Split personality

As national manager Guus Hiddink takes charge at Chelsea, Dan Brennan reflects on worries in Russia over what is said to be only a temporary job-share

If Guus Hiddink turns Chelsea’s season around, don’t expect too many loud cheers in Russia. The Dutchman’s decision to combine his permanent job as Russian national team coach with a makeshift one at Stamford Bridge has been met with what might best be described as resigned dismay.

“The reaction in Russia isn’t very joyful,” confirms Igor Rabiner, correspondent with Russian daily Sport Express. “We’ve had a lot of experience of coaches doing the combined club and country role – from Oleg Romantsev to Valery Gazzayev. And nothing good ever came of it. Though in those cases they were combining the national team job with managing a Russian club, and the main issue was a lack of objectivity in player selection. As much as he might like to, Guus won’t be able to pick a national team from the Chelsea squad.”

Hiddink can point to the fact that his own previous experience of combining club and country roles – with PSV Eindhoven and Australia – was a success; but equally he acknowledges that then it was more straightforward as he was able to use Holland as the Socceroos’ European training base.

Meanwhile, his assertion that he “took the Chelsea job not for money, but because I love football” doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. While it would be wrong to suggest his motives were purely mercenary – the lure of the Champions League and of working with players on a daily basis were doubtless big plus points – the fact is that money had a lot to do with it. Even his own number two in the Russian set-up, Igor Korneev, admits as much, saying: “It’s no secret that there were financial factors involved,” adding that Hiddink’s decision to take the Chelsea gig was “the wisest step under the circumstances”.

On paper, Hiddink is an employee of the Russian Football Union (RFU), but Roman Abramovich was already his de facto paymaster before he arrived in west London. Now he will just be paying him from two different pots. Hiddink’s contract with the cash-strapped RFU is worth an estimated £6.3 million per year. However, just over half of that amount is subsidised by the National Football Academy (NFA), the body set up and funded by Abramovich. Originally, the hope was that the NFA might fund the whole package, but tensions in the relationship with the RFU stymied that. Thus it was left to Vitaliy Mutko, head of the RFU – and Russia’s minister of sport – to source the balance of the salary elsewhere. With the Russian economy swinging from boom to bust, this proved difficult. In effect, therefore, the RFU found itself struggling to pay Hiddink in full and in no position to dictate terms – unlike Abramovich.

In an effort to deflect public and media criticism, of which he was the main target, Mutko pointed to a clause in Hiddink’s contract allowing him to work with a club if a suitable offer came along. He has even suggested that daily workouts on the Chelsea training pitch could benefit Russia as it means he will be sharper when they gather for international matches.

Mutko has also joked that he would be happy for Hiddink to do all his coaching over the telephone if he leads Russia to the World Cup trophy. The key concern for most Russians is making sure that they get as far as qualification. In this respect, at least, the fixture list should work in Hiddink’s favour. Between now and the end of Chelsea’s season, Russia have two World Cup qualifiers, both against soft opposition – Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein – from which six points should be a given. He will fly into Moscow ahead of those games on March 23.

The much tougher fixtures, against Finland and a friendly at Wembley, come in late May and early June, by which point Chelsea will have wrapped up their season. In the meantime he is delegating to his two assistants, Korneev and Alexander Borodiuk, who are, in any case, used to taking on much of the day-to-day work of monitoring players. Moreover, Hiddink can point to the fact that he is now ideally placed to monitor the form of two of his key players, Arsenal’s Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavluchenko of Spurs.

Arshavin, Russia’s captain, admits to certain reservations about his national team coach joining him in London, fearing that it might be a first step towards a permanent exit: “For me the main thing is that he doesn’t abandon the national team. If he suddenly left, I simply don’t see any realistic replacement. On the one hand, I have a very good relationship with Guus, so I can’t wish for him not to succeed. On the other hand, Chelsea are now my direct rivals. And of course there is the nagging worry that if all goes brilliantly for him in London, he might extend his stay at Chelsea. We can’t afford to lose him.”

Hiddink’s status in Russia is such that it puts him beyond public and media criticism. There is though still one group ready to launch in with a barb from the sidelines. Among many Russian coaches, the appointment of a foreigner to the top job still rankles, so seeing him now afforded the chance to turn it into a part-time role is salt in the wound. “He never was and never will be a magician. He’s just a good pro, doing an honest job,” says former Krylia Sovietov coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev.

“This isn’t about his abilities, but before he was able to focus solely on Russia. Now, if Guus is going to combine his work with the national team with the Chelsea job, he’ll need to split himself in two, because he won’t be able to concentrate properly on one team. I’m against him combining the roles. Look at the top football nations: England, France, Spain, Italy… do you think they’d allow something like this?” Even Mutko could not deny that he has a point.

From WSC 266 April 2009