There used to be a time when you could enter a World Cup summer full of wonder.
You might have heard about some of the talents on show, but all you had to go on was an impression pieced together from late-night or early-morning highlights shows and a relatively basic depiction on early Championship Manager games.
Now, though, the mystery has gone. Even the minnows are likely to have at least one player from a league you can watch on TV – and you can watch full games, not just the highlights – while online streaming is there to help you fill in the gaps.
Still, there’s one field where, even if you have the tools at your disposal to ‘know’ what to think, some semblance of a grey area remains.
I’m talking, of course, about the managers. I’ve picked out three men to watch in Russia, and, barring a Kuwait 1982 episode, none are likely to step foot on the field of play.
Oh, and if you’re really lucky, one of these guys will be the first name linked with the Manchester United job in December after José Mourinho’s inevitable third-season implosion. Boy are you in for a treat.
Julen Lopetegui (Spain)
Lopetegui (right) looks to lead 'The Red Fury' to glory. Spain did not escape their World Cup group in 2014.
A former goalkeeper, Lopetegui took over from long-serving head coach Vicente del Bosque after Spain’s surprise Euro 2016 exit against Italy and proceeded to oversee an undefeated qualifying campaign including 22 home goals and a score-settling 3-0 demolition of the Azzurri.
After the low-scoring route to success in 2010, we might be in line for something a little different with Del Bosque’s successor at the helm: Lopetegui’s Porto team scored more than 100 goals in all competitions in his one full season in charge, even humbling Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich at the Dragão – not the worst sign if La Roja need to edge past Manuel Neuer and Germany this summer.
The question mark, as hinted at above, is the fact that he didn’t even last two years in Portugal, being moved on after failing to get out of the Champions League group stages in the 2015/16 season despite picking up 10 points and scoring nine goals in their first four games. If things start badly – and with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo first up, there’s every chance of that happening – will he be able to turn things around and prevent back-to-back World Cup group stage exits?
Tite has a win percentage of 78.95% heading to Russia, but only the trophy will satisfy Brazilian fans
For each of the last two World Cups, Brazil have suffered at the hands of a manager incapable of getting the most out of squads arguably more limited than those they’ve boasted in the past (it’s probably fair to give 2006’s Carlos Alberto Parreira the benefit of the doubt and accept no one was stopping Zinedine Zidane that day). Dunga got it wrong against the Netherlands in 2010, while Felipão’s 2014 approach relied so much on Neymar that defeat without their talisman seemed inevitable even if the 7-1 scoreline against Germany might not have been.
Tite has had a longer run-up to the tournament than his most recent World Cup predecessor, having taken over from Dunga (those Brazilians love their second chances, huh?) in the summer of 2016.
If the remainder of the qualifying campaign was an audition, he passed with flying colours, winning 10 and drawing 2 to turn a potential struggle (Argentina left qualification until the final gameweek, remember) into a cakewalk. Some doubts do remain, though, notably in terms of how a man with no European experience will deal with fresh opposition, and whether the injury-enforced absence of Dani Alves will hinder the team. Still, he’s done everything asked of him so far.
Carlos Queiroz (Iran)
Iran's only World Cup finals victory to date was the 2-1 "mother of all games" against the U.S.A. in 1998
I know the conversation-starters of Uber drivers aren’t always the firmest basis for predictions, but World Cup success is all about taking risks so I’m going to run with it.
Former Manchester United assistant Queiroz faces an uphill task in a group containing Spain, Portugal and a Morocco team which only conceded one goal across eight qualifying games. However, the Iran boss has what many other managers don’t: World Cup experience, and a group of players who he brought through as youngsters and who in many cases are now approaching their peak.
In Brazil four years ago, Iran went 180 minutes without conceding before Lionel Messi’s stoppage-time strike hit them like a sucker punch. They are undefeated in competitive football since that tournament, suffering defeat just three times in any of their last 40 games including friendlies, while a youthful set of attacking options is likely to include Eredivisie top-scorer Alireza Jahanbaksh and one-time Liverpool target Sardar Azmoun, both of whom were given their international debut by Sir Alex Ferguson’s former number two.
Is this enough for him to take the Chelsea job after the World Cup, as my Uber driver suggested? Perhaps not. Is it enough for him and his team to cause a shock or two? Absolutely.
Hernán Dário Gómez (Panamá)
Gómez has given Panama their first-ever appearance at the World Cup finals
Every World Cup needs a manager who looks like he could play the dad in a 90s teen comedy, and this year it’s the turn of Gómez.
The Colombian has been here before, leading his home nation to a group stage exit in 1998 and repeating the feat with Ecuador four years later, and all signs point towards him failing to get any further this summer with Panamá.
However, no one expected them to qualify, either – the Central American side were a couple of minutes away from making it to the 2014 edition before a heartbreaking late defeat to the United States, and that was meant to have been the chance. However, an 88th-minute Román Torres winner against Costa Rica booked their place in Russia almost as late in the day as American midfielder Graham Zusi dashed their hopes four years ago.
Torres is one of a potential six squad members with a century of caps, and Gómez will be responsible for getting one last big run of performances from a group of players who have been in the Panamanian set-up for more than a decade. You wouldn’t put it past him.
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- Paul Seaton
- nataliya semenenko