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FIFA 2020 award and unanswered questions

By Peter Staunton

The world governing body missed the opportunity to focus on the game outside of Europe’s super-rich leagues and honour successful coaches elsewhere.

Maybe you have not heard of Pitso Mosimane – especially if you’re not African. You may have heard of Jorge Jesus. Maybe no-one at FIFA has heard of either.

Because any list of “The Best” Men’s Coaches over the past year without those two on it is incomplete and yet each was omitted from the FIFA version, awarded to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp at Thursday night’s ceremony.

Those two didn’t make the shortlist – which included Klopp, Marcelo Bielsa, and Hansi Flick, the Bayern Munich coach who deserved to win the big prize for overseeing a treble having been drafted in during the season.

Fair enough, you might think, especially in the case of Flick. But they didn’t even make the long list, where Zinedine Zidane and Julen Lopetegui did instead.

This is not intended to do down the achievements of those coaches but more to talk up Mosimane and Jesus, and serve as a reminder that there is life – in a football sense – outside of Europe’s biggest leagues.

The Euro-centricity of football’s award season is already the subject of much derision throughout Latin America and in Africa too. There’s no doubt that Europe has long since been the place where the money flows and, consequently, where the vast majority of the best players and coaches ply their trade. But it’s not just the money or the level of attention that defines the work of football’s best coaches.

Simply put, FIFA is not doing its job if it’s not going to highlight the work of these outstanding coaches whose achievements came in leagues and on continents far removed from its Zurich base.

The world football governing body used to have a slogan which said “For the game. For the world.” It could not have missed the mark any more spectacularly with the omissions of Mosimane and Jesus.

With Mamelodi Sundowns, Mosimane won his fifth ABSA South African Premier Division title and the club’s 10th overall. Kaizer Chiefs led the table for 22 consecutive match weeks but the Sundowns, who are nicknamed the Brazilians, just wouldn’t go away, pipping them to the title on the final day in the most dramatic of circumstances.

To that title, he added the Nedbank Cup – the South African equivalent to England’s FA Cup – and they also won the Telkom Knockout, a tournament for the top 16 teams in the country. It’s the same kind of domestic treble that Pep Guardiola achieved with Manchester City in 2019.

OK, big deal. The South African top-flight might not be the benchmark for global football standards, you might assume, and you might be right.

Well, in September after the league was wrapped up, Mosimane left. It was a huge loss to South African football as “Jingles” was widely seen as the best coach the country had ever produced. But where he went next was where the story takes an astonishing turn.

Mamelodi Sundowns won the CAF Champions League in 2016, defeating Egypt’s Zamalek in a two-legged final. It would be one of Mosimane – and South Africa’s – greatest achievements.

For the past decade or more, north African clubs have had a near-stranglehold on the African continental title. Clubs from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria have largely competed among themselves for the biggest club prize in African football.

There have been exceptions – DR Congo’s TP Mazembe were bankrolled to a trio of titles between 2009 and 2015 – but usually sub-Saharan teams are locked out from the party.

Mosimane smashed through the glass ceiling with Sundowns and began to earn his reputation.

In 2019 he was back at it, overseeing a 5-1 demolition of Zamalek’s Cairo rivals Al Ahly in the quarter-finals. It was a landmark result and one which made the giant north African clubs sit up and take notice all over again.

This year’s African Champions League was delayed by the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The semi-finals originally planned for May were pushed back to October.

After Mosimane’s shock departure from his home country, he headed north for Cairo to reach new heights. Where Egyptian clubs have looked to France, Portugal, and other European countries for coaching imports, here they were turning to an African – and a sub-Saharan at that. It was an unprecedented appointment.

And with Al Ahly he took charge of one of the most significant African Champions League final fixtures of all time. It was an all-Cairo showdown between Al Ahly and Zamalek where Mosimane’s side prevailed and carted off their ninth continental title.

Al Ahly had already secured the Egyptian Premier League title thanks to the work of the Swiss Rene Weiler – who helped restore good times after a spell under Frenchman Patrice Carteron and who was responsible for defeating Sundowns in the Champions League quarter-finals this year.

