The coaches of the World Cup are more invested in the outcome of the match than almost anyone else on the planet. Players return to their league club between national-team matches—coaches don’t. They simply grit their teeth and bear the weight that comes with carrying an entire country’s sporting expectations on their shoulders.
“Your biggest question before you take the job is not, do you put them 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1,” Slaven Bilic, the former coach of the Croatian national soccer team, said, referencing different soccer formations. “The biggest question is, can you cope with the pressure?”
One of the great World Cup coaches of all time was César Luis Menotti, the manager of the 1978 Argentina championship team. El Flaco, or “the thin one,” as he was known, had a long flop of side-parted dark hair and thick sideburns, and he routinely used nicotine to help him cope with the pressure—he was rarely seen without a cigarette. It seemed to work, too. He may be the only person that Diego Maradona has ever referred to as God, other than Diego Maradona himself. Menotti’s reputation in later years became so great that he developed a group of followers known as Menottistas. And as with nearly all of the great coaches, his strategy possessed a blend of philosophy and artistry. He once said, with a lively spirit of abstraction, “A team above all is an idea.”
Argentina is one of three countries that have three different team managers working at this year’s World Cup. Italy is another. This is no surprise; both countries have long and illustrious soccer histories. Italy has won the World Cup four times, more than any other country except Brazil. Argentina is one of three other countries to have won it at least twice. (Germany and Uruguay are the others.)
It may seem odd, then, that the relatively tiny nation of Portugal, which has never finished higher than third, also has three coaches working this year: for Iran, the irascible and itinerant Carlos Queiroz, who has also coached the national teams of Portugal, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates; for Greece, the stern-faced Fernando Santos, who has become a legend there, having been named the Greek league’s coach of the decade in 2010; and for Portugal, Paulo Bento, the former player who looks a bit like a platypus.
In part, the popularity of Portuguese coaches is due to what Luis Freitas Lobo, the Portuguese soccer television and radio analyst, calls “the José Mourinho effect.” In the last decade alone, Mourinho, who is fifty-one and currently coaches Chelsea, has won championships in Portugal, England, Italy, and Spain, as well as two Champions League titles. Because of his success, “the big clubs of the big countries look to the Portuguese coaches like never before,” Lobo said.
But Mourinho didn’t come out of nowhere. Over the last twenty-five years, Portugal has developed a school of coaching. “Mourinho is a symbol of this new era of coaches,” Lobo said. The “new era” spawned from the Technical University of Lisbon, where Mourinho studied, and the University of Porto, where a man named Victor Frade taught. Frade created the theory known as tactical periodization, which in practice, Lobo said, “never separates the physical, the tactical, the technical—the skills—and the mental in the work. Physical preparation doesn’t exist by itself for Portuguese coaches. It’s integrated with the tactical game. You don’t do any physical exercises without transferring them to the game.”
The theory seems well suited to the World Cup game, which, with its limitations on practice time and unrivaled worldwide attention, may be less about kicking a ball than any other professional soccer context anywhere. “Some of the guys from the university, like Mourinho, give a lot of importance to the psychological side of the game, the mental game,” said Hugo Daniel Sousa, who covered the 2010 World Cup for the Portuguese daily Publico, where he is currently online editor. “It is a much more wide approach.” To varying degrees, all three of the Portuguese World Cup coaches employ it.
Queiroz, the sixty-one-year-old Iran manager, was one of the first Portuguese coaches to come out of the universities, in his case in Lisbon, where these methods were taught. At the beginning of his career, he twice won the youth world championships, in 1989 and 1991, when coaching the Portuguese under-twenty team. “He achieved things that no one had ever achieved,” Lobo said. “The Portuguese people don’t forget that.”
Yet when Queiroz took over the national team in his next job, Portugal failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Directly after the match that eliminated the team, Sousa said, “Queiroz said on TV, ‘The Portuguese national team needs to remove all the shit from the Portuguese federation.’ It’s a very famous sentence in Portugal.”
Queiroz, who was born in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, got a second chance to coach his nation’s team in 2010, but after getting eliminated by Spain, that experience didn’t end on a peaceful note, either. “He doesn’t have an easy personality,” Lobo said. “He’s not the coach who goes to the pitch to coach alone. He wants to be the boss. That creates animus.”
Greece’s coach, Santos, fifty-nine, had intended to retire from soccer after a short and minor career playing the game. He began to work at a hotel in the coastal region of Estoril, where friends persuaded him to coach the local team, and he hasn’t looked back since; during a stint with Porto in Portugal, he hired Victor Frade as an assistant. Unlike Queiroz, Santos has an easy personality. “Everyone in Portugal likes Fernando Santos,” Lobo said. When he speaks his mind, he does so through gentle rebuttals. Once, when asked why he didn’t coach his team to play more creatively and offensively, he famously said, “Should we keep fooling ourselves, mistaking sardines for lobsters?”
Bento took over the Portuguese team in 2010, after Queiroz’s fiery exit, and then led the team to the semifinals of Euro 2012. Unlike Mourinho and Queiroz, Bento didn’t study at the university, but at forty-four, he spent his playing career under its influences. “Right now in Portugal, there’s a conflict between coaches that are ex-players and coaches that come from the academies,” Lobo says. “Paulo Bento thinks like a player sometimes; he thinks like a coach sometimes. He is a compromise between the two worlds.”
Yet for all of the respect given Portuguese coaches recently, it might be asking too much for them to make their mark on this World Cup, when they’re coaching the likes of Iran, Greece, and even Portugal, who had to win a playoff match against Sweden to qualify. Only five countries have made it to the World Cup finals more than twice. The talent seems to be heavily and consistently concentrated in the same areas.
But who knows. Perhaps this is how a soccer legacy begins.
David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.