It was a snowy evening in Amsterdam, and a dozen men had gathered in an apartment. First there was a soccer quiz, then a banquet, then good talk into the early morning. Guus Hiddink was the senior figure at the table, a globally admired soccer manager. Yet he did not behave that way. The Dutchman, who this week was named Chelsea’s manager for the rest of the season, likes telling stories, but is also happy to sit back and listen to others. He is a solid, jowly presence, a man’s man, but feels no compulsion to dominate.
“Small ego” is a phrase Hiddink often uses to describe himself. That is rare in Chelsea’s changing room and among soccer managers. Hiddink’s recent predecessors at Chelsea include “Big Phil” Scolari and José “The Special One” Mourinho. However, Hiddink’s small ego is one of his business secrets. Knowing soccer is only a small part of a coach’s job. Hiddink has the human qualities needed in a club as thorny as Chelsea.
The son of a schoolteacher and wartime resistance hero, he was born in 1946 in the quiet Dutch Achterhoek, or “Back Corner”, near the German border. It is the sort of rural region where ordinariness is valued. After Hiddink led South Korea to the World Cup semi-final in 2002, an estimated 16 biographies appeared in Korean, but when he came home to the Back Corner, his dad just said: “Well, that wasn’t bad. Coffee?”
Growing up with five brothers gave Hiddink a crash course in dealing with males. That came in handy when, while playing semi-professional soccer, he worked for 10 years as a gym teacher at a school for children with learning difficulties. Hiddink persuaded one boy who was brandishing a knife to go outside and try to stab his car tyres instead.
It was all good preparation for Chelsea. “The difference between a difficult class and a difficult group of top footballers is not so great,” says Hiddink in his authorised Dutch biography. “You know: you must fight with this one but not with that one, because then it’ll go wrong.”
At 40 he became manager of the Dutch club, PSV Eindhoven. He had less status than some of his team but, unlike many coaches, loves working with difficult star players. He swaps cigarettes, lets them transgress sometimes, asks their opinions. That seemed to work. In 1988 little PSV won the European Cup. Later Hiddink flourished at clubs in several countries, and as coach of Holland, Korea, Australia and now Russia. But his ego remained small. He still listens to others and avoids hogging credit for victories. He appreciates the same understated manner in Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who owns Chelsea. “A very quiet man,” Hiddink says of him. “No urge to profile himself. A pair of jeans and a very normal watch. Less than normal, even.”
When Abramovich visited Hiddink at PSV once, the chap who ran the club canteen shared a cup of tea with them without discovering who the foreigner in jeans was.
Hiddink’s small ego protects him from the daily circus that surrounds soccer: the tabloid headlines, death threats and what the club president supposedly told the reserve goalkeeper’s mistress. Hiddink ignores it all. “Mister, let it go,” urged his assistant at Valencia years ago. “Limit yourself to football.”
Hiddink does not believe in the myth of his own irreplaceability. He has no desire to work 13-hour days, preferring to sit in a five-star hotel in Moscow, drinking cappuccinos and managing a game a month. His taste for golf and the good life had previously deterred him from taking over Chelsea. Delegation is how he proposes to manage the London club and Russia simultaneously. Hiddink always works with strong assistants, several of whom have gone on to manage big clubs or countries.
If you are calm and win soccer matches, people will generally like you. Hiddink understands the business advantage of being nice. He is a rare manager who leaves others feeling good about him, even when he loses. When the season ends, his biggest challenge may be escaping a longer contract at Chelsea and regaining that Moscow hotel suite.
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