It is a measure of how highly Roman Abramovich rates Guus Hiddink that the Russian went out on a limb to make sure he was appointed the Russia coach despite opposition within the country to the Dutchman. And it demonstrates just how much Hiddink owes Abramovich that he was virtually obliged to answer the call when the Chelsea owner approached him to attend to his £600m pet project in west London.
Hiddink's job with Russia, his fourth in international management, was arranged by Abramovich and the €6m [£5.45m] salary comes virtually direct from the Chelsea owner's pocket. In fact, Abramovich's relationship with the Dutch coach whom he has bankrolled is so tight that he knew when he sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari on Monday he did so in the knowledge that he had a replacement ready and waiting to come in. Hiddink may have been Russia's coach but he is owned by Abramovich.
For seasoned Kremlin-watchers there was no certainty yesterday morning, when Chelsea confirmed that they were in talks with Hiddink, that Abramovich's move to borrow the coach of the national football team would have the blessing of the political hierarchy in Russia. Even a man as powerful and as wealthy as Abramovich has to take care of attitudes towards him in his home country, especially the mood of the men at the very top, the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and President, Dmitri Medvedev.
In the end, the announcement from the Russian Football Union spokesman Andrei Malosolov gave the implicit blessing that the Russian government would allow Abramovich to take Hiddink to Chelsea until the end of the season. Abramovich has been Hiddink's champion from the very beginning, although the Dutchman has not always had an easy ride from the RFU president, and now minister for sport, in the Russian government, Vitaly Mutko.
When Russia went about recruiting a coach for their Euro 2008 qualification campaign, Mutko wanted Dick Advocaat, but Abramovich insisted that Hiddink got the job. When Hiddink took Russia to Euro 2008 at the expense of England and then unexpectedly reached the semi-finals of the tournament, Mutko stalled over awarding the 62-year-old a new deal. By then Hiddink had established himself as something of a national hero in Russia but at the RFU there were concerns about how much time he was spending in Amsterdam rather than watching his players in Russia.
As Hiddink became increasingly disillusioned with his treatment from the RFU, and waited for a new contract to take him through the qualifying stages for the 2010 World Cup finals, Abramovich stepped in to guarantee the wages of the coach. It is for that reason above all that Hiddink is still the coach of the Russia team. When Mutko has doubted Hiddink, Abramovich has always come through to back him.
Hiddink has long been Abramovich's Plan B, the man to fall back on in a crisis or, in this case, in the week when he sacked a World Cup-winning coach for drawing at home to Hull City. The two men sat side by side in the Stade Louis II stadium in Monaco in August to watch Zenit St Petersburg beat Manchester United in the European Super Cup final. The major question will come in the summer, should Hiddink perform the kind of miracles with Chelsea that Abramovich clearly expects of him. Will the Russian oligarch dare to take him away from Russia permanently?
There is no doubt that Hiddink feels he owes Abramovich, particularly as he has said on more than one occasion that his age precluded him from taking a club job again. He said that the pace of life as an international manager suited him much better, but now he finds himself pitched into an altogether more frantic existence, shuttling from Moscow, to his home in Amsterdam and on to London to try to turn around Chelsea's season.
But, if anyone can, Hiddink can. He took a Russia team of players virtually unknown outside their own country to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, he took Australia to the 2006 World Cup finals but, perhaps most remarkable of all, he masterminded one of football's biggest surprises by getting South Korea to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup. It made him a hero in Korea to the extent that he is an honorary citizen of the country and has a lifetime of free flights on Korea Airlines. His family in his home village of Varsseveld, in the eastern Netherlands, have cashed in on the Korean devotion to Hiddink to the extent of building a museum – the "Guuseum" – in his honour.
Hiddink did his coaching apprenticeship with the great Rinus Michels, who took Johan Cruyff's Netherlands side to the final of the 1974 World Cup and, as a young manager, Hiddink won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven in 1988. If there was a blip on the record it was against English opposition. He has failed to beat Arsène Wenger's Arsenal on four occasions and Newcastle United eliminated PSV from the Uefa Cup in 2004. Euro 96 was a disaster for Hiddink who, as coach of the Netherlands team, lost 4-1 to Terry Venables' England at Wembley and exited the tournament in disarray.
That hex was comprehensively broken when, with a little help from Croatia, he eliminated Steve McClaren's England from the qualifying for Euro 2008. His side lost 3-0 at Wembley but then shocked England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in October 2007 with a 2-1 victory, which was the beginning of the end for McClaren.
Hiddink is a controversial character too, he had a tangle with the authorities in the Netherlands by opting to live in Belgium when he returned from Korea in order to avoid paying extra tax on his earnings. Money will certainly not be a worry for Hiddink now that he is effectively doing two jobs for Abramovich. But there is no doubt that, once again, the Dutchman's fearsome reputation is on the line. In the past he has had no hesitation in setting himself the toughest challenges; this time it would seem that he did not have much say in the matter.
Hiddink's CV: The road from De Graafschap to Russia... and Chelsea?
The coaching career:
1982-84 De Graafschap
1987-90 PSV Eindhoven
1998-99 Real Madrid
1999-2000 Real Betis
2000-02 South Korea
2002-06 PSV Eindhoven
Eredivisie 1988, 1989, 2003, 2005, 2006
KNVB Cup 1988, 1989, 1990, 2005
European Cup 1988
Intercontinental Cup 1998
Netherlands: Fourth in 1998 World Cup
South Korea: Fourth in 2002 World Cup
Australia: Second Round in 2006 World Cup
Russia: Semi-finalists at Euro 2008
Asian Football Confederation Coach of the Year 2002Reuse content