This afternoon at Wembley Stadium, the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger will pit his considerable wits against those of a jowly 62-year-old Dutchman whose record in football management is even more illustrious than his own. The occasion is the FA Cup semi-final, and the Dutchman is Guus Hiddink, the boss of the Russian national team moonlighting until the end of this season as Chelsea manager at the behest of the club's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who bankrolls the Russian Football Federation.
He who pays the piper calls the tune, as the old saying goes, and Abramovich has decreed a playlist of Kalinka and the Chelsea anthem "Blue Is the Colour". Since 11 February this year Hiddink has had the tricky task of humming both tunes at the same time.
He probably won't have to do so for much longer. His contract with Chelsea expires on 31 May, the day after the FA Cup final (in which Chelsea, if they beat Arsenal, will play the winners of tomorrow's tie between Everton and Manchester United) and four days after the Champions League final, in which Chelsea will feature if they beat the tournament favourites Barcelona, having on Tuesday dispatched Liverpool 7-5 on aggregate after an extraordinary 4-4 draw. In helping his players to overturn a 0-2 half-time deficit, Hiddink needed all his tactical cuteness and motivational strength.
Yet despite much speculation that he might now choose to make permanent his stay in west London, Hiddink has repeatedly insisted that he will, at the end of May, return full-time to the challenge of steering Russia to next year's World Cup in South Africa. But the Chelsea captain John Terry this week added his voice to those clamouring for Abramovich to keep Hiddink in the hot seat at Stamford Bridge.
And while not even Abramovich the piper-payer will force the redoubtable Hiddink to make a career choice against his will, it could yet be, depending on what happens as Chelsea's season reaches its denouement, that the man nicknamed Lucky Guus by his compatriots, and indeed the holder of not one handsomely recompensed job but two, will choose to forsake Red Square for Sloane Square.
Moreover, since Terry is also captain of his national team, it might just have occurred to him that a Hiddink-less Russia will pose less of a threat to England at the World Cup, assuming both countries get there. For the Dutchman has a remarkable pedigree in squeezing every ounce of potential out of the international teams he has managed. Astonishingly, he guided unfancied South Korea to fourth place in the 2002 World Cup, and four years later took the Australian team, the Socceroos, into the second round, where they were defeated by eventual champions Italy only by virtue of a highly controversial penalty three minutes into injury time. By then, Hiddink had already announced his intention to join Russia, and duly proved worth his weight in roubles, taking his new charges to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 (at the expense, in the quarter-final, of his native Netherlands).
England, should anyone need reminding, did not even qualify for Euro 2008. Indeed, Hiddink's name was bellowed from the rooftops by many football cognoscenti when the Football Association were looking for someone to replace the hapless Steve McClaren as head coach. In choosing Fabio Capello instead, the FA mandarins appear for once to have made a decision no less astute than the one they could have made, although there are still those who feel that Hiddink and England would have made more natural bedfellows than Capello and England. The Italian, after all, had never before managed on the international stage, whereas Hiddink has a unique place on that stage, having worked various wonders with South Korea, Australia and Russia.
His first foray into international management, however, was in his homeland. In 1988 Hiddink had shown his rare tactical nous and man-management skills in leading the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven to an unprecedented treble, which included the European Cup. He then, after a brief period at the Turkish club Fenerbahce, took up the reins at Valencia, and wowed the Spanish league by getting his team playing the kind of stylish attacking football previously associated with the twin behemoths of Spanish football, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But it was not only on the pitch that he made an impact at Valencia. Almost more significantly, it was in the stands too. Before one of Valencia's home games at the Estadio Mestalla he spotted a racist banner and insisted on its removal before kick-off, adding that he would lead his players off the field if it reappeared once the game was under way.
Not many managers would have had the guts to force an issue with their own team's fans in this way, but Hiddink is nothing if not his own man (Abramovich take note), as he showed even more forcefully when he took on the supreme challenge, for any Dutch football man, of managing the national side once graced by the great Johann Cruyff, but by 1995, when Hiddink took over, beset by petty internecine disputes between prissy prima donnas seemingly masquerading as footballers. It was an outfit, as my colleague James Lawton has written, "said to veer on the brink of rebellion if one of them woke up displeased with the hotel bedroom decor". If anyone had the strength of character to sort things out, it was Hiddink.
