As statements go, it could scarcely have been more direct. “Russia’s absence from the 2010 World Cup just wasn’t normal,” declared Dick Advocaat, speaking to FIFA.com after the Preliminary Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Charged with making sure they do not miss out again in three years’ time, the 'Little General' will bring a steely determination to the task: “We have to show that it wasn’t just an accident but also a mistake. That’s where our motivation will come from.”
Unable to build on the promise shown at UEFA EURO 2008, it has been a frustrating three years for the Sbornaja, but their Dutch coach has a clear understanding of the four-pronged mission he now faces. Along with leading his charges through a successful qualifying campaign, he will endeavour to see an undoubtedly gifted squad reach its potential and bring through young talent with one eye on the 2018 edition on Russian soil, before leading the side to Brazil for their third global showcase of the post-Soviet era after 1994 and 2002.
“The fact that I coached Zenit makes my job easier, because the majority of the players already know me and how I work and go about things,” said Advocaat, who clinched the UEFA Cup in 2008 with the Russian Premier League outfit. Having originally started his coaching career as an assistant on the Netherlands' bench in 1984, the former ADO Den Haag defensive midfielder is now an experienced figure in the game, and his CV abounds with clubs, national teams and silverware.
More than 30 years on from his first role, the 63-year-old remains as ambitious as ever too, only with increased insight and clarity. “At a club, you gain an expertise in day-to-day matters and it’s not the same job,” he said. “You have a very limited time to make changes and adjustments.
“If you compare this job with my time as Korea Republic coach, for example, you see that you have to adapt to different cultures,” continued the Dutchman, who also led the Oranje to the USA 1994 quarter-finals and has claimed league titles in his homeland (1997), Scotland (1999, 2000) and Russia (2007). “In Korea, their discipline is perfect and the players have a natural admiration for the coach, so it’s easy to impose your style and pass on your message. The Russians aren’t like that. With them, you have to show who’s in charge. It’s by no means a given.”
Three years after the EURO, we have practically the same team. We lack new players to replace them and the talent pool in which to find them isn’t particularly rich.
Appointed in May 2010 to replace his compatriot Guus Hiddink after a surprise resignation as Belgium coach, Advocaat now hopes to be reacquainted with success once again before withdrawing from football. “I went to Russia to give myself a greater chance of finishing my career in style and perhaps adding another title,” he explained, responding to his Belgian critics who were disappointed by his sudden departure. “Belgium can reach the same level, but it will take more time and I don’t have that much in front of me any more.”
Currently second in their EURO 2012 qualifying group, Advocaat’s men have so far lived up to their billing as one of the section favourites along with the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. His team have been far from scintillating, however, and they possess precious little room for error with four games remaining.
For the man in charge, their campaign has been rendered more demanding due to the absence of new players coming through. “The Netherlands have 30 or 35 very good players,” he said. “Three years after the EURO, we have practically the same team. We lack new players to replace them and the talent pool in which to find them isn’t particularly rich. There’s a lack of competition and, at the highest level, that’s a problem when you want to push all your players to perform better.”
Despite that concern, Advocaat remains optimistic. “This squad can do a good job and I believe in it,” he explained, before nonetheless airing another worry. “This team is almost the same as Hiddink’s, and the squad has hardly changed. I don’t see a new generation coming through and that bothers me.
"What’s more, the players playing abroad spend a lot of time on the bench and that’s another problem. They don’t get to flourish, but luckily I know what they can do. Take a player like Andrei Arshavin: I know he can make the difference at any moment.”
The Arsenal attacker will no doubt be anxious to prove his coach right, both now at a critical stage in Russia’s EURO 2012 qualifying campaign and further down the line, when the road to Brazil 2014 opens to Europe’s hopefuls. Indeed, not only will Arshavin and Co be keen to show that their absence in South Africa “wasn’t normal”, they will be desperate to ensure it does not become a habit.