keeping the national in national team coach

Keeping the National in National Team Coach

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DOHA, Qatar — Brazil’s players already seem to have identified their preferred candidate. They had known, long before their quarterfinal defeat to Croatia sent them out of the World Cup, that Tite — the affable, cerebral coach of the national team for the past six years — would be stepping down. Now, they had decided that the most exacting job in international soccer should go to Fernando Diniz.

The 48-year-old Diniz certainly had a strong case. The squad’s elder statesmen, Daniel Alves and Thiago Silva, offered glowing references. So did a couple of the team’s younger members, Antony and Bruno Guimaraes, who had worked with him early in their careers. Most important, he had Neymar on board: As long ago as July, Brazil’s most influential star had tweeted about his admiration for Diniz.

Not everyone is quite so convinced. Ronaldo, the World Cup-winning striker who has functioned, essentially, as a ghost at the feast during this tournament, suggested he did not “see many options” for Tite’s successor among Brazilian coaches. Diniz, he said, was the best of them, but he was far more enthused by the idea of something unprecedented: appointing a foreigner to coach the Brazilian national team.

The Italian Carlo Ancelotti, the Spaniard Pep Guardiola, the Portuguese Abel Ferreira were all, Ronaldo said, more appealing. “I get a good feeling from these names,” he said.

Brazil is not the only country to have left Qatar rather earlier than expected that finds itself wrestling with this issue. A quarter of the teams in the tournament had barely picked up their baggage from the carousel before they parted company with their managers. A couple, the Netherlands and Spain, have moved quickly to appoint replacements. Six more are beginning their search for candidates. A handful of others, including England and Portugal, may yet join them.

That task, though, is not quite as easy as it sounds. Managing a national team is not — and has not been for some time — the pinnacle of a coach’s career. Most of the game’s most feted managers, obsessives who thrive on fine-tuning their complex, intricate systems on a daily basis, find the disjointed nature of international soccer unattractive.

Nor is it necessarily clear that a rich, impressive résumé in club soccer is a reliable guide to success with a country. Only three coaches in Qatar had, for example, won the Champions League: Germany’s Hansi Flick, Spain’s Luis Enrique and Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach. Only van Gaal will be satisfied with his tournament. Flick’s team left after the group stage, Enrique’s in the round of 16.

Those managers who have thrived, on the other hand, have far more low-key backgrounds. France’s Didier Deschamps contested a Champions League final in 2004 and won a French title with Marseille in 2010. Walid Regragui, the Morocco coach, has built a fine career in his homeland, leading Wydad Casablanca to the African Champions League this spring.

But Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni has no club experience — he was awarded the national team post after impressing with the country’s under-20 team — while Zlatko Dalic, the Croatian manager, was working in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for almost a decade before he was appointed by his nation in 2017. Neither could have been described as a glamorous hire.

And then, of course, there is the issue of nationality. Plenty of countries, ordinarily in what might be called soccer’s developing world, have long imported coaches. In the sport’s major nations, though, it remains a significant, and not uncontroversial, step.

“The national team is ours,” as Rivaldo, another Brazilian great, said this week. “It has to be coached by someone with Brazilian blood running through their veins.”

There is nothing in the rules that requires a country’s national team be managed by someone born, raised or otherwise connected to that place, of course. And a literal interpretation of Rivaldo’s hard-line stance is most likely impractical in a world of layered, fluid identities.

It is hard not to feel, though, that it comes close — in the case of soccer’s powerhouses — to negating the idea, the purpose, of international soccer. These tournaments, after all, are essentially a test of the strength of a country’s soccer culture: the ideas it has (or has borrowed and adapted), the players it can produce.

In Brazil’s case, that culture has a major shortcoming when it comes to managers. The reason Ronaldo, for one, is not wholly convinced by Diniz’s suitability is, most likely, because Diniz has coached more than a dozen clubs during his managerial career. He has been working as a manager since 2009. In several of his most recent jobs, he was fired after barely a few months in charge.

As Neymar said in his tweet lobbying for Diniz, the lack of time shown and patience afforded to coaches is a deep-rooted problem in Brazil’s soccer culture. Most of the other domestic candidates have the same issue; clubs are so trigger-happy, so demanding, that managers are never given the chance to build anything.

If a national team is anything, it is a reflection of every element of that culture: the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses. Brazil can, of course, take a shortcut, and appoint a foreigner to make up for its inability to nurture coaching talent. But that is what it is: a shortcut. It does not address the issue at its root. It is a way of avoiding the hard work. It might be fine by the letter of the law. Whether it is in the spirit of it is a different matter.