It is what glossy magazines call a “dream home”. The 19th-century mansion on the Amstel river in Amsterdam is still being renovated, but Guus Hiddink and his girlfriend plan to move in soon.
The world’s most sought-after football coach has never been a workaholic, and as a 59-year-old multi-millionaire he’s had enough of driving to training every morning. Now he intends to live Amsterdam’s bohemian arty life. Only the job of England manager might entice him away.
Last week Hiddink announced he was leaving his club PSV Eindhoven. He will coach Australia at the World Cup, and afterwards take over another national team. We will soon discover whether it is Russia, as the oligarch Roman Abramovich expects, or England.
Hiddink is one of six sons of a village schoolteacher from the Achterhoek, or “Back Corner” of the eastern Netherlands. Growing up among brothers – two of whom also became professional footballers – prepared him for a life among sportsmen. “I learnt to share, listen and communicate,” he has said.
Hiddink is a man at ease with other men. He has the gift for the right matey gesture, grabbing your shoulders from behind by way of greeting, happy to talk but also to sit listening while others tell stories.
He grew up milking cows and dreaming of becoming a farmer. But Dutch agriculture was already dying, and he went into football instead. At 19 he became assistant coach of the Back Corner’s semi-professional club, De Graafschap. The head coach spotted in training sessions that his young assistant could play a bit, and so Hiddink made an unusual career move: from coach to footballer.
The handsome, round-faced, wavy-haired playmaker was too lazy and slow for the top, but he did briefly play with George Best at the San Jose Earthquakes. “I was his room-mate,” says Hiddink, and he mimics himself fielding the phone calls from Best’s groupies: “George is not here. George is sleeping.”
In 1984 Hiddink, then sporting a Groucho Marx moustache, became PSV’s assistant coach. He waited three years for the head coach to be sacked, took the job and within a year had won the European Cup. Hiddink had less status than some of his players, but that didn’t matter because he has what he calls “a small ego”. He smoked cigarettes with his stars, swapping jokes and listening to their ideas as if they were brothers.
Later, when coaching in Turkey and Spain, he arrived at a defining insight. He decided he would ignore the circus around football: death threats, newspaper headlines or what the club’s vice-president said to the centre-forward’s mistress. “Mister, let it go,” urged his assistant at Valencia. “Limit yourself to football.” Since then, Hiddink has.
In 1998, he led Holland to the World Cup semi-finals. In 2002, more surprisingly, he repeated the trick with South Korea. Hiddink got the formerly obedient Korean players thinking for themselves on the pitch. He always wants autonomous, intelligent “Dutch” players: a centre-back who knows when to push into midfield, a striker who drops off a few yards.
In Korea Hiddink achieved a status possibly unprecedented for a football manager. The country had craved global recognition, and he delivered it. His autobiography appeared in a Korean print run of half a million, despite competing with an estimated 16 Hiddink biographies. In the Back Corner, Korean tour buses made pilgrimages to the Hiddink ancestral home.
Hiddink returned to PSV and more league titles. In his spare time he coached Australia to their first World Cup since 1974. But meanwhile the Dutch tax police were after him. Hiddink had claimed to be living in Belgium, where taxes are lower, but the taxmen disputed this. According to Hiddink, they tapped his phone calls to check where he spent his nights. These days the answering machine of his mobile phone warns, in German: “Careful, the enemy is listening.” This German phrase from the second world war appears to be Hiddink’s way of accusing the taxmen of Gestapo practices. Their interrogations helped push him out of the Dutch labour market.
Russia has offered him a nice gig: a fantastic salary to live beside the Amstel and occasionally pop to Moscow on a private jet provided by Abramovich. But the job lacks the magic of being England manager.
Hiddink would relish England’s three biggest challenges. He has the psychological expertise to inspire tired multi-millionaires. He loves dealing with difficult characters: Wayne Rooney would be a cinch for him. And he would improve the thinking of a team that has everything but intellect. Hiddink has a better CV than any English candidate for the job, and better English than the other foreign candidates.
Yet he isn’t sure whether he wants the job. He dreads the British tabloids crawling over his family. In any case, the Football Association may choose an Englishman instead of the best man. Once again, British newspapers plus British fear of immigrant labour could damage British national life.