A cross-continental move to a club of immense expectation – and all the various barriers that would entail – was risky. It was even riskier when you consider the average tenure of a coach at Egyptian clubs and that Mosimane would have – at most – a handful of games to convince the doubters, shore up the title and make himself a legend.

There were close to 50 managerial changes in the 2019-20 Egyptian league season in a division of 18 teams. But he did it. And in his own unfussy style, he added the Egyptian Cup for good measure.

One year, two teams, six trophies – five of which came under his direct stewardship. Has anyone ever come close to that kind of success?

Well, yes, one person.

If there is one league in which coaches are likely to be fired quicker than they are in Egypt, it’s in Brazil. The same revolving cast of coaches seems to be on an endless merry-go-round, hopping from one top club to another until such a time they lose a couple of matches and they are gone.

It was into that environment that Jorge Jesus walked last summer, the most off-beat of career choices for the veteran Portuguese most notable for his long and storied spell at Benfica.

He arrived at Flamengo, one of Brazil’s under-performing giants, to immense skepticism. They were without a Serie A title since 2009 and without a Copa Libertadores since 1981 when Zico was still in his pomp but Jesus was written off as a has-been before he even set foot in Rio de Janeiro.

It was a massive risk for both the club and the coach himself, and it could not have paid off in any more spectacular fashion.

By the time he left, barely a year after arriving, Flamengo had won five of the six tournaments they had disputed with Jesus at the helm and he was the second-most decorated coach in the club’s 125-year history.

They won the league and the Libertadores; the first Brazilian team to win those trophies as well as their own State Championship since Pele’s Santos in 1962.

The only trophy they went for and didn’t win was the FIFA Club World Cup, losing to Liverpool last December. And even that was close.

When you consider the cultural divides between European and Brazilian football – where barely any European ever goes to play or manage – it is even more impressive again.

Jesus was the first foreign manager to win an international trophy with a Brazilian team, only the second European to win the Libertadores as a coach, the first non-South American coach to lead his team to a Brazilian league title.

It was one of the most profoundly successful spells of any coach at any club in history.

Amid the uncertainty wrought by Covid-19, he returned to Benfica earlier this year when no date at that stage had been found in the calendar for the Club World Cup and what could have been Jesus’s expected revenge mission.

His replacement, Pep Guardiola’s long-time assistant Domenec Torrent, lasted barely four months.

Do Al Ahly and the Sundowns not count? Are Flamengo not worthy? What are the criteria by which these two coaches were excluded from consideration?

If anyone wants to say that the African Champions League was completed too late for Mosimane to be included, then remember that FIFA extended the Ballon d’Or deadline one year to take into account a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick and give him the award. It could have been done. Jesus’s omission? Inexplicable.

If Bayern’s treble counts then why not Flamengo’s? And why not Al Ahly’s? If Liverpool’s first domestic league win in 30 years was special, why wasn’t Flamengo’s first Libertadores in 38?

What, for that matter, is so special about Liverpool winning the league? And in the case of Bielsa and Leeds, is there another league in the world where a promotion would mean a nomination for the best coach on the planet?

Leeds are back where they feel they belong – in the top flight – and Liverpool back where they feel they belong – champions of England. Bayern Munich and Flick’s achievements are bigger again.

But surely the award for the best coach in the world has to take into account the entire globe and not the handful of super-rich leagues that get all the attention in the first place?

This was a unique opportunity for FIFA to do its job and shine a light on these stories from around the world in a very, very difficult football year. That is a massive failure and they will likely never get the chance to do it again.

With the Covid-19 pandemic wrecking everything, it was unlikely that Mosimane and Jesus would have had the opportunity to don a tux and take their places among the assorted football dignitaries.

But even without the lavish ceremony their achievements must be heard and their successes sung about.

Hansi Flick, Pitso Mosimane and Jorge Jesus. They are the best coaches in the world over the last 12 months in whatever order you like.

 

Peter Staunton is a sport writer and analyst.

1 Comment
  1. vreyrolinomit says

    I have not checked in here for a while as I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are good quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

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