Matthew Roche went to France eager to report the penetrating insights of national managers, but only found one who had any. No surprise that it wasn't Glenn Hoddle
It was enough to make any self-respecting journalist scream. Glenn Hoddle had just been asked at a press conference whether he thought the heat might be a problem during the game with Romania. “I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly hot enough in this room,” he said with a witless smile, prompting a respected member of the accompanying media circus to put away his notebook. “It’s at times like this that I want England to lose so I can go off and cover someone more interesting,” he admitted. Wanted: Manager for national side. Must be able to provoke thought.
Although Hoddle might claim he was trying to bore the tabloid rat pack into submission, he did little to challenge the view that a crisp packet could have shown more originality in front of the media. The World Cup generated so many meaningless millions of words a day that we needed someone to stop playing mind games and cut through the bullshit.
Forget the players’ drinking habits, forget the “How’s the broken toenail today, Dennis?” and the “This player-interview has been specially arranged for our favoured television station, so everyone else get lost”. Where was a story we could chew over? What about the managers, the men whose tactical choices made or broke the teams? Who could deepen our knowledge of the game by explaining how they made their decisions? Give us substance or give us a ticket home, we cried.
Step forward Claude Le Roy. Had the sides been given points for intelligent comments by the top man, Cameroon would have been in the final. The portly Frenchman was perhaps the only coach happy to sit down for an hour and discuss football, tactics and players without once repeating himself or descending into banalities. “This whole idea of compensatory play is absolute bollocks,” he said one day after someone had criticized him for pushing too many men into attack. “If a defender goes forwards with the ball” – he moved his mobile phone up the table – “you have to send someone up to support him, not pull a player back to make up the numbers in defence.” A bunch of car keys went forward to support the mobile phone. “There’s no point dawdling near the goalkeeper when the guy with the ball is at the other end of the field.”
Some managers would look for journalists from the team’s next opponents before speaking but Le Roy made little attempt to hide his tactics. “We keep telling our players that once they’ve decided to do something, go for it and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. All of football lies in those last 40 yards of the pitch where you can take risks,” he said at a news conference. No one from Austria seemed to be listening, since the team looked mightily surprised the next night when defender Pierre Njanka scored a wonderful goal after running 60 yards with the ball .
Le Roy, the only manager who actually seemed to be enjoying himself, had little time for the closed training sessions so beloved by many. “If you want to protect your players, it’s either because you’re afraid or not confident enough in the quality of your work. It’s a great game, eh? The pressure is such that some coaches would love it if there were no matches,” he said.
Although some might say Le Roy’s experience as a television commentator helped him formulate good soundbites, he showed an originality of thought matched by few of the dozen or so other managers I met. Some seemed to think that even mentioning the words “4-4-2” was tantamount to betraying state secrets.
Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Santrac, for example, is rumoured to enjoy an exciting personal life, but behind a microphone he’s about as lively as a bag of dust. Asked several times about his tactics for one match, he responded with a short mantra: “Yugoslavia will try to score one more goal than the opposition.” That’s all, folks.
Whacky Bora Milutinovic, fleetingly in charge of Nigeria, spoke about six languages and made little sense in any of them. After rattling on in English he would translate his own quotes into French, then Spanish, then Italian and so forth, each time slightly changing the sense of his comments so that by the end of the monologue there were groups of journalists with somewhat different understandings of what had been said.
Everywhere you looked there was a manager trying to avoid interesting questions. Denmark’s Bo Johansson looked affable enough, but he had a squadron of wasps hiding in his underwear. One hack had his head torn off for asking whether the team’s greatest problem against South Africa might be over-confidence, while another was given a condescending lecture after daring to mistake the minute in which a player had been substituted.
While at least one correspondent cheered when the Danes were knocked out, a whole army of jubilant scribes hit the streets after the departure of Romania, whose team spokesman once announced he’d turned his mobile phone off because he didn’t like being bothered by journalists. Perhaps Iordanescu and Co were too busy polishing those dreaded post-match untruths, which reached the status of an art form in the hands of Croatia’s Miroslav Blazevic after an embarrassing defeat against Argentina. “It was a very pleasant game,” he smiled. “I am very happy with our team. They can leave with their heads high.”
Or perhaps they were studying endless match videos, although no one ever told us whether these sessions were any use. Le Roy had little time for them. “As a player I found it unbearable when the coach made us watch a long match video and then explained to us what we’d seen. It’s like making an orchestra listen to a recording they’ve just made,” he said, admitting he had other things on his mind.
“I want to change the psychology of my side. When someone is substituted the players need to think of it as fresh blood being injected into the team rather than an individual being punished. Once they’ve grasped that we’ll have made a great stride forward,” he said.
But this achievement is useless if there’s no one left to be substituted, which sometimes looked likely after Cameroon’s axemen had played the first half. It was frustrating to see a team with so much talent – they easily outplayed Italy and Chile for long spells with ten men – let down by rank indiscipline. Le Roy blamed youthful exuberance and biased referees rather than inherent malevolence. “The players know that if things go wrong I’ll take responsibility. I will never blame them for not following my orders, which is an excuse I regard as a massive obscenity. If the players weren’t following orders it’s the coach’s fault for choosing the wrong side,” he said.
Now he’s off to coach Strasbourg, leaving us to hope he’ll be back in 2002. “C’est une jouissance permanente, le foot,” he said one day. Football is a permanent orgasm. For some.
From WSC 138 August 1998. What was happening this month