Coaches crucial in finalists' progression
JOHANNESBURG -- When one looks at successful national team managers, the tendency is to think it's all about tactics and in-game adjustments. But a big reason Spain's Vicente Del Bosque and Dutch counterpart Bert van Marwijk will square off in Sunday's World Cup final is down to the subtler art of man management.
Heading into the tournament, van Marwijk certainly had the tougher task. The Netherlands has long been blessed with talent, but its penchant for self-destruction is legendary. Ruud Gullit walked out on the Oranje's 1994 World Cup team just days before the tournament was to start in a disagreement with then-manager Dick Advocaat over tactics. Then there was the infamous World Cup final defeat to West Germany in 1974, when a virulent case of overconfidence saw the Dutch fall 2-1.
While it would be a stretch to say van Marwijk has ruled with an iron fist in this tournament, he has moved quickly to douse any smoldering resentment that might come to the surface. Case in point: Striker Robin Van Persie reacted badly to being substituted against Cameroon, stating that playmaker Wesley Sneijder should have come off instead. Van Marwijk quickly called a team meeting to clear the air, revealing a manager who is not only in charge, but one who is constantly taking the pulse of his team.
"I pay a lot of attention to nonverbal communication," van Marwijk told London's The Independent. "I know that a little joke with a player or a tap on the head can mean much more than long conversations. But I do talk with them, of course."
The result has been a united front that has allowed the Dutch to ride out tough moments that would have sunk them in the past. This was never more evident than in the quarterfinal win against Brazil. The Dutch were clearly outplayed in the first half, yet some directed comments from van Marwijk helped rally the side.
"At halftime, I made it very clear to the players," he said. "I told them time and time again, 'You have to play your own game. You have to have patience against Brazil.'"
Del Bosque was faced with a trickier challenge, inheriting a side containing big egos and bigger success following the team's run to the Euro 2008 title. Yet if anyone could manage the psyches of Spain's array of stars, it was Del Bosque. It was during Real Madrid's first "Galactico" period from 2000 to 2003 when he led Los Merengues to two Champions League crowns. Critics claimed that given Real's roster, anyone could have led that team to victory, but it's worth noting that Real has not tasted Champions League glory since Del Bosque was unceremoniously dumped seven years ago. Instead his calm, unassuming demeanor in dealing with players was lauded as the key to the team's success.
That attribute came in handy following Spain's shocking first-round loss to Switzerland. Former Spain manager Luis Aragones, who led Spain to its Euro 2008 success, criticized the side, saying it "lacked conviction." But Del Bosque refused to be drawn into a public quarrel with Aragones.
"Everyone has the right to express his opinion," Del Bosque told Sky Sports. "I will never utter a single word against the former coach because there is no Spain of Luis or Spain of Del Bosque. There is only one Spain. I am here to try to ensure that things work out as well as possible and not debate things with the former coach."
Del Bosque has since rallied his side, with La Furia Roja reeling off five straight wins. And while they haven't looked their best, they've improved with each game, reinforcing the belief that the team has benefited from Del Bosque's quiet confidence. Even Aragones, who predicted that Spain would lose to Portugal in the second round, has come around to the idea that his former team can be champions.
This gift for player relations aside, there appears to be little that the two coaches have in common. Van Marwijk's pedigree as both a player and a coach is much more modest than Del Bosque's. While Del Bosque represented Spain 18 times as a player, van Marwijk made just a solitary appearance for the Dutch national team in 1975 and never played for any of the country's big clubs. As a manager, van Marwijk did lead Feyenoord to UEFA Cup glory in 2004, but that success still pales in comparison to Del Bosque's aforementioned triumphs with Real Madrid.
Yet it could be argued that van Marwijk's background was precisely what the Dutch needed after big-name managers such as Frank Rijkaard, Louis Van Gaal and Marco van Basten failed to lead the team to either a European or World Cup title.
One certainly can't argue with van Marwijk's results, and the same can be said for Del Bosque. And while only one side will come out on top in Sunday's encounter, neither team will lack for the self-belief that has been instilled by each manager.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.