It wasn't easy. At the 1996 European Championships in England he was accused of cutting off his nose to spite his face, or whatever might be the Dutch equivalent, by expelling one of his best players, Edgar Davids. When the Dutch were subsequently hammered 4-1 by Terry Venables's resurgent England team, Hiddink was lambasted for his bloody-mindedness in sending Davids home, but within two years he had confounded all criticism by not only taking the Netherlands team to the semi-final of the World Cup, but also masterminding some of the most scintillating football played in the tournament.
After the narrowest of semi-final defeats in a penalty shoot-out against Brazil , Hiddink returned to club football, this time with Real Madrid, and again refused to compromise his principles, loudly and unequivocally criticising the club's autocratic directors and their preposterous spending policies. In due course, inevitably, he paid for his honesty with his job.
There are, it must be said, compatriots of Hiddink's who might scoff at the word honesty. Two years ago he was found guilty of tax fraud by a Dutch court and handed a six-month suspended jail sentence, plus a €45,000 fine. The formidably named Dutch Tax Intelligence and Detection Service had found that in claiming to be a resident of Belgium in 2002 and 2003, he had actually spent most of his time in the Netherlands, and had therefore tried to sidestep a €1.4m tax liability.
Whether or not he was deliberately trying to avoid paying tax, this is the decidedly colourful CV of the man whose rather glum features will this afternoon look out from the Chelsea dugout on to the Wembley turf. Like his Arsenal counterpart Wenger, Hiddink is a classic example of an ordinary footballer with extraordinary managerial acumen. He spent most of his unremarkable playing career with the humble Dutch club De Graafschap, but his friendship with manager Piet De Visser would yield later dividends for both men. When Hiddink managed PSV Eindhoven, he employed De Visser as a scout, who unearthed the marvellous Brazilian striker Romario among other South American jewels. Later, De Visser would recommend Hiddink to Abramovich, for whom he, De Visser, works as an adviser on football matters.
It is hard to work out the nature of the relationship between Hiddink and Abramovich. Some call it a friendship, others a business alliance, and sometimes an uneasy one at that. Hiddink will be all too aware of his paymaster's impetuosity, which has already resulted in the hiring and firing of three Chelsea managers, in the spectacularly contrasting forms of Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari. The sudden dismissal of Scolari, the highly rated former coach of Brazil, showed Abramovich at his worst; the impossible-to-please tycoon using a football club as his plaything, seemingly unable or unwilling to recognise that success in football is the result, not the cause, of managerial stability.
Yet the Russian, for all his rich man's indulgences, is a bright fellow. He surely knows that Arsenal and Manchester United, one of which will end up in the final of the Champions League, while both might also contest the FA Cup final, are the two most successful English teams of the past decade and that, not remotely coincidentally, they have also had the same managers for the past decade (and indeed rather longer, especially in the case of United boss Sir Alex Ferguson).
If Hiddink stays only to the end of May then there will be yet more upheaval at Chelsea, and a baton can be handed on only so many times before it is disastrously dropped. Since succeeding Scolari, the Dutchman has not yet demonstrated all his fabled powers of alchemy – Chelsea have after all, conceded seven goals in their last two games, albeit while scoring eight – but it is hard to think of anyone better qualified to deliver the silverware that Abramovich still craves.
A life in brief
Born: 8 November 1946, Varsseveld, Netherlands.
Family: Third of six sons of mother Jo and father Gerhardus, who was a hero in the Dutch resistance during the Second World War.
Early Life: At 15, he broke into his hometown club SC Varsseveld's senior team. But it was thought he lacked the pace to succeed in professional football.
Career: Played for PSV Eindhoven among others before moving into management. In 1988 he managed his old club PSV to a domestic and European treble. He led Holland and South Korea to respective semi-finals in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals. Made manager of the Australian national team. After the 2006 World Cup he became Russia's manager and now also manages Chelsea.
He says: "I have been here many times for games and I love the way this self-irony that is common in England. You can look very well in the mirror and say: 'How stupid I am.' This is good to see."
They say: "Man United should be wary. The English have already realised what a special trainer our Guus Hiddink is." Andrei Arshavin, Russia and Arsenal player