International football is traditionally acknowledged as the stage which provides the ultimate challenge for any football manager. Leading a national team to a World Cup, European Championships or Copa America and to success in that tournament could result in almost beatification in some countries. However, International management is an entirely different job from club management. While a club manager deals with the expectations of thousands of fans each week, the international manager carries the weight of a country on his shoulders. And despite this pressure, the international manager is working with his hands slightly tied. Dealing with a select pool of players, limited time with these players and handling pressure from the clubs who pay the players wages.
International management is always made somewhat easier when the pool of players you have to pick from is of a high quality. This is why traditional footballing nations such as Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina, where football is immersed in the culture, are the dominant sides in the International game. However, over the years a series of international teams have achieved success, be it relative or absolute, with limited resources. There have been teams from beyond the top table, with no outstanding stars that upset the odds, beating some of the favourites en route to the latter stages of tournaments. The common denominator for each of these sides was one thing – organisation.
The classic modern example is Greece at Euro 2004 in Portugal. Beating France, the Czech Republic, and the hosts Portugal twice, the 150/1 outsiders stunned the footballing world by winning the tournament. Organised, strong and direct they were a side who played to their strengths and it paid off. Otto Rengahls side my have bored their way to victory in Portugal and they were probably the most unpopular neutrals in Football history, but that mattered little to the hundreds of thousands who danced round the streets of Athens. Winning was the objective and organisation was the method.
But perhaps the most obvious signs of the benefits of organisation is the resurgence of countries that have struggled for periods. As an Irishman, I have experienced this firsthand. While Ireland have players like John O’Shea and Aiden McGeady have played in the Champions League and Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne are consistent Premiership performers, these are not World Class players. For the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Steve Staunton, the Ireland National team were a shambles. Disorganisation ruled with the low points being the 5-2 defeat in Nicossia and scrapping past part timers Andorra. However, with largely the same pool of players Giovanni Trappatoni guided the Irish to a second place finish in a tough group that included World Champions Italy. The difference was organisation. Trappatoni, as he has done with every team he has every managed, played to the strengths of the team, setting them up in a structured and hard working fashion. Realising the limitations of the squad, Trappatonit deployed two defensive midfielders and playedtwo banks of four, aiming to nick a goal from breakaways and set pieces. The difference was obvious from the outset. The Irish team played with confidence and knew how to get results.
While not to the same extreme, another example the current England team. Under Steve McClaren, the ‘Golden Generation’ of English Football failed to qualify for Euro 2008
Defeats, poor performances and tactical disasters (and that brolly) are what the McClaren era of English football will be remembered by. Under Fabio Capello, largely the same group of players won 9 out of 10 games in World Cup qualifying and destroyed Croatia, who had embarrassed McClaren’s team at Wembley in 2007, in Zagreb. Capello is recognised as an outstanding coach, and without doubt he has brought much to the England job, but there first thing he brought to the team was organisation, his team winning 3 of their first 5 games workman like fashion. Another example is the South Korean, Austrialian and Russian teams of Guus Hiddink. It is the first thing any good coach ingrains in a side, and in the case of international football organisation can often be enough to bring success.
As Otto Rengahl said in 2004, when asked about his team’s tactics in winning Euro 2004 - “No one should forget that a coach adapts the tactics to the characteristics of the available players”.