As club football gets the measure of what a winter World Cup means for its rhythms, a thought for those coaches not busy pouring their energies into how to manage player recuperation or offering sympathy or praise to footballers recently returned from Qatar. The winter World Cup, with barely any holiday time to follow it, has complicated the life of the unemployed, elite manager.
They are a distinguished group, too. Look back over the last five European Cup finals and you find three of the seven different managers involved in them currently out of work, waiting for the right offer.
Zinedine Zidane won the Champions League three times on the trot with Real Madrid, from 2016 to 2018. Thomas Tuchel led different clubs, Paris-Saint-Germain and Chelsea, in successive years to finals, his yield a silver medal and then a gold. Mauricio Pochettino made history for Tottenham Hotspur by guiding them to a final; less than 12 months ago Pochettino was on his way to a league title at PSG.
Nor are these recently medalled, admired out-of-work managers only in Europe. Marcelo Gallardo, who left Argentina’s River Plate in November after an eight-year spell that included two Copa Libertadores triumphs and a winning final in the Copa Sudamericana – the continent’s secondary trophy – is ready to end his short break from touchlines and accept a fresh challenge. Gallardo has already heard from a range of possible suitors well beyond South America.
Each of these coaches’ potential career plans were affected by events in Qatar, especially once France and Argentina won their respective semi-finals. It meant the president of the French Federation, Noel Le Graet, strengthened his resolve to have the long-serving France coach Didier Deschamps extend his commitment with the national team to another World Cup, the 2026 tournament. Deschamps, whose men lost on penalties in the Qatar final, signed his new contract last weekend.
The confirmation that Deschamps, who steered France to the 2018 World Cup title, would take his term into a second decade had several knock-on effects. One of them, indirectly, was the suspension of Le Graet from his position, not for backing Deschamps but in part for dismissive remarks he made about the leading alternative – Zidane.
“I would not have picked up the phone to him,” said Le Graet of Zidane, a hero, as a player, of France’s 1998 World Cup win. It was a sour remark publicly criticised by Kylian Mbappe, France’s highest-profile current player, among others.
Zidane has made no secret of his ambition to manage France, and, had Deschamps overseen a failure in Qatar, would have been well positioned, even if Le Graet was lukewarm on him, to take the reins. Zidane has turned down major club offers in the 18 months since he stepped down from a second spell coaching Real Madrid, always with the France possibility in mind.
With that vacancy now closed, Zidane is understood to feel he needs to return to touchline duties somewhere by the middle of this year. Among the jobs Zidane was sounded out for was PSG, last summer, after Pochettino had been pushed out, despite winning the Ligue 1 title. Christophe Galtier accepted the position instead, and should be secure there at least until June.
Argentina’s rousing win at the Lusail Stadium four weekends ago also meant the Argentinian Football Federation will not be looking for a new manager. Lionel Scaloni, initially a caretaker, now a World Cup winner, is a national idol.
Both Pochettino and Gallardo, former Argentina players, would have been sounded out if Argentina had flopped in Qatar. So would Diego Simeone, whose 11-year spell managing Atletico Madrid appears to be nearing its end date, most likely this summer.
That would crowd the elite pool of job-seeking coaches even further. Some are impatient. Pochettino, like Zidane, is eager to be back in work, six months on from leaving PSG. Tuchel, while enjoying his break since his Chelsea sacking in September, has made it clear he is on the market. Gallardo wants to capitalise on his elevated reputation.
For coaches sitting nervously on benches of big clubs, the de luxe list of would-be replacements is daunting.
Real Madrid – where the veteran Carlo Ancelotti faces a series of big dates in the coming week, Sunday’s Spanish Cup final to be followed by the Club World Cup – are already planning the Italian's succession despite the fact he won the double last May. They have sized up Pochettino in the past.
At Juventus, where a new board are in the process of taking charge, form under Max Allegri may have picked up after a poor start to the campaign but the pursuit of the Serie A title will seem very distant if they lose to table-topping Napoli, already seven points clear on Friday evening. Zidane is former Juventus player, and, as a coach, has been on the club’s radar for many years.