For all of Diego Maradona’s heroics in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup win, it was coach Carlos Bilardo’s ‘anti-football’ that caught the attention of the analysts. Bilardo’s win-at-all-costs mentality did not go down too well with purists. He was superstitions and performed strange rituals before games. For instance, he always borrowed toothpaste from players on match days, did not allow the team to eat chicken and made them travel to the stadium in cabs—all because he thought it would bring them good luck. “There’s absolutely nothing unusual in what I do,” he said about his idiosyncrasies and tactics.
Over time, things have changed at the tournament. Though there have been instances of coaches ‘parking the bus’ to kill creativity at this World Cup, it has been largely the attack-minded ones who have succeeded. The only instance so far, where a coach has been blatantly accused of playing ‘anti-football’, was when Japanese fans booed their team for the pragmatic approach that coach Akira Nishino took to help them scrape past the group stage at the cost of the more entertaining Senegal. Nishino later admitted that he felt guilty for asking his players to sit back and defend, even though they were in a losing position against Poland. But, it was a logical approach, given that Japan would have been eliminated had they conceded one more goal.
A more accurate depiction of Nishino’s style of play was in the round of 16 loss to Belgium, where, despite being 2-0 up, the Japanese kept charging at the Belgium goal. Though this gave Belgium the chance to hit back with three goals, the Blue Samurais won hearts with their fearless attacking. “This is how we like to play,” Maya Yoshida said after the heartbreaking loss. The centre-back was instrumental in denying Romelu Lukaku on several occasions. “I think we did the right thing. The boss knows what’s best,” he said.
Senegal fans could be forgiven for not sympathising with Japan. Their team had finished level on points and goal difference with Japan. But, the latter had collected fewer bookings. And so, for the first time in the history of the tournament, a team was eliminated by the fair play rule. Senegal, the last surviving African team, went out, fighting, under a coach who is changing the face of African football. Aliou Cisse had several distinctions at this World Cup—he was the only black coach, the youngest (42) and the least paid. With his long braids and horn-rimmed glasses, the dashing coach became a darling of the masses, particularly after the team defeated Poland in their first game.
Senegal was making an appearance at the Cup after 16 years. In 2002, captained by Cisse, they had made it to the quarterfinals on their World Cup debut, beating reigning champions France along the way. Cisse’s slow, fist-pumping celebration became the World Cup’s most GIF-able moment. But, there is more to Cisse than meets the eye. He has expressed his desire to see more young, black coaches at the World Cup. The players talk about him with reverence. He has emerged as a manger who insists that African players use their brains over brawn, a departure from the style of play usually linked to teams from the continent.
Uruguay’s 71-year-old coach Oscar Tabarez, perhaps, epitomises fighting spirit like no other. Tabarez, the oldest manager at the Cup, uses a crutch because he suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nervous system disorder. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2016, and it restricted him to a wheelchair and a Zimmer frame. His condition has improved, but still needs help from the staff. That does not stop him from limping his way to the touchline to guide his players, as was evident when they defeated Portugal.
He has been in charge of the Uruguayan national team since 2006, guiding them to a Copa America victory in 2011. He also took them to the 2010 World Cup semifinal, the country’s first since 1970. The man’s biggest achievement, though, has been the transformation of the national team’s reputation. In the 1970s and 1980s, Uruguay were known for their violent football and the chaos in the domestic football system. When Tabarez was first made coach of the national team in 1988, he sought to change things. He made changes, but had barely scratched the surface before his departure in 1990.
Tabarez then had coaching stints in Argentina, Italy and Spain, before returning to Uruguay in 2002. He did not take up any jobs until he was offered the task of revitalising the national team four years later. By then, he had already started laying the foundation of a grand plan. El proceso (the process), he called it. It involved going to the lowest levels of youth football to change mindsets. He called on local clubs to take the initiative and, soon, all youth teams trained and lived with their seniors. It was not something that was new to world football. But, such a system was new to Uruguay. From his stints in Europe, Tabarez learnt that this was the most sustainable way forward for his home country. He sought to clean up the game through this process. Moreover, he instilled in them a deep sense of pride for the national team and its culture. He also insisted that all players take their studies seriously, as it made them more intelligent players.
The transformation is there for all to see. For instance, in the group stages, Uruguay committed only 33 fouls, among the least across teams. They received only one yellow card till the quarterfinal. Ten of the 11 most capped Uruguayan players have been products of, or have benefitted from, el proceso.
