Tuesday, June 03, 2008

International football an old man's game

There is a trend in the European Championships. Otto Rehhagel, 65 at the time, struck a blow for seniority at Euro 2004. Marcello Lippi, then 58, got his hands on the World Cup two years ago. The previous tournament was won by Luiz Felipe Scolari who, although a mere 53 at the time, has long appeared a man of a previous generation with his upright stance and disciplinarian views.

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The 69-year-old Aragones could be in luck

So the chances are that in Vienna on June 29, the victorious manager will strengthen Sir Alex Ferguson's belief (a rather self-justifying theory that the 66-year-old Champions League winner is permitted nonetheless) that bosses, like his beloved wines, improve with age.

This theory bodes well for Spain's Luis Aragones (69), even if some of his ill-judged comments suggest he has learned little over the years. France's Raymond Domenech (56) also has his claims enhanced along with Scolari who, like Sweden's Lars Lagerback, is nearing his 60th birthday.

Among the outsiders, and quickly ignoring Austria's Josef Hickersberger (60), there is the 64-year-old Swiss boss Kobi Kuhn, Leo Beenhakker (65), the pensioner in charge of Poland, the wrinkled Czech Karel Bruckner (68) and the indefatigable Rehhagel, second in seniority only to Aragones.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Roberto Donadoni has the silver locks, but not the years in management. While Marco van Basten and Slaven Bilic are outnumbered by men old enough to be their father. Superbly as the latter has done with Croatia, the prevailing feeling is that international football is an old man's game.

Come the next World Cup, Fabio Capello and Ottmar Hitzfeld may again prove that, but why is it an environment where the saga generation flourish? One explanation is that their younger counterparts acknowledge the superiority of the club game, preferring its intensity and, of course, its money, leaving the field free for the veterans to ply their trade on a different stage.

Lawrie Sanchez and Alex McLeish used international football to establish their reputations while Roy Hodgson and Walter Smith were able to rehabilitate theirs. Only the jobs with the wealthier countries retain their lure and even then, as England discovered, not enough to stop Sven-Goran Eriksson's eye wandering.

But while international football has become a lucrative form of semi-retirement, the merits of an old head in the dugout are evident. While there is evidence to suggest that the majority of the best club managers are appointed by their mid forties, in international football, they can be one or even two decades later in life.

A maturity of judgment can compensate for a lack of energy. As the eventful career of the much travelled Guus Hiddink, now 61, shows, possessing finely-honed talents that can be applied to different teams is invaluable. The Russia manager is proof, too, that international management can become a specialist pursuit; much as Test and one-day cricketers require some similar skills but certain separate attributes, so do managers of clubs and countries.

The latter is not a pursuit for the control freaks among managers. They do not see their players for 52 weeks a year and theirs rarely need be a 16 or 18-hour day. But there is an unforgiving aspect to international management that even the club game struggles to replicate. Entire tenures are judged on one match, a two-year spell can be deemed either a success or failure because of one substitution, one tactical switch or one surprise selection.

The stop-start nature of it means that, after months of inactivity, they have mere moments to adjudicate. When each choice is scrutinised, those decades of practice can come in handy. It is an environment, too, where there is much they cannot control, and not merely because of the impossibility of transfers. They have less time to organise and galvanise a team, to forge a spirit off the field and an understanding on it.

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Big Phil is counting the years

Force of personality is required to combat over-protective club coaches, but, as managers of the lesser sides can testify, there is little they can do when the country's key player is banished to the reserves. So the ability to revise plans rapidly is essential. Injuries affect all managers, but in the international game they can entail handing a pivotal role to uncapped players, or those with a handful of friendly appearances as a replacement. Bold decision-making, under the pressure of a nation's expectations, is not easy.

Lest it be forgotten, Scolari won the 2002 World Cup without his chosen captain, Emerson, and with a comparatively untried central midfield partnership of Gilberto Silva and Kleberson. In Euro 2004, he discarded four of his regular side after a solitary game and went on to reach the final.

Rehhagel's ultimate triumph then was instructive, too, with his side among the most organised in memory, but without the benefit of time a club manager has to drill a defence. In 2006 Lippi's keeper, Gianluigi Buffon, was only beaten twice, despite losing a first-choice central defender, Alessandro Nesta, for much of the tournament. And in the last two World Cups, Hiddink's gift for improvisation from the dugout has been very evident.

Football, like many elements of popular culture, can appear in thrall to the new. It can be an ageist cult that grows both bored and sceptical of the old. Yet, following Ferguson's renaissance, the lesson of Euro 2008, as of recent international tournaments, could be that it is good to be grey.

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