Imagine the gold medal Justin Gatlin won in the World Athletics Championships 100m final was taken off him and handed to Usain Bolt. Sure, the American won that individual race, but everybody knows that Bolt is the better sprinter and, more than that, he’s far more popular too. Yes, Gatlin crossed the line ahead of the Jamaican, but let’s just give the prize to Bolt. Sounds unfair, right?
Well, that’s essentially the approach adopted in the voting for FIFA’s Coach of the Year award, the 12-man shortlist of which was revealed last week. Almost all of the big names make the list, which in alphabetical order is made up of: Massimiliano Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Leonardo Jardim, Joachim Low, Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone, Tite and Zinedine Zidane. While it’s true that these might be 12 of the very best coaches in the world, you’re left joining Janet Jackson in wondering ‘what have you done for me lately?’, particularly in the cases of Carlo Ancelotti, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone. Sure, they are five of the best tacticians in football, but none of them did much better than achieving par for the course with their respective clubs during the period which is under the microscope.
Or, the period which is supposed to be under the microscope. According to FIFA themselves, “The awards reward the best in each category, regardless of championship or nationality, for their respective achievements during the period 20 November 2016 to 2 July 2017.” However, it’s clear that the “expert panel” compiling the shortlist have generally picked the coaches they think are the best, rather than the ones who had the most success during the stated period (which, it should be noted, is shorter than usual as FIFA transition this award from a calendar-year one to a season-year one). Ancelotti is one of the best coaches of the 21st century, but all he won with Bayern during that time was the Bundesliga title, which is an expectation at the Bavarian club.
Luis Enrique, meanwhile, won the Copa del Rey and nothing more, watching on as Real Madrid lifted LaLiga and the Champions League. Guardiola had a first year at Manchester City which was, by his own admission, underwhelming. Mourinho did win the League Cup and the Europa League, but couldn’t take the world’s richest club any higher than sixth in the Premier League. Then there was Simeone, who did manage to steer Atlético to another Champions League semi-final, but whose team never looked like challenging for domestic honours. This is the major issue with the FIFA Coach of the Year award. It is supposed to honour the best coaches of the year, not the best coaches. There is a difference.
For example, nobody is going to argue that Brendan Rodgers is one of the 12 brightest tactical minds in football – apart, maybe, from Rodgers himself – but what he achieved with Celtic during that November to July period was unprecedented, winning a domestic treble, claiming the Scottish title with no losses and just four draws, all while playing attractive football. Looking only at the stated time period, they only lost one European game, 2-0 against Barcelona, and earned a draw at the Etihad against Manchester City. Surely that was worthy of more recognition than what Guardiola, Rodgers’ opposite number that night, achieved during the same eight-month period with a superstar squad.
Or take Lucien Favre, who had Nice sitting atop Ligue 1 for the first half of the season, ultimately managing to secure Champions League football for the French Riviera club for the first time in their history. Hoffenheim’s 30-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann did likewise for his team, shocking Germany and the rest of the continent as the tiny club comfortably finished in the top four of the Bundesliga. Gian Piero Gasperini similarly thrilled Italy as he led Atalanta to fourth-place in Serie A, which may only have been worth a Europa League spot, but which was ridiculously impressive given the limited resources he’d had to work with. Even in England there were a number of coaching candidates who can feel they did more than some of the names on the list. David Wagner and Chris Hughton’s securing of promotion for Huddersfield and Brighton were wonderful feats, while the FA Cup run put together by Danny Cowley’s Lincoln City side was also more impressive than what some of the coaches to have made the cut were able to manage.
FIFA’s Coach of the Year award did toast the year-specific achievement of Claudio Ranieri when he won it last year for his work with Leicester and few can argue that Zinedine Zidane, this year’s favourite, doesn’t deserve the honour this time around. But there is a problem towards the bottom half of each year’s shortlist when coaches are recognised for their name, rather than for what they’ve achieved that year. The likes of Rodgers, Favre and Nagelsmann are the ones who should be receiving that credit, working wonders away from the world’s superclubs.