Football's ambitious youngsters and grizzled old men

Of the eight coaches who led their teams to the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, the youngest is still in his 30s, while the oldest will be 70 next month. There is less of a gap, but still a generation, between the Dutch coaches who shook hands after the game between The Netherlands and Russia, Marco van Basten and Guus Hiddink.

It seems that international football management is either a job for ambitious youngsters or grizzled old men.

It is a theory that intrigues Slaven Bilic.

“Why are grandfathers always better with kids than fathers?” asks Croatia’s coach, at 39 the youngest of those who took a team to Austria and Switzerland.
“Because they have more time. For me it’s better when you are 60 or 55. Then you’ve already had your career, are financially sorted and have enough energy and enormous knowledge to teach.”

Youth, or relative youth, has its benefits too, says Bilic: “If you are 60, how can you understand a player who is 20, who comes to a training ground with a ghetto blaster? I wear the same clothes as my players, I understand them—I understand when they break up with their girlfriends, I understand when they divorce. We are the same, more or less.”

Hiddink agrees that age can be an advantage. “I’m enjoying my job right now. I get a lot of positive energy working with young people, teaching them a few things. It’s a big motivation for me to keep going.”

The average age of the winning coaches in the past 10 Champions Leagues and the past 10 World Cups is the same—50. If this is the optimum age for a manager, then of those who were in the last eight of Euro 2008, only Joachim Löw (48) and Fatih Terim (54) are within five years of it. Spain’s Luis Aragonés is 69. Italy were led by Roberto Donadoni, 44.

Luis Felipe Scolari, the now former coach of Portugal, becomes boss of Chelsea in July, aged 59.

Gone, for the moment at least, are the days when leading a nation (usually the coach’s own) was considered the zenith of a career, a privileged position that recognised an impressive track record and a manager enjoying the peak of his powers.

Now, as José Mourinho emphasised by turning down both his native Portugal and England during the past 12 months, it is all about club management, with the big European leagues far more lucrative and glamorous for the men who still possess youth, looks and hair.

“I would like to manage Portugal to finish my career, maybe when I am 60 years old or something like that,” says Mourinho. At 45 and having already won Portuguese and Premier League titles, the Uefa Cup and the Champions League, Mourinho decided earlier this month to take charge at Inter in Serie A.

Even Aragones, one of Bilic’s “granddads”, is itching for a return to more regular contact with players and is considering taking over Fenerbahce in the hot-house of Turkish football.

How many years will it be before another coach quits a European champion club to take over the national team, as Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi did in 1990, the same year Graham Taylor, having led Aston Villa to second place, decided at the age of 44 that international management would advance his career?

Bilic, meanwhile, is crystal clear that the quickest and most prominent route to a big job in Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga or the Premier League is through international football. “If you are 32, 33, 34, you are ambitious, you are investing in yourself, you want to finish first. You want to win the big tournament because some chairperson will see you and you are going to get promoted and get your big chance.”

Inexperience should not count against a manager, he says. “In Croatia I had a big argument with everyone about this. Say you finish your career at 35, then you go to school and learn to coach. At 38 you want to be a manager but no, you take over a youth team and spend at least 12 years doing so until you are 50. Only then do they say, ‘OK, now maybe you are ready to take a Premier League team’. My philosophy is totally the other way round.”

This is how Bilic has plotted his career. He took over hometown club Hadjuk Split in his early 30s for a few games before being snapped up by the Croatia FA in 2004 to coach the under-21s. The senior job followed.

“The only problem is the authority, whether you’re going to have that,” he says. “You don’t have to be old and grey to have authority, though it’s easier, maybe. You don’t have to shout a lot, make a war between you and the players—that is authority by force. For the right players and characters the only authority is knowledge and honesty. You can be young and have this.” -

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