Off the Managerial Merry-Go-Round

David Runciman

Here comes the World Cup – and how nice it is to be able to contemplate a tournament where the focus will be on what happens on the pitch rather than in the dugout. During the club season just past, the cult of the football manager got out of hand. The dominant narrative was the will-they-won’t-they-sack-him saga of David Moyes, routinely painted as a Greek tragedy but really nothing more than a tale of modest executive incompetence. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho made more headlines than any of his players; indeed, than all of his players combined. The question of who would be crowned manager of the season (Rodgers at Liverpool? Poyet at Sunderland? Pulis at Palace?) got as much attention as the destination of the title itself, especially once it was clear that the team to finish top would predictably be the team that had had the most money spent on it.

Even the Champions League, whose format closely resembles the World Cup, ended up overshadowed by the managerial merry-go-round. By the semi-final stage it was all about the ex-Chelsea manager at Real, the ex-Real manager at Chelsea, the ex-Barca manager at Bayern, and the upstart at Atlético thumbing a nose to them all. Everyone had become everyone else’s nemesis. It was like a soap opera in which the main characters have been round the block once too often.

Along with most semi-serious football fans, I could tell you the name of the manager of every English Premier League club on the last day of last season. These things are unavoidable. I also know the names of the winners of every World Cup, who they played in the final and what the score was. But ask me who their managers were and I’m pretty clueless. I know a few: Alf Ramsey of course, and I remember César Luis Menotti, the Argentina manager in 1978, because as a child I was fascinated by his long hair and his smoking. But who coached the great Brazilian teams, or the Italian or the German ones? Who managed Argentina in 1986, or France in 1998? Some vaguely familiar faces come to mind but putting names to faces and then tournaments to names is not easy. I could easily find out, of course. Part of the reason I don’t know is that it doesn’t seem to matter much.

The World Cup is not really a managers’ tournament. Of course tactics sometimes play their part and so does team selection. But the people who make the biggest difference are the players who can turn a game or revive a campaign, often in ways that are impossible to predict. The tournament doesn’t last long enough for the rubs of the green and the flashes of genius to even themselves out. It’s arbitrary (four of the last six World Cup winners have survived a penalty shoot-out along the way) and it’s opportunistic. That’s what makes it fun. A small number of players will acquire a reputation over the next month that they will never leave behind. That’s unlikely to be true of their managers. Perhaps one or two will make a mistake that scuppers their team's chances: an untimely substitution in a very big game is hard to live down (just ask Alf Ramsey). More of that later, no doubt. But in all those lists of greatest World Cup this or that (matches, goals, saves, strikers, fouls, fuck-ups), have you ever seen a list of the greatest World Cup managers? Me neither. It’s a players’ tournament.

Mourinho’s ultimate ambition is said to be to manage the Portuguese national team at a World Cup. I don’t believe it. If that ever happens it will be a sign that his real ambition is spent.