On a recent visit to the island of Trinidad, her home as a child, Maggie Lee met Leo Beenhakker, the Dutch coach of World Cup novices Trinidad and Tobago. An adopted hero, the Dutchman explains why he took on the challenge of scouting for talent from all corners of the globe
High expectations are riding on Leo Beenhakker. Ask the folks in downtown Port of Spain, the republic's capital. They believe "Ole Dutch got us into the World Cup. And because of him, we're gonna win!"
Beenhakker's track record currently lives up to the mark. Under his stewardship, Trinidad and Tobago rose from the bottom of the Concacaf group to qualify in November, after an electrifying play-off against Bahrain. Now, drawn to play against England, Sweden and Paraguay in June, the Dutchman's team, as debutants, face an immense challenge.
Spend a tiny amount of time with Beenhakker and you get the impression that the private face is the one you see in public. Despite being a fervent smoker, he has the energy of a man 30 years younger. His infectious humour and direct manner are characteristics that have endeared him to Trinidadians. They also mask his subtlety, seriousness and skill in handling people.
He is courageous too, and undaunted by the prospect of facing some of the world's best sides. He even expresses sympathy for his good friend Sven Goran Eriksson over his recent misfortune with the British press. Mischievously he jokes: "Perhaps when we see him, we should dress as sheikhsto rem-ind him! What do you think?"
While the odds may be stacked against the Soca Warriors, their charismatic coach remains clearly focused on his objective. "My biggest challenge is to organise the players as a team. In some ways it's easy, as they all share the same ambition; they want to win, to be the best," he says. "It's tricky though, as our guys are scattered all across the world; in England, Scotland, the US, and in the case of Dwight Yorke, in Australia. We even have a guy in Japan. My job is to help the players forge as a team by putting them on the right track to win."
Beenhakker, a professional to the bone, is an advocate of the Continental approach to management, supporting a partnership of coach and technical director. In his view, it represents a sensible demarcation of responsibilities. Taking into account that there are four Dutch coaches in the competition, it is a style that travels well. With nearly 40 years' experience of national and international coaching, he speaks with authority.
Though Beenhakker never played the professional game, he has enjoyed an illustrious career. "I realised early on that I couldn't play at the highest level. As I was obsessed with football, I decided to start as a coach," he explains. To date he has collected six club titles: two with Ajax, three with Real Madrid and the most recent with Feyenoord. Arguably one of the most globally experienced coaches outside Europe, he has also worked in Saudi Arabia and in Mexico, where he coached Club America.
In April last year he was, along with Wim Rijsbergen as technical director, appointed to revitalise the fortunes of T & T, replacing Bertille St Clair. "I took the job because I like a challenge," he says. "I'm addicted to football. I can't be out of the game for long. If we don't make it, no problema, and if we do, then we might be made president of this country." Beenhakker laughs: "That job I leave for Wim. I'm not interested in politics."
Politics and controversy are never far away from football in Trinidad. Allegations of corruption, match fixing and profiteering are gathering momentum in the Trinidad press. All centre on Jack Warner, the president of Concacaf and a Fifa vice-president. It was Warner who took the initiative to approach Beenhakker. A sponsor and supporter of T & T since 1974, Warner freely admits to being "multi-faceted", and to engaging in a number of business interests.
While revelations seem to appear daily in the Trinidad press about Warner's activities, Beenhakker is philosophical about the media scrutiny. "It comes with the territory," he says. "My job is to get the players prepared for the next time we meet as a team, against Iceland at Loftus Road [this Tuesday]. Then it's a farewell friendly with Peru back here in Port of Spain for the crowds and sponsors. Then in May we're in the UK again before heading for Austria, then Germany of course."
Rijsbergen and Warner are unequivocal about Beenhakker's talent at fostering team spirit. According to Warner, Beenhakker was the players' preferred choice as coach. Warner reveals that without consulting the players he might have signed Ron Atkinson. "I almost had a riot on my hands when the players found out," he explains. "I asked the team what kind of coach they wanted; they said a coach who played the Dutch style. When we found Leo, they thought he was perfect."
Press Beenhakker about the secret to effective coaching and he is emphatic: "There's no magic formula. All of us know how to get a guy fit and so on. It's really about managing people, all kinds of different people. You have to understand what a guy is thinking, how he sees his situation and position and how others are handling the situation."
Ask him about his most memorable career moments and he cites working in Latin countries: "I guess I am more southern European than Dutch in spirit. I love the Latin temperament. They play with their hearts and full passion. It's the same with Trinis."
And, extinguishing his last cigarette, the Dutch master gallantly offers to pay for our coffee and then he "is gone", as they say in Trinidad.
BEENHAKKER'S BRITISH BRIGADE
Stern John (Coventry City)
Clayton Ince (Coventry City)
Ian Cox (Gillingham)
Brent Sancho (Gillingham)
Shaka Hislop (West Ham)
Chris Birchall (Port Vale)
Kenwyne Jones (Southampton)
Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham)
Carlos Edwards (Luton Town)
Russell Latapy (Falkirk)
Jason Scotland (St Johnstone)Reuse content