Thursday 07 April 2022, 03:00

Coaches set for big-stage bow

  • Seventeen men are set for their FIFA World Cup coaching debuts

  • FIFA shines the spotlight on five of them

  • Four former champions are led by first-timers

Leading a team out at the FIFA World Cup™ is one the greatest aspirations a football coach can have. All coaches dream of experiencing the sensation at some stage, from those starting out at their local club to internationally-renowned tacticians working in high-profile leagues. In Qatar later this year, the men in charge of 17 of the 29 sides that have already qualified will be fulfilling their role on football’s greatest stage for the very first time. FIFA has picked out five of these coaches’ stories, as they prepare to take the world by storm in November.

Scaloni oversees Argentinian resurgence

When Maxi Rodriguez dispatched an unforgettable left-footed volley into the Mexico net to give Argentina a 2-1 extra-time lead in the Round of 16 at Germany 2006, the first team-mate that Lionel Messi embraced in celebration was Lionel Scaloni. While the gifted youngster was just beginning to show his magical skills, his elder compatriot was a reliable wing-back in Jose Pekerman’s squad. Sixteen years later, the two Lionels will find themselves working together at a World Cup again, but this time in very different roles, with Scaloni at the helm and Messi wearing the captain’s armband. Scaloni took up the reins of the national team in the wake of their disappointing Russia 2018 performance that saw La Albiceleste struggle in the group stage and lose in the Round of 16. He was Jorge Sampaoli’s assistant during that campaign, and when his frustrated mentor left the job, Scaloni agreed to fill the position on an interim basis. At that stage, few football figures were willing to take on the challenge of coaching a team estranged from the home faithful that had gone almost 30 years without claiming a major international title. Scaloni, who had never been in sole charge of a team before, proved up to the task, steering his players to Copa America 2021 glory, qualifying for Qatar 2022 as the second-best team in South America, and going on a 31-game unbeaten run. In Asia, the Santa Fe native will be aiming to help Argentina lift the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.

Lionel Messi and Lionel Scaloni celebrate Argentina’s Copa America triumph

Ex-skipper Song steps in

Cameroon’s uninspiring performances and semi-final exit at the recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament they hosted, cost Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao his job. It was the Cameroonian Football Federation’s President, Samuel Eto’o, who ultimately made that difficult decision, just a month before the Indomitable Lions’ World Cup play-off against Algeria. In need of an urgent solution, the national legend turned to an old friend and team-mate, entrusting the daunting task to Rigobert Song. No-one has pulled on the Cameroon jersey as often as Song, who earned 137 caps in an impressive international career that ran from 1993 to 2010. An imposing defender who represented Liverpool and West Ham at club level, he was a reassuring presence in the backline of a team that were crowned African champions twice during his time as captain. His charges’ dramatic qualification against Algeria secured him a World Cup coaching debut in Qatar, but as a player he was well versed with the tournament’s challenges, participating at USA 1994, France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010. With nine matches on his CV, Song is third on Cameroon’s all-time World Cup appearances’ list, just behind Roger Milla (10) and Francois Omam-Biyik (11). While he will be fully focused on attempting to replicate Cameroon’s memorable run to the quarter-finals at Italy 1990, Qatar 2022 will also constitute something of a joyous celebration for Song, who was hospitalised in October 2016 after suffering a stroke. Despite spending two days in a coma which had doctors extremely concerned, the former Metz centre-back made a remarkable recovery.

