The Impossible Job? The Great Divide Between International And Club Managers

Club football and international football are two different genres of the sport
12:00, 27 Mar 2023

During every international break social media goes through the same cycle. A fierce and vociferous abuse of the national team manager, the squad he has selected, the side he has picked and the style of play that is implemented. Then after a couple of games - no matter the results - it all quietens down as club football returns. 

The prime example of this cycle in this country focuses around Gareth Southgate, who couldn’t escape criticism despite leading England to their first away win against Italy since 1961. He is the perfect target for quarterly abuse from fans who have recently been conditioned to believe England should sweep aside every opposition without conceding a goal. 

But he’s also the classic modern day international manager. He doesn’t have a glittering club career, but he is the perfect man to create a feel-good factor around the national team and has delivered some excellent performances in major tournaments. Perhaps fans are partly spoiled by the fact that the Premier League now features almost every elite manager in world football. 


It’s not just Pep Guardiola, Erik ten Hag and Jurgen Klopp either. Villa fans have gone from Steven Gerrard to Unai Emery. Wolves now have Julen Lopetegui in charge. The best managers in the world have always been in club football, but for the first time they are taking charge of bottom half Premier League teams. 

The international managerial arena is now a completely different genre to the club one. The best managers in the world don’t want to be international bosses. There are fewer opportunities, no second chances and you only get to work with the players a handful of times a year. You also can’t go out and spend millions to fix your squad, and the pay is significantly less than you can earn at a top club. 

Look at the pool of managers currently operating at the top of the international game. Current World Cup holder Lionel Scaloni had only been assistant at Sevilla and Argentina, and in charge of the U20s, before stumbling into the first team gig after the 2018 World Cup.

“Scaloni is a good guy but he couldn't direct traffic,” a certain Diego Maradona stated. “How can we give him the Argentina job! Are we all crazy?”

Since then, Scaloni has usurped anything Maradona achieved as Argentina manager by getting the best out of Lionel Messi and winning the Copa America and World Cup - something nobody could envisage when he was appointed. He wasn’t fashionable, but you don’t have to be to be an international success. 

Didier Deschamps is still carrying around the ‘water carrier’ tag in France despite winning the World Cup with an immensely talented squad. Roberto Martinez hardly has an elite standing in the club game, yet the former Belgium manager was Portugal's first choice when they chose their successor to Fernando Santos. 

He’d garnered enough experience with Belgium’s Golden Generation - without winning anything - to convince Portugal to entrust him with their incredible crop of players. He’s also an intriguing selection given no manager has ever won the World Cup for a country that wasn’t their own. Otto Rehhagel - the German gaffer who won Euro 2004 with Greece - remains the only ‘foreign’ manager to lift the Euros. And that in itself leads to a limited pool.

This great divide between club and international football means that managers rarely make the move between the two. The current international boss with the highest reputation at club level is arguably Italy’s Roberto Mancini, while that could change should Carlo Ancelotti take the Brazil job. Jose Mourinho has constantly flirted with the idea of managing his beloved Portugal or even England, but he is completely infatuated by club management and the day-to-day dilemmas it presents. Guardiola is considered by many to be the best manager in the world, but he is unlikely to tie himself down to a national team where he can’t solve problems by spending money. 

It means holding international managers to club standards is simply unfair. Not only is the sport itself different - they play is far more pragmatic and slow - but they only get to work with these players for a handful of days before each fixture. Of course England aren’t going to be as good as Manchester City days after meeting up with each other. 

It’s why squad consistency is given more weight by international managers than by fans who believe that every Tom, Dick and Harry that has scored a Premier League goal in the last month should be given an England cap. But what international competitions provide is a cut-throat nature that club football simply cannot compete with. 

Gareth Southgate’s overall tenure has been a roaring success. But the penalty shootout defeat to Italy and the loss to France (a game in which England out-performed the opposition) cast a grey cloud over his management skills. There are no second chances at international level. Even if you lose the Champions League final as a club manager, you get another go in 12 months at it - rather than four years as with the World Cup. In those four years, your greatest crop of players retire or miss the next tournament through injury. The margins are just so thin.

It’s why any form of consistency over several tournaments must be praised. International football is not as simple as winning a tournament equals success and losing equals failure. And the underappreciated managers in that field should be given credit where credit is due. 

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