Apart from the enigmatic Tabarez, one of the most respected coaches at the World Cup, Brazil’s Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, aka Tite, is an eternal student of the game. He is called ‘professor’ by his players, and with good reason. Tite was doing wonders with Corinthians in Brazil, and was considered one of the best tactical minds in the country’s footballing scene around the time of the last World Cup. So, when Brazil crashed out and Luis Felipe Scolari was sacked, Tite eagerly waited for the football association to give him a call. But, Dunga was appointed and Tite was heartbroken.
In a write-up for The Players Tribune, Tite said that he cried for a week, before he picked himself up and decided to earn the spot. He was on a sabbatical from training then. Tite decided to broaden his understanding of the game. He travelled to Europe, learned the nitty-gritty of the various styles of play and spent quality time under coaches like Carlo Ancelotti. Even for a veteran like Tite, there was much to learn.
He returned to Brazil and rejoined Corinthians in late 2014, before going on to win the league title with them the following year by a record margin. The Brazil bosses were finally convinced and Tite was roped in as head coach in 2016, as the team was floundering in their qualification campaign for Russia 2018. Tite turned Brazil’s fortunes around and they became the first team to qualify for the Cup. Among Tite’s peculiarities is that he has had 17 different captains ever since he took over. He has continued this trend into the tournament. He does this for several reasons. To ensure that he is in complete control of the team, to groom new leaders in the squad and to ensure that no player considers himself bigger than the team.
In stark contrast to veterans like Tabarez and Tite, Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson was tired of the lack of professional respect given to him and his coaching staff. His second job as a dentist was more discussed than his team’s tactics or their aim of going the distance. “If people still think it is some kind of Cinderella story, and that in some way we don’t deserve it, then they underestimate us,” he had said in an interview with The Guardian, before the tournament. Hallgrimsson had a long, but less than glittering playing career. While playing for IBV, an Icelandic club, he also coached the club’s women’s team. He took over the Iceland national team in 2013, led them to the quarterfinals in their first Euro, in 2016, and then got them to qualify for their first FIFA World Cup. Though Hallgrimsson’s Iceland team played a high pressing game, using a 4-2-3-1 formation, in the qualifiers and friendlies leading up to the tournament, he often showed a knack for shifting his strategy on the go. Iceland did not get past the group stages, but gave their opponents a run for their money.
In a tournament that has produced thrills aplenty, the giant slayers are kings. Upset after upset has rattled the traditional powers. The biggest, perhaps, came when Mexico beat reigning champions Germany in the opening match of Group F. Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio claimed that he had spent months planning for the match. But, the ‘cerebral coach’ was powerless in the round of 16 as Tite’s Brazil withstood waves of Mexican counter-attacks and then broke their system to send them packing. Though, it was only the eighth defeat for the Colombian Osorio in his 50 games as Mexico coach.
In the round of 16 clash against hosts Russia, Spain played 1,137 passes, compared with Russia’s 284. But the Russians held their ground and finished the job from the penalty spot, thanks to goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. All of a sudden, Stanislav Cherchesov was being hailed a national hero. He hogged the spotlight after the historic victory and insisted that it was all part of the plan.
French coach Didier Deschamps, the 1998 World Cup winning captain, is considered a soft figure, unsure of how to get the best out of his wards. But, if France wins, he will become only the third person to captain and coach World Cup winning teams. Standing in their way could be one of France’s all-time greats—Thierry Henry, Belgium’s assistant coach. Henry and head coach Roberto Martinez, are doing an incredible job in getting the best out of the country’s golden generation. Martinez made an inspired double substitution in the 65th minute against Japan. His substitutes, Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, scored the second and third goals as Belgium won 3-2.
The World Cup is nearing its business end and it has undoubtedly been one of the most watchable editions of all time, if not the best. As the playing field narrows, the teams, both underdogs and heavyweights, are getting ready to etch their legacy in stone. In such situations, only the strongest survive. And the men at the helm, and their battle plans, will be more crucial than ever.
IN A WORD
Meaning: To the birds
REMEMBER Roberto Baggio’s shocking penalty kick in 1994? Peru’s Christian Cueva had a similar moment this time, when he skied a first half penalty, in the country’s first World Cup game in 36 years. Denmark won that game 1-0 and it was another case of “what if...?”
Now, a Russian would describe this mishit as po vorobyam. It means the shot was so high, it could hit birds in the sky. If you see any player in the knockout stage skying an easy chance, you know what to say.