Foreign vs. Local: The Great Coaching Debate

Carlos Alberto Parreira

Carlos Alberto Parreira

The recent re-appointment of Carlos Alberto Parreira as coach of South Africa, replacing fellow Brazilian Joel Santana who had been hired on Parreira’s recommendation, ignited that perennial question: is a national team, particularly one on the periphery of world football, better served by a local or an outsider?  For South Africa this question is particularly loaded as it prepares to host the first African World Cup.  The tournament promises to be an occasion for great pride among South Africans, yet Bafana Bafana is struggling—as evidenced by recent 1-0 losses to World Cup non-qualifiers Norway and Iceland.

But the question interests me both as a follower of African soccer and as an American—in the US we have our own ongoing debate about who we should put in charge.  Personally I like the idea of having an American lead our national team, and I’m actually a Bob Bradley fan.  I like the fact that he knows the peculiar nature of soccer in the US at every level, I like his intensity, I appreciate his devotion to the job, and I like the fact that he’s well-educated and well-organized.  But intellectually I also understand that for the US to move from the periphery to the center of world football we need to network with the game’s global elite in ways that improve our sophistication.

These conflicting impulses, between the personal and the intellectual, often seem to be at the heart of the local vs. foreign debate in global soccer.  The local coach offers personal connections and investment, while also understanding the cultural references necessary to negotiate delicate psyches and group dynamics.  The foreign coach offers objective outsider perspectives, and often brings innovations and vision that are at the cutting edge of the game.  As the saying goes, ‘a new broom sweeps better, but an old broom knows the corners’ (a saying I first heard as a proverb in Malawi, but one that I’ve seen attributed to various sources).  Choose your weapon.

The Intellectual Argument

Soccernomics

The advantages of the foreign coach, and the intellectual argument on that side of the debate, is highlighted in the recent book Soccernomics (the American release of Why England Lose) by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.  Among the answers they offer to the question raised by the original UK version of the book is that England has, until recently, been outside the rich interchange of soccer expertise held by the rest of western Europe.  And as Kuper and Szymanski immodestly declare: “western Europe has discovered the secret of soccer” (p. 28).  Though claiming the end of soccer history seems problematic, the broader point that football develops through global networks is worth considering.

That point also provoked Jack Bell to ask US Soccer President Sunil Gulati about the need for a European coach in an interview for the New York Times Goal blog:

Bell: One of the authors [of “Soccernomics”], Simon Kuper, also contends that a European national team coach is necessary for the U.S. to take the next step. Do you agree?

Gulati: We will accept influence wherever we can get it and when it makes sense for us. After Carlos [Queiroz] and Bora [Milutinovic], we haven’t had any coach of the national team in last decade from outside the U.S. I don’t think a coach would change things overnight. It comes down to the players and a coach is still picking from the same group. Expertise only in Europe is not the case.

Resistance to the notion of western Europe as the font of all that is good and true about soccer was also recently expressed by former Liverpool and West Ham player Titi Camara in his concerns about pay during his time managing his native Guinea.  In comments reported by Paul Doyle for The Guardian Camara claims his pay demands were not met “because I’m black and African.  If I were a white European they would have no problem paying me.” (these comments were also excerpted on Pitch Invasion last month—but I would note that I can’t find them reported anywhere else).  And whether or not that particular claim is true for Guinea, there is a common sense in Africa of needing foreign coaches to prepare for major competitions.

In fact, during the last Africa Cup of Nations in 2008 12 of the 16 teams were led by Europeans—though that did not always work out particularly well.  The Polish coach of Senegal Henryk Kasperczak left his team midway through the group stage, while Frenchman Henri Michel failed to lead Morocco out of its group after controversial replacing the man who had led the Atlas Lions through a successful qualifying: Moroccan national Mohammed Fakhir.  These results led at least one blogger to hope “the various African national football associations pay attention. You can’t always buy success with a mercenary European coach, but you can build for the future with an African coach.”

By my count, however, the 2010 version of the African Cup of Nations will not look much different.  Of the 20 nations in the final qualifying groups only 6 have local coaches.  In fact, the two African nations that have already qualified for the World Cup have eastern Europeans at the helm: Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić is in charge of the Ivory Coast and Serbian Milovan Rajevac heads Ghana.  These seem somewhat odd appointments to me considering that most expatriate coaches in Africa have come from western European nations such as France, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, and Germany.  But regardless of the specific national origin, the broader trend of looking to the outside persists.