Rigobert Song after the win v Algeria

Herdman’s unusual path pays dividends

Englishman John Herdman became enamoured with the beautiful game during Mexico 1986, despite watching Diego Maradona almost single-handedly knock out the team he was supporting. “I remember watching Diego against England with my dad,” he said. “That’s when I fell in love with football.” Although his footballing career only ever amounted to a few appearances in the semi-professional Northern League, the pull of the sport was strong, and Herdman tried his hand at coaching from the tender age of 16. After spending time in Brazil learning new training methods, he returned to his hometown of Consett and set up a football school that was attended by a number of Sunderland’s academy players. The relationship, fostered over time, eventually resulted in a job offer to become a development coach at the club, who currently operate in the English third tier. In 2001 he took a step further on his unorthodox football journey when he moved to New Zealand, where he initially worked for the country’s football association. After getting the opportunity to coach the women’s national team in 2006, he proceeded to lead the Football Ferns to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ on two occasions and to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. In 2011 the nomadic Englishman was hired as coach of the Canadian women’s national team that had lost all of its games at the Women’s World Cup in 2011. Following a considerably more productive campaign in 2015, when they hosted the tournament and reached the quarter-finals, Herdman was asked to make the switch to Canada’s men’s team. Although his appointment was met with some scepticism at the outset, Herdman simply set about achieving his lofty objective of revolutionising football in Canada, the first step of which involved qualifying for Qatar 2022, an aim about which even his own employers expressed doubts. Undeterred, the man from County Durham began building a talented team, one that could tactically adapt to different opponents, boasted real strength in depth, and – most importantly – that was capable of topping the Concacaf qualifying table ahead of Mexico and USA. Having earned hero status, Herdman no longer has to prove himself to anyone, as he prepares to become the first coach in footballing history to take charge of teams at both a men’s and women’s World Cup. With Canada’s qualification guaranteed for 2026 as one of the host nations, he and his players will be looking to lay further foundations for success in Qatar.

Former assistant Flick eyes second global title

Hansi Flick's eventful coaching career began while he was still a player: In 1996, when his days on the pitch were drawing to a close at Victoria Bammental, the midfielder was offered the role of player-coach. Hoffenheim, then languishing in the regional leagues, subsequently took a chance on him, and together they paved the way for the club’s eventual ascent to the Bundesliga. After he and Hoffenheim parted ways in November 2005, Flick briefly worked as an assistant coach at Red Bull Salzburg before joining Germany’s backroom staff to perform the same role under Joachim Low. It would prove to be a fruitful partnership, as Die Nationalelf emerged victorious at Brazil 2014, after which he switched roles to become sporting director at the German Football Association, a post he held until January 2017. Two years later, he returned to the assistant role under Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich. However, Kovac was let go in November 2019 and Flick was promoted in his stead, initially on an interim basis and then permanently following some strong performances by his players. His time on the bench was incredibly successful, with the Bavarian giants winning no fewer than seven trophies during one of the most prolific tenures in modern football. Despite these triumphs, which led to him being named UEFA Men’s Coach of the Year, Flick harboured a strong desire to return to the German national set-up, but this time as the man in charge. Low’s departure after the UEFA EURO last year, following on from the huge disappointment of Russia 2018, provided the ideal circumstances for him to take over. Flick seamlessly translated his club results to Die Nationalmannschaft, steering them to Qatar 2022 and winning eight of the nine matches he has overseen so far. In his maiden tournament at the helm of Germany, the Heidelberg native will attempt to make history and emulate Jupp Derwall, the last Germany coach to win a major competition at the first attempt.

Sanchez reaps benefits of development efforts in Qatar

The host nation’s ambitious plans have developed in conjunction with the gradual rise of Felix Sanchez, who came to Qatar in 2006 to work at Aspire Academy, where he helped to usher through the gifted generation of players that now forms the spine of the Qatari national team, including two of their biggest stars, Akram Afif and Almoez Ali. After seven years at Aspire, Sanchez was handed the reins of Qatar’s U-19 team and achieved almost instant success, guiding the talented teenagers to the AFC U-19 Championship 2014 title, with Afif and Ali scoring seven goals during the tournament. There was a repeat of that formula in 2019, when the astute Spaniard, by this time coach of the national senior side after replacing Uruguayan Jorge Fosatti, oversaw an historic AFC Asian Cup triumph that was wrapped up via an impressive win over a formidable-looking Japan team in the final. The former Barcelona youth coach has been keen to put his players under scrutiny in different environments, signing them up for the Copa America 2019, where they secured a draw with Paraguay, and helping them reach the semi-finals of both the Concacaf Gold Cup and the FIFA Arab Cup™ in 2021. The latter event, held on home soil, also served as a test for Qatar’s stadiums and facilities ahead of the more illustrious gathering that kicks off on 21 November. With 15 years of solid preparatory work under his belt, the upcoming World Cup will represent the culmination of a long and fruitful journey for Sanchez.