Fall out of a fascination for the foreign

Fall out of a fascination for the foreign

It’s that time when national coaching spots are up for grabs, with a coaching vacancy in one country triggering a global domino effect.

In Africa, the coaches of all five teams to be eliminated so far have resigned; ditto the men in charge of Italy and France. In England, Fabio Capello’s job is in the balance.

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The debate, cutting across continental lines, is this: Why do we need a foreign coach? In South Africa, the debate has extended to the larger issue of a lack of leadership in Africa, brought into sharp perspective by the fact that the Mo Ibrahim Prize, the continent’s highest award recognizing any national leader practising transparency and ethics in governance, has been without a winner for two years.

The complaints are obvious: the incumbent’s refusal to spend any time in his adopted country, or to learn the language, his inability to assimilate local cultures, his overall mercenary attitude. The hand-wringing is not without justification but it works both ways, with national federations adopting a myopic view for quick-fix results rather than allowing the incumbent coach to settle and improve the system.

Nigeria and Ivory Coast were both guilty of this before the World Cup, appointing foreign coaches in February and March, respectively, with the specific aim of guiding their teams through the tournament. In the case of Ivory Coast, Sven-Goran Eriksson was their fifth coach since 2008.

This fascination with foreign coaches is fairly complex but it should be easy for Indians to understand—the national teams in our three main sports have foreign coaches and, like the Africans, we have persevered with them despite mixed results. In Feet of the Chameleon, his excellent documentation on African football, Ian Hawkey describes what he calls the “whirligig" of Africa’s top management jobs, which began in the 1950s when the first foreign coaches came from behind the Iron Curtain, a sign of defiance by countries newly liberated from Western powers—again, a similarity with India.

Why did these coaches work? Part of the reason is colour—a black player will try and exploit fraternal ties with a black coach but not a man from outside; part of it is an outsider’s immunity to the influence of local political bosses; and part of it, especially recently, is owing to the refusal of the stars to play under a home-grown coach. The Nigerian Celestine Babayaro sums it up. He tells Hawkey: “For us, it’s important the boss has a big car."

Swede touch: Nigeria’s coach Lars Lagerback (left) could not turn around the team’s fortunes. AP

It’s not only African teams, of course, that have a fetish for foreign: England’s travails are well-chronicled. One reason why England favour foreign coaches is that there is no successful English club coach—the last one to win a league was Howard Wilkinson, and that was the season before the Premier League was born. Since then, the top prize has been won by two Scotsmen, a Frenchman, an Italian and a Portuguese. It is a complex relationship between their national pride and an acceptance of reality, though at times maintaining that balance is a tricky job. That leads to the venting and blood-letting—and you only have to read the tabloids to feel the pulse of what the people really think—every couple of years when the team undergoes its regular brush with serial underachievement.

In South Korea in 2002, I saw the reverence with which locals held Guus Hiddink, the man who took their team to the semi-finals. One of the more disarming explanations for his popularity was the pun on his name—it’s the way Koreans pronounce “he think", and that’s what Hiddink did, and very differently. That’s what the best coaches do; often, though, not long enough or not in the same language.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and is covering the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet. He is writing for us through the tournament.

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