How Hiddink the astute leader tamed the Russian wild bunch

The coach who might have taken over England has done well with their opponents for tomorrow. Jonathan Wilson reports
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Varsseveld is a small agricultural community in the part of the eastern Netherlands known as "the Back Corner". Even the Dutch consider it a laid-back area. It is remote, quiet and, five years ago, it became a prime destination for South Korean tourists visiting Europe. It is the birthplace of Guus Hiddink – a fact marked by the "Guuseum", an exhibition of Hiddink memorabilia – and the place where he still comes to unwind, roaring through the flat countryside on his Harley-Davidson.

According to Hans, the only one of Hiddink's four brothers not to have gone into football, the values the area prizes most are being "modest, down-to earth and normal". It is that sense of calm that Hiddink, who took South Korea to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals and is now in charge of Russia, has carried into management. "People trust him," Hans said. "The most important thing is he never panics."

That was true even when he was first appointed at PSV in 1987. He was so nervous that his hands would shake at team meetings, while the former Netherlands midfielder Wim Kieft tells the story of how he once became so flustered during a team talk that he lit the wrong end of a cigarette, and yet he had such obvious intelligence that within 10 months of taking the job he had won the European Cup.

These days Hiddink, who was many people's favourite to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager last year, is a much bigger star than any of his players but he retains the same air of authority. There is a steeliness there, as the CSKA defender Sergei Ignashevich discovered last month when he was expelled from the Russia squad for turning up late to training ahead of the friendly against Poland, but there is also a willingness to forgive. Just as Edgar Davids, after being sent home from Euro 1996 for telling a radio interview that "Hiddink must get his head out of players' asses so he can see better", was rehabilitated to play a major role in the Netherlands reaching the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup, so Ignashevich was recalled for Russia's comfortable 3-0 win over Macedonia on Saturday.

Ignashevich is far from the only member of this Russian side enjoying a second chance. Hiddink promised a "clean slate" when he arrived, and that has meant reprieves for a number of players whose chance had seemed to have gone. Perhaps Hiddink remembers that, with his love of motorbikes and rock music, he was considered a little wild himself back in Varsseveld. With his hair swept up into an Elvis-style quiff, he and Hans would organise illicit "chicken-run" discos in nearby farms. One Sunday morning, staggering home after a late night and realising the church bell would disturb their sleep, Hiddink shinned up the steeple and wrapped the clapper in a towel.

It is nine years since Igor Semshov served a five-match ban for kicking a referee up the backside. He insists he has been a reformed character since becoming a father in 2001, but it took Hiddink to recall the talented Dynamo midfielder, even though he had four times been named player of the year at his former club, Torpedo. Roman Pavlyuchenko and Dmitry Torbinsky areh noted for their fiery tempers, while Dmitry Sychev served a six-month ban after taking Spartak, his former club, to court in a contract dispute.

Hiddink has also been keen to promote such young talents as the rapid Spartak winger Vladimir Bystrov and the rangy Diniyar Bilyaletdinov of Lokomotiv.

It is not just the personnel that have changed though; it is the mood around the camp. Swearing is now encouraged, as is joking about team-mates' club form as Hiddink looks to maintain a relaxed attitude about the squad.

That has spread to the side's tactical approach as Hiddink has done away with the timorousness that used to characterise Russia's away performances. The national manager, the CSKA coach Valery Gazzaev said, "must be a real patriot, thoroughly understand our national identity, character and traditions, and for that you must be born here". Given that the traditions of the national team involved a chronic insecurity that led to negativity and underperformance every time they left Moscow, doing away with it has, arguably, been Hiddink's greatest triumph. "He gives players confidence, and for a footballer that's a very important thing," Pavlyuchenko said.

Hiddink's reign began indifferently with home draws against Croatia and Israel, and a less than convincing 2-0 home win against Estonia, although his supporters point out that he turned that game in Russia's favour with two astute substitutions. It was in the fourth game, away to Macedonia, though, that Hiddink enjoyed his breakthrough. He picked a 3-4-1-2 formation but, rather than packing the midfield with defensive players, he crammed in three wingers and two playmakers. Vindication came with a 2-0 win, made all the sweeter because the first goal was scored by Vladimir Bystrov, the young Spartak winger he had promoted.

