Russia's coach Guus Hiddink insisted yesterday that he had no regrets about turning down the possibility of managing England, whom his men meet in tonight's Euro 2008 qualifier at Wembley. But the Dutchman, who rejected the chance to become Sven Goran Eriksson's successor last year, spoke so convincingly about his plans to regenerate the Russian national team that it was hard not to feel that all the regrets may yet turn out to be on the side of the Football Association.
After confirming that the FA had made "a slight approach" to his agent when it became clear that Eriksson would be stepping down, Hiddink offered a tantalising vision of how things might have been for England had he not already made a verbal agreement to work for the Russian federation.
The man whose team has lost just one of their 11 matches since he took over maintains that his players are still in a "transitional" phase, but while reaching the 2010 World Cup finals is their main target, he insisted they could hasten their development by reaching the Euro 2008 finals.
One major factor in the impact Hiddink has made since taking over in April last year is the way he has successfully integrated so many awkward characters into his squad that they have been nicknamed "Guus's Dirty Dozen" by the Russian press.
Thus Dmitry Sychev, the 23-year-old striker who earned a four-month ban after threatening to sue his club, Spartak Moscow, has been welcomed back into the fold and is now operating at the same level of achievement he first demonstrated when he broke through in the 2002 World Cup campaign aged 18.
Similarly, Igor Semshov, who dispatched himself to the international wilderness after booting a referee up the backside in 1998, has been restored to the squad, as has forward Roman Pavlyuchenko, who got into trouble last year after verbally abusing an opposing manager.
"I think it is good to have some characters that might think differently from everyone else," he said. "It makes it spicy for the group. It's very easy as someone in power to say no to something extra because it may provide you with some problems. But in top football you work on the very edge. It is the same in all sport."
Hiddink is also encouraging a new emphasis to be laid on bringing through not just promising young Russian players, but young Russian coaches. His thoughtful revolution is being complemented within the Russian League, where, as of this season, only seven foreign players can be included in a typical squad of 18. In the next three seasons, that figure will fall to four, with the intention of offering greater opportunities for homegrown talent to flourish – a fascinating model for the Premier League and the FA to contemplate.
His take on managing injured players was also instructive in the light of the ongoing debate over Steven Gerrard and The Broken Toe. "When you play these tough games," he said, "you must be top-fit."
Asked to assess how England might have fared had he taken up the FA's tap on the shoulder – "It was very honourable to hear that but I had given my word to the Russian federation. I don't regret it" – Hiddink was diplomatic, volunteering the opinion that England, having "spoilt" some points, are now "regaining their position in the group".
As for the question of whether he might consider the England job in future, Hiddink responded with a smile: "When you have seen my age , sometimes you must retire at the right moment. I cannot predict the future. But as long as I love to do the job..."Reuse content