There are ways this makes sense for some African nations with underdeveloped coaching systems.  I myself have done some grass-roots coaching education work in both Malawi and Angola and always felt it to have been worthwhile.  In the places where I worked there was great passion for the game, but little infrastructure nor systematic approaches to training or youth development.  The grass-roots coaches I worked with were voracious in their interest in coaching as an educational endeavor, but had themselves most often learned the game with playing as the only teacher (as a side note, I was vividly reminded of many conversations with Malawian coaches when the US U-17’s played Malawi in the U-17 World Cup and Malawi was caught offside a ridiculous 18 times— the Malawian coaches I worked with, despite many good qualities, did always have trouble clearly articulating that damned offside rule).

South Africa strikes me as a different story.  The South African league is of decent quality and there are many talented South African coaches.  In fact, South Africa itself sometimes exports coaches around the continent—offering, for example, coaches as part of a technical assistance program for Kenya.  It is also interesting to note that in at least one poll 83% of South Africans themselves wanted Santana to be replaced by a local coach.  While democracy may not always be the best way to run a football association, it does raise an interesting question about who a national team represents.

In fact, some of the speculation about Parreira is that his re-appointment came at the behest of FIFA, who perceived the need for a big-name foreigner.  Whether or not this is true, it does highlight the way in which the decision between local or foreign coaches often invokes national pride, sovereignty, and power.  The World Cup is compelling largely because it provides a rare forum for comparing nations; players and governing bodies are inevitably local.  This makes it all the more odd that the coach, often a prominent figurehead, is the only part of the team that can have no actual personal affiliation with the nation they represent.  In some ways I suspect this fact is one reason why the decision to hire a local or a foreign coach is so loaded and emotional—it is the one aspect of a national team that offers nearly unconstrained choice.

The Personal Argument

Just because you have the choice, however, does not make celebrity foreign coaches a good idea—as any MLS fan can tell you.  I’m thinking here of Parreira’s undistinguished one year with the MetroStars (1997), during which the team won 13 and lost 19 (in an era when shootouts settled ties).  Not bad for the MetroStars, but not good by any legitimate standard.  Foreign coaches are not miracle workers.

In Soccernomics the main piece of evidence offered for the superiority of European coaches really boils down to one example: Guus Hiddink.  The final chapter of the book is ostensibly about “the future map of global soccer” and the potential of countries such as Turkey, Iraq, India, China, and the US.  But Hiddink’s story is interspersed, and his relative success with South Korea, Australia, and Russia is used to argue for the superiority of coaches from western Europe.  And, I admit, Hiddink has an interesting story and seems to have done impressive work.

But, as social scientists like to say—the plural of anecdote is not data.  While there is much crowing about the superiority of Dutch coaching (particularly from the Dutch themselves), once again any MLS fan can offer an easy counter anecdote: Ruud Gullit was arguably the worst coach in the history of the league.  His main problem, based largely on the evidence from The Beckham Experiment, seemed to be his arrogance, something that Soccernomics acknowledges as something Hiddink had to overcome: “Already during his stints in Turkey and Spain, he [Hiddink] had begun freeing himself from the national superiority complex that pervades Dutch soccer: the belief that the Dutch way is the only way.”

Among my own experiences with Dutch coaches, that “superiority complex” is a formidable problem.  Years ago I had the opportunity to attend a KNVB coaching course offered for youth coaches in Chicago which was primarily interesting for its condescension: the youngish Dutch staff coach sent by the KNVB spent much time telling us about the brilliance of the Dutch system, but when he got us out on the field his training techniques were those of a flustered American soccer mom.  We spent the first hour simply dribbling one by one through cones placed in a line.

My frustrations during that course are common to any reasonably knowledgeable American soccer coach, and remarkably similar to the complaint of Guinean Titi Camara—a foreign accent often garners unearned credibility and resources, while the lack of said accent ensures assumptions of inferiority.  And I suspect a similar dynamic, and similar resentment, underlies the reaction in South Africa to the re-appointment of Parreira.  Playing in a World Cup, and even more so hosting a World Cup, is a chance to demonstrate national competence—and the symbolism of South Africa is crucial to its national (and even continental) pride.  So in the end, I’m surprised they’ve turned some of that symbolism over to a Brazilian.  And as a matter of personal pride I’m glad we’ve got Bob Bradley.  I’m not ready to accept Kuper and Szymanski’s bold claim that “western Europe has discovered the secret of soccer.”  But if Hiddink were to happen to become available…

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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