Looking beyond borders to win: Nations turn to foreign coaches in bid for Asian Cup glory

(IranSportsPress.com) | thenational – “Popovic in frame for Palace job” read the headlines across English and Australian newspaper back pages last month.

That those headlines turned out to be less than prophetic was no surprise but they did tell a true story.

Tony Popovic, coach of Asian club champions Western Sydney Wanderers, was genuinely high up on the shortlist of candidates to take over as manager of Crystal Palace.

That fact should be regarded as a milestone, a significant continental shift. Here, after all, was the normal course of events turned on its head.

A team in what markets itself as the most glamorous league in Europe was looking a long way east for coaching expertise.

In the end, Crystal Palace chose a manager with more recent Premier League experience in Alan Pardew, but they had liked the look of former Socceroo Popovic.

Popovic is a former Palace player, but what was most important was that he had earned respect for what he had achieved in Asia in guiding his Australian team to the first Asian Champions League title for an A-League club and, also, to a solid showing as semi-finalists at the Club World Cup.

The list of Asian coaches to have been hired by clubs, or national sides, in the elite leagues of Europe or South America is minuscule.

The number of Europeans and Latin Americans to take coaching jobs in the AFC territories is, in contrast, vast. To regard foreign know-how as the key to development, progress and success is not so much a pattern in Asian football as a pandemic.

Typically, the 2015 Asian Cup will feature more foreign coaches in charge of the competing nations than natives.

Nine hired hands from outside Asia take on seven from the continent; that is the same breakdown as four years ago, though not many of the same individuals.

Coaches come and go quickly in Asian international football, and it is easy to detect a repetitive cycle: a local coach fails, so the instinct is to recruit a foreign one.

When the import then fails to meet expectations, shortcomings are blamed on a lack of understanding of local conditions and circumstances.

There are perils in generalising about a sporting landscape as broad as the AFC, but there are certain trends.

At the top level, foreign coaches in Asia have achieved no more than native ones.

Of the six Asian teams to have progressed to the second rounds of World Cups, three did so with foreigners in charge, and the last pair to break out of the group phase — South Korea and Japan in 2010 — had native guides.

Yet even the more established centres of power in Asian football instinctively drift towards overseas coaches for the national team.

Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who guided Japan past the group phase of a World Cup for the first time, when they hosted the tournament in 2002, said the pressures on an outsider in the Japan job can seem less intense than on a local.

“A Japanese with original ideas faces the fear of being isolated from the consensus of the majority,” Troussier said. “A foreigner cares less about what others say about him.”

That independence can have a dynamic effect, Troussier said, with the foreign coach liberated from preconceptions. Japanese football welcomed his assertive methods partly because it had a tradition of looking overseas.

“Japan has long accepted foreigners to enlighten them. In the opening years of the J League, football saw Brazilians as their model,” he said.

Japan was not alone for that. Yet South American coaches, who have long had a cachet in West Asian and Far Eastern football, are conspicuous by their absence from the cast list at the Asian Cup.

There are as many Africa-born coaches preparing for the event in Australia as there are in charge of the 16 finalists in this month’s Africa Cup of Nations.

Kuwait are managed by Tunisian Nabil Maaloul, Qatar has former Algeria full-back Djamel Belmadi in charge, while the much-travelled, Mozambique-born Carlos Queiroz, a Portuguese citizen, is with Iran.

Those looking for signals of progress, of self-confidence within the region in its coaching resources, might note West Asia is in the vanguard.

The UAE’s Mahdi Ali is one of a quartet of coaches – the others are with Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine – who carry the same passport as the players they are mentoring.

As for the likely winners, Australia are led by 49-year-old former Australia international Ange Postecoglou, Japan have a Mexican, the experienced Javier Aguirre, at the helm, and South Korea last year opted for Uli Stielike, once an elegant defender for Germany and a successful coach in West Asian club football over the past six years.

All of those have come into their jobs since the 2014 World Cup, where none of the quartet of Asian countries – only South Korea were under a native coach – went beyond the first round.