Watch the Sidelines

By Steven D. Stark

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"If you’ve read anything about the upcoming World Cup, you probably already know which players to watch – striker Lionel Messi of Argentina, Portugal’s show-off Cristiano Ronaldo, and, frankly, anyone from Brazil. But I have a different suggestion if you want to begin to appreciate what makes international soccer different from American sports. Watch the coaches.

In this country, almost all coaches are cut from the same rather clichéd cloth, as they dress in trackies with a whistle around their necks and recite the same boring platitudes about leaving nothing on the field, giving their all, et cetera et cetera. International soccer coaches tend to be far different and far more controversial. For starters, they often wear finely tailored suits; I don’t know where England’s Italian manager Fabio Cappello gets his glasses but they’re hip and undoubtedly expensive. These coaches are often intellectuals of a sort too, tactical strategists extraordinaire, and they’re quirky to a fault.

At this Cup, we’ve got France’s Raymond Domenech, aka “Le Crackpot,” who is notorious for making his odd squad selections by consulting astrological charts and once refused to play a player who was a Leo because – and I quote – “at some stage he’ll want to show off and cost us.” When his team did poorly at Euro 2008, he proposed to his girlfriend at the post-match press conference.

Then there’s Chile’s Marcelo Bielsa, from Argentina, who’s been known to visit zoos for coaching ideas and trains the players at different positions on the team in different locations so they can’t see each other. His media policy is to answer every question from every journalist, which is why his press conferences can go on, and on and on.

Argentina’s Diego Maradona is a national icon. The former superstar and World Cup hero is a polarizing figure as in the years since his retirement his weight ballooned, he became drug addicted and almost died and was given this coaching job with virtually no experience. As one English journalist put it, Argentina went for a crackerjack, a maverick, a phenomenon who refers to himself in the third person and once claimed to have been a victim of a total lack of respect from the Pope. He’s promised to run naked thru the streets of Buenos Aires should his team win and he’s joined by former coach Carlos Bilardo, who steered to Argentina to its last World Cup victory in 1986 by ordering the squad not to each chicken for good luck.

And these are the only tips of the proverbial iceberg. At a World Cup, aficionados know that you don’t only watch the field; you watch the sideline too."

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