The 3-4-1-2 has since become Russia's default formation although, like all Hiddink teams, they make a virtue of their flexibility. "There could be three, four or even two defenders," Hiddink said, "but, in fact, the main thing is not in the numbers, but in the way the team defends, attacks, how the transition from defence to attack is organised and vice versa. It is the way the players interact with each other."

Russia's new-found belief was evident on Saturday. Leading 1-0, they had missed chance after chance when, with 20 minutes left, they conceded a penalty as Goran Maznov was tripped by the goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov, who was sent off. Past Russian sides would have faded, but Vyacheslav Malafeev came off the bench to save Igor Mitreski's penalty, and with 10 men they went on to score twice more on the break.

Russian tourists may not yet be following the Korean tourist route to the Guuseum, but there is no doubting the affection in which fans now hold him. Even rumours that his salary might be more than the £2m a year it was initially reported to be are greeted with no more than a shrug. With turbulent spirits rehabilitated, and five wins and three draws from eight qualifiers, Hiddink has brought an unfamiliar sense of well-being to Russian football.

Russia's record under Hiddink

* Since the disbanding of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Russians have failed to make it beyond the first round of a major tournament, failing even to qualify for two of the last three World Cups. Guus Hiddink took charge in April 2006 on a £1.2m a year contract. Russia have lost just once in 11 matches since.

The good, the badly behaved and the tragic: Five players who have been brought on by Hiddink

* Sergei Ignashevich

Ignashevich, a calm and elegant defender who was a key part of CSKA's Uefa Cup success in 2005, had been seen as a mainstay of the Russia defence until he mysteriously phoned Russia's manager, Guus Hiddink, 48 hours before he was due to meet up for training before last month's friendly against Poland to warn him he was going to be late because of the traffic. Hiddink told him to set off earlier, and when Ignashevich still arrived late, Hiddink sent him home. He has apparently been forgiven, though, having played against Macedonia on Saturday and is all but certain to start against England tomorrow.

* Konstantin Zyryanov

Zyryanov's is a story of triumph over tragedy. Five years ago, his wife leapt from the window of their eighth-floor apartment, holding the hand of their four-year-old daughter. Both died. Zyryanov carried on playing, slowly rebuilt his life, and earned his first cap in a goalless draw against Spain last season, at the age of 28. A move from Torpedo Moscow to Zenit, and a change of role into a more attack-minded midfielder has led to improved form, and he has scored seven league goals this season, propelling his new side to a share of the lead in the Russian table with seven games of the season remaining.

* Igor Semshov

Semshov's notoriety stemmed from an incident in a league match between Torpedo Moscow and Chernomorets Novorossiisk in 1998 when, furious at a decision that had gone against him, he kicked a referee up the backside. "I thought his decision was unfair," he said. "And I don't like to lose." He was banned for five games, but his turbulent reputation has hung around him, affecting his international chances even though he has been Torpedo's Player of the Year four times. He claims he has been a reformed character since becoming a father in 2001, but it took Hiddink to give him an extended chance at national level.

* Roman Pavlyuchenko

Pavlyuchenko was the top scorer in Russia last season, but the plaudits for the 6ft 3in Spartak Moscow forward were relatively muted thanks to an incident in the home league game against Tom Tomsk. Having been sent off in Tomsk, Pavlyuchenko responded to scoring in the return by directing a volley of abuse at the Tom coach, Valery Petrakov, a verbal assault that continued long after the final whistle, when he also burst into the referee's room to make a few points. A four-match ban imposed by the habitually draconian Russian Football Union was, bafflingly, overturned on appeal. Pavlyuchenko has topped the Spartak scoring charts every year since his arrival at the club in 2003 from Rotor Volgograd.

* Dmitry Sychev

When an 18-year-old Sychev scored against Belgium in the 2002 World Cup, he was immediately hailed as the Russian Michael Owen, but things soon took a turn for the worse. As negotiations over a new deal at Spartak turned sour, the club president Andrei Chervichenko added a $6m (£3m) buyout clause to his contract. Sychev turned to the civil courts, an act which in itself earned him a six-month ban. After serving that, he moved to Marseilles and, flopped, but returned to Russia with Lokomotiv in 2004. He scored twice on the opening day of the season and won Player of the Year as Loko took the title.