queiroz (Portugal x2, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, and Iran). Each man is between 60 and 70 years old. Each man has moved around the world, coaching national teams and, yes, the occasional club team as well, including “Big Phil” Scolari in Brazil and Eriksson in Serie A. Their careers have followed from the general trend of national federations becoming more willing to hire nonnatives for the most visible coaching position in the country. (Remember the outrage over Eriksson for England?) 

Whether they won or lost at the World Cup, all seven remained relevant, remained successful, and remained in the spotlight. It’s about the approach. “A national team doesn’t have the luxury of time or patience,” Lalas says. “That can be frustrating, or it can be liberating. Because you don’t have any time, you’re never going to find out how a player is going to be on down the line. You have to trust your gut and your instinct and recognize that some things are going to hit and some things aren’t.” Milutinovic, it turns out, had the right temperament to guide a relatively raw group of players to the round of 16 in 1994. 

Dan Gaspar, an American goalkeeper coach, has been an assistant to the man he calls Coach Queiroz since 1993. “He’s extremely organized, with a great attention to detail,” Gaspar says. “He has a crystal clear vision of where he wants to go and how he wants to get there, and provides the leadership that is necessary in order to motivate, direct, and guide people to meet those objectives and targets.” 

He continues: “Remember, the club level has that leverage of the salaries. The national team doesn’t have that. It’s very important not to only focus on the technical, tactical, and physical side but also on the psychological and emotional side.” 

Ask any long-time assistant about a national team manager, and you’ll likely hear something similar. Succeeding at different countries around the globe is as much about about motivation and, yes, manipulation, as it is about the Xs and Os. 

What's Next?

Here’s the thing about the vagabond manager: they haven’t won the biggest prizes in the soccer world. Parreira took home a World Cup with Brazil in 1994, as did Scolari in 2002, but famously no nonnative manager has ever won international soccer’s biggest prize. Hiddink probably came closest, leading Korea to the semis in 2002, showing the uncanny ability to use a country’s best strengths to its advantage. Big Phil took Portugal deep into the European Championships twice. And you could argue that Milutinovic’s teams overachieved in some tournaments. But they haven’t won the trophies their outsize reputations would indicate. Their cult of personality is much fuller than their trophy shelf. Then again, countries that hire well-traveled national team coaches aren’t looking to win; they are hiring the name and the prestige associated with the man who arrives. Hiddink failed to bring Russia to the 2010 World Cup, then immediately signed on to coach Turkey… where he was roundly criticized for his exorbitant paycheck when Turkey didn’t reach the 2012 Euros. 

We’re starting to see this trend extend to the club level, too. In 2009, Uzbekistani champions Bunyodkor paid Scolari almost $20 million per year to coach. He lasted less than a year before returning to Palmeiras and then, for the second time in his storied career, to the Brazilian national team. This is a pattern we will see increasingly as the mercenary coach grows in popularity: some combination of prominent national team gigs and high-paying jobs in far-flung regions of the globe where club teams are fueled by petrodollars or other riches. 

In many ways, the day-to-day of a coach at the small, rich club and that of the one at the national team level are similar. (How much work do we really think Scolari did while in Uzbekistan?) These international men of soccer will continue to bounce around the globe, finding work wherever there’s money and a middling national team.