During his playing days, Fernando Hierro was one of the undisputed leaders of an entire generation of Spanish players. Elegant and imposing at the back and, earlier in his career, in midfield, Hierro represented La Roja at three FIFA World Cups™ (USA 1994, France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002), while his eye-for-goal was such that he remains Spain’s fourth all-time leading scorer with 29 senior international strikes.
Also arguably one of Real Madrid’s most charismatic captains, having won no fewer than 16 pieces of silverware during his time at Los Blancos, Hierro has continued to demonstrate his footballing intelligence since hanging up his boots. Indeed, when he was Sporting Director of the Spanish FA (RFEF), he had a direct role in bringing in Vicente del Bosque as boss of La Selección after Luis Aragones’ departure following UEFA EURO 2008.
During the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013, at which he was part of FIFA’s Technical Study Group, Hierro graciously took the time to speak to FIFA.com about a whole range of topics, including La Roja’s phenomenal success over the past five years, and offered his unique insight on Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Del Bosque.
FIFA.com: Fernando, you had a significant hand in Vicente del Bosque taking charge of La Selección Española. As someone who knows him so well, what’s the secret of his success?
Fernando Hierro: The key to his success is his intelligence. He’s blessed with so much emotional intelligence: he’s a man who’s great at psychology, someone who sees everything so clearly and naturally. For me personally, three years working alongside him was like going to university. Staying humble throughout, he’s built on the success Luis Aragones’ squad enjoyed in 2008, continued to win trophies and given the credit to the players, the RFEF and the previous coach. Sometimes he even seems to go out of his way to look for people to give all the credit too, so he never has to take any of it himself. That’s what I mean by emotional intelligence.
What’s more, he’s very adept at making decisions at crucial moments during games, as well as being a really great representative of Spanish football on the international stage. Everyone is delighted with the work he puts in, how polite he is and what he does on a daily basis. All that led to him being named by FIFA as the world’s best coach last year.
What do you see happening after Del Bosque’s reign ends?
Well, Spain’s winning run has gone on for five years now hasn’t it? Nearly four consecutive years at the top of the [FIFA/Coca-Cola World] Ranking too, that’s a lot! Looking at what other national teams have achieved, their [golden] periods haven’t lasted as long. There’s a very fine line between winning and losing. A penalty shoot-out win against Italy in 2008 (Editor’s note: when Spain knocked La Nazionale out in the last eight of that year’s EURO) may have changed the whole history of Spanish football and made us start going into games already feeling like winners.
When you go around the world you realise how much admiration there is for Spanish football. Five years ago, that was unthinkable.
The players’ talent has also played a part too, right?
I’m one of those who think it’s going to be very tough to replace this extraordinary generation of players. There’s no shortage of new players but, when you’re talking about becoming world or European champions, you’re talking about the very best in the world. That’s always hard to find. I’m a real fan of these players because they’re representing Spanish football in the best possible way, by their actions on and off the pitch. They’re normal people who really understand what success means, who are respectful in victory and in defeat. There’s a genuine feel-good factor with this Selección and that’s thanks to the work put in by a lot of people over a long time. When you go around the world you realise how much admiration there is for Spanish football. Five years ago, that was unthinkable.
Have you felt at all envious of this crop of Spain players?
Without a doubt. I’ve never seen such a hugely talented generation. If you look at the team, position by position, we’ve got tremendous players. What’s more, they’re all among the best in the world in their roles.
Do you think Hierro in his prime would have broken into this side?
I don’t know, I’ve not given it any thought, but I doubt there’s a better defensive duo in the world than Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. I mean, two centre-backs who both go up and volunteer for a penalty shoot-out. It’s not normal for two central defenders to be among a team's first five kick-takers. That speaks volumes for their technical ability. What’s more, while everyone talks about Spain’s attacking power and quality on the ball, in South Africa [in 2010] they only conceded once and at EURO 2012 only twice. And, before the final against Brazil in this year’s Confederations Cup, they only conceded once and that was from a free-kick [by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez]. This is a team that defends as a compact unit and does it very well.
But your spell at the RFEF wasn’t always easy. You had to live through a turbulent period between Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona contingents. Looking back, what do you remember about that episode?
That was in my last spell as Sporting Director, but I think that it was handled well. Once more, the squad’s intelligence, affection and strength were all a big help. Vicente was intelligent and trusted in the group of players, in the knowledge that little by little, over time, everything would sort itself out. Both sides looked for a way to do that and the maturity shown by the likes of Xavi, [Iker] Casillas and [Carles] Puyol did the rest. There’s no doubt there were odd moments when it seemed unlikely progress would be made, but in the end it was sorted out. There were also certain outside influences that didn’t help things much, but I’d rather remember how mature the players were.
What do you mean by ‘outside influences’?
People who spent all day asking what had or hadn’t been going on. Those outside influences were more interested in the media repercussions of it all than anything else. Personally, I knew that Vicente would be amazingly good at pulling the right strings, just as he always is.
As a Real Madrid icon, how hard was Barça’s recent run of success for you?
I call these ‘winning cycles’. Our generation [of Madrid players] picked up a lot of titles in a four- or five-year spell, but Barcelona reorganised themselves well and then their cycle came. There’s nothing you can say about the work put in by Guardiola: it’s really admirable and extraordinary. It’s not just anybody who can win seven trophies in two years. Everyone knows me and where my background lies, but I can still understand just how well Barcelona did things. They’re very clear about their path and their footballing philosophy.
Were you surprised by Guardiola’s coaching success, having played alongside him for the national team?
Not at all, he always thought like a coach. He’d come and join up with the national team and want to make us play the way he wanted. He’d live each game so intensely. And he prepared himself very well [for his coaching career]: he went to see some of the world’s best coaches. He came from the [Johan] Cruyff school [of coaching] and he went to see [Arrigo] Sacchi, [Marcelo] Bielsa... He started out with Barcelona’s second team; he picked a wonderful club like Bayern Munich when everyone else thought he’d choose differently... Pep is very intelligent and he always knows exactly what he needs to do.
For the moment at least, the bar seems to be set very high for both Guardiola and Bayern.
The way Bayern have made the transition has been exemplary. In December they tackled the [future] change of coach without fuss and within six months had picked up three trophies. They’re a winning team, an incredibly important institution. He [Pep] was a very good choice by the club, while Pep’s made a great choice too.
Finally, having spoken about Guardiola, we’d love to know your opinion on Jose Mourinho. You once said that, in recent times, he’s the coach who managed to wield the greatest amount of power at Real Madrid. Do you still stand by that?
If you were to ask me to look at the last 20 years in Madrid’s history and say which coach has had the most decision-making power at the club, I’d say there’s no doubt he’s the one. If you ask him though, perhaps he’d say he didn’t have as much authority as he’d have liked. But everyone knows him perfectly: the work he did, his professionalism and the fact he took the team into European semi-finals. But Madrid is a club where you have to win and it’s a place that can wear you down – where people have a different way of thinking. Every club is different and Madrid is even more so.