Hiddink's achievements may leave Chelsea with cause to regret
Friday 20 June 2008
Chelsea will be confident that they landed the right man in appointing Luiz Felipe Scolari as their new £6m-a-year manager, but there may be a tinge of regret as to the one who, for political reasons, they did not pursue.
Guus Hiddink has long been regarded by some of those associated with Roman Abramovich as the billionaire's "insurance policy" should things go wrong at Chelsea, not least because, despite denials, the Russian has a strong relationship with the 61-year-old Dutchman whose salary as national team coach he helps bankroll. That said Hiddink did make it clear that he didn't want a return to club management.
Maybe there will be regrets at the Football Association also. After all their ham-fisted dealings with Hiddink, when they began to look for Sven Goran Eriksson's successor in 2006, ended up with him withdrawing his candidacy and Steve McClaren as England's coach. The rest is history. And it is Russia's history.
It's no fluke that they have negotiated their way out of the group stages of a major tournament for the first time in 20 years - made all the more remarkable given the 4-1 hammering they received in their opening game against Spain - because in Hiddink they have a serial achiever. What is all the more admirable is the exciting football, especially against a shell-shocked and worn-out Sweden, they delivered.
They now face the Netherlands, Hiddink's country, who have rightly been receiving plaudits for their own wonderful attacking play. But, in Innsbruck on a rapturous Wednesday evening, it was Russian red that was playing the Total Football - "modern football" as Hiddink termed it - so associated with the Dutch of the 1970s.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but if you want to play on international level, then the demands I lay down mean you can go one of two ways: either fly, or fight," Hiddink said of how he chided the players after the Spanish defeat. "That's the choice we offered. They chose to fight." In two years with Russia he has coached players to deliver football of the highest order - and also bumped them out of whatever comfort zone they believed they belonged in.
Take the case of Andrei Arshavin. The Zenit St Petersburg play-maker is Russia's greatest talent and courted by Premier League clubs although not, at present, by the top four. Yet, despite being 27, he also has the petulance that saw him banned from the first two matches of this tournament - for a foolish dismissal in the dying minutes of the final qualification match against Andorra - and react huffily to being awarded the man of the match against the Swedes. Arshavin had to be dragged off the team bus to accept the trophy and refused to speak at a post-match press conference.
But then Hiddink had brought him back - but not reinstated him as captain. It was a case of pragmatic yet tough. He had also lambasted the Russians naivety and "childish" behaviour in losing to the Spanish - and ordered them to take part in tougher, longer, more frequent training sessions. "This was adult, more street-wise football," Hiddink said.
Having led both the Netherlands - who he also took to the last four of the Euros - and South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals and Australia into the last 16 of the World Cup, before losing to a controversial Italian goal, and now with his achievements with the Russians, Hiddink's legend is ensured.
"If you see where Russia have come from, then this is already a success. We are coming up. It's already a big success. The biggest success for Russia would be if we use this momentum to improve the national infrastructure, giving our young players a chance, educating them in a new modern way," Hiddink said. For all Fabio Capello's achievements and ability they were words that left a tinge of regret on hearing. Maybe for Chelsea also.
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