It is one of football’s enduring conundrums: why do so few truly great players go on to come top managers?
Arrigo Sacchi’s famous assertion that one does not need to have been a racehorse in order to be a good jockey was a witty bon mot, but then if a prize-wining filly were to become a jockey, might it not stand to reason that it would be an exceeding good one?
A conversation of some of the all-time great players throws up the likes of Diego Maradona, Pele, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio. All era-defining footballers, but only one of this lot – der Kaiser – achieved success as a manager. Maradona aside, the rest stayed out of it.
El pibe de oro would manage Argentina to the quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup, but not even the most rabid supporters of the flawed genius would admire his work with Albiceleste that year. The team often lacked cohesion and basic organization, and were duly exposed by a rampant Germany at the last eight.
The explanation for this is not empirical by any stretch, but is perhaps best grasped by the fact that a lot of the game’s great players had systems built around them. Maradona is the best example of this, having been indulged as the lone flair player in Carlos Bilardo’s rigid Argentina side of 1986. However, on some level, all managers feel the urge to cater to their best players, amending and tweaking the general team shape to elicit their creative and technical juices.
This accommodation seems to rob these players of the understanding of how a team ought to function holistically. When the thrust of ten players is to give one the platform to shine, it creates something of a disconnect emotionally.
In some cases, it can even lead to resentment. A lot of the members of Nigeria’s great side of the mid-90s would later admit to being envious of star striker Rashidi Yekini. The 1993 African Player of the Year was by no means a preening “commander” (did Sepp Blatter patent this word and its connotative meaning?), but the team came to depend on him for goals; it is difficult to think of any other striker who could have played his role upfront.
Naturally, there are exceptions. The aforementioned Beckenbauer in 1990 became the first man to win the World Cup as both coach and player. There is the caveat that his dour Germany were the apt winners of a forgettable World Cup that year, but let’s not split hairs.
Johan Cruyff is another, leading Barcelona’s Dream Team to European glory in 1992. The enigmatic Dutchman was of course a thinking footballer in his playing days, reputedly as much responsible for Ajax’s 70s Total Football as the legendary Rinus Michels himself. Former Denmark international Jan Molby described him in his autobiography as “a king holding court,” having been a part of that great Ajax side.
These two are indicative of a sparse trend: thinking footballers who were leaders of their era not (just) by ability but by force of personality. Their primal standing came as a result of this rather than a cause.
A further class of exception are those who were forced to submit to the collective in spite of their ability, channelling their genius to serve the team primarily. Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti was a part of Sacchi’s Milan side in the early 90s that dominated European football, as was Frank Rijkaard. Both have gone on to claim success themselves on Europe’s biggest stage, having worked under the strictures and pedagogic pedantry of Sacchi.
In contrast, Ruud Gullit’s attempts at management have yielded decidedly mixed results; this may be connected to Sacchi almost dotingly referring to him as his “number one” in that Milan side.
Knowing this, it is unlikely that the two greatest players of this generation will go on to become managers of any real consequence. Lionel Messi is as much beholden to his immense natural ability as to the insular, cossetting environment of Barcelona, though much like it was with Maradona, this is expected for a player of his ilk.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a force of nature and his ascension to his present level is testament to his strength of character. However, while they are both national team captains, neither he nor Messi wield the social and emotional control of, say, Cruyff; or have had to work under a coach with a specific vision that subsumed them within a collective. Messi under Guardiola is the closest, but he was very much the point of the system, while Jose Mourinho despaired of getting Ronaldo to do grunt work while in his time at Casa Blanca.
More than anything, this is why a player like Sunday Oliseh, for all his inexperience, is very likely to make a fine coach. The leadership torch of the Super Eagles passed from Stephen Keshi to him post ’98, and he embodied the grit and determination of Nigeria’s early-noughties national side. Jay-Jay Okocha may have been the mercurial talent in the side (and would, based on the premise of this article make a poor coach), but it was Oliseh who was the heart and soul of the side.
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