“I’m out for presidents to represent me; I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” – When the rapper Nas wrote these lines in the early ’90s, lyrics later popularized by the ironically more commercially successful Jay-Z, he was talking, of course, about money.
However, looking at the lines from the perspective of football, and Spanish football in particular, it is easy to see why dead presidents can be preferable to living ones.
Presidents are the bane of Spanish football. With every ostentatious gesture, every farcical intervention, every wilted code of conduct, each galáctico signing pledged by a presidential candidate, I become more convinced that the role of president at a big Spanish club bears more resemblance to a soap opera than to the effective running of a club. In the breeding ground of Spanish football, rampaging Romanovs and dastardly David Pinkneys, selling players without informing the manager and the like, sprout like mushrooms.
Think of doughty Jésus Gil, stubbornly firing the gun at manager after manager at Atlético Madrid, trading them like top trumps until he had found the recipe for relegation. Think Ramón Calderón, from whose mouth spills daily a stream of malapropos and broken promises. Think Gaspart’s sabotage scheme, Laporta’s lacklustre, Pepe León’s shamelessness, or Dmitry Piterman’s crass megalomaniacal insanity.
The latest victim of the presidential scythe is Welshman Chris Coleman, who resigned today, citing irreconcilable personal and professional conflicts with Real Sociedad’s new chairman, Iñaki Badiola. Coleman, who after a rocky start had led Sociedad up to fifth position in the table, and was extremely popular with most of the Basque club’s fans, was initially signed under the recommendation of John Toshack, equipped with a four-year plan to return a club who had almost won the league title just three years before, to greatness. However, with the departure of Juan Larzabal Castilla and Salva Iriarte, and the subsequent arrival of Badiola, up in the air went the team-building efforts attempted Coleman and his assistant Steve Kean over the previous six months.
News of Coleman’s resignation comes on the same day that Toshack had written an article entitled “Todo está patas arriba” (it’s all upside down/overturned) in which he criticised the club for getting rid of sporting director Iriarte — an article which perhaps enraged the forceful Badiola and ironically forced Coleman’s hand, since one week ago Coleman had declared that he was ready to stay at the club for the benefit of the players.
Several possible replacements for Coleman have been touted, including ex-Valencia manager Quique Sánchez Flores, ex-Depor frontman Javier Irureta (Jabo), Juan Carlos Oliva (currently in charge of the Villareal “B” side), although it is widely suspected that Pako Ayestarán, Rafa BenÃtez’s former assistant at Liverpool, Valencia and Tenerife, will eventually take charge of the club. The club is full, once more, of whispers and politics.
Badiola had announced with pomp and splendour that he wished to make a series of signings (including the unrealistic prospect of netting Serb Nikola Zigic), without running through the plan with Coleman and, furthermore, disregarding the Welshman’s later objections, born of a desire to stick with a unit that had begun in recent weeks to cohere as a committed and passionate team. Having already endured speculation about his training style, in addition to the criticism of his personal life, Coleman sought reassurances from Badiola that nothing would be done in his spite; the result being that the “four-year” plan originally conceived was hacked down to a demand for immediate ascension to the Primera Liga These Newcastle-like orders caused Coleman to reconsider his position and, eventually, to step aside.
The fact is that Coleman’s tenure at Sociedad was always on a knife’s edge because of his status as a foreigner (Toshack is an honorary exception), a problem accentuated by the fact that the one player brought in by Coleman from the United Kingdom, Welsh defender David Vaughan, got injured early and has spent most of the time in the treatment room, leading many fans and columnists to label him a “cancer” (this despite his good performances at the season’s outset). Hardly a solid base on which to build fan support. A night out at a club the evening before a game, and his subsequent media embarrassment, only worsened this condition of “outsider”, compounded by the removal of the men who had first deposited faith in his ability.
However, Coleman’s strength as a manager seems in my view to lie in his motivational skills (his acquisitions at Fulham were not always shrewd — although he did manage to sell the club to the likes of Montella). A Real Sociedad club stricken with instability and incoherence in recent seasons, a club stripped of many of its better players over the summer — Turk Nihat a prime example — was transformed under Coleman’s mandate into a well organized, battling outfit, qualities exemplified in recent wins away to Granada and at home to Alavés (of whom Liverpool fans with have fond memories). What’s more, Coleman’s approach was built on the use of the cantera (youth set-up), with Coleman giving regular games to Elustondo (scorer of the winning goal against Alavés), Ansotegi, Castillo and Diaz de Cerio. Will Coleman’s replacement be able to do such a patient job, under the scrutiny of Badiola?
In short, Coleman has proven, at least to a certain extent, that language and cultural barriers are no necessary obstacles to man management, uniting a team heading upwards who pleaded with their manager to stay at the club. Sociedad fans have much to be grateful for, and may well find that accepting Badiola’s money and vacuous promises turns out to be another turn for the worse. All that is left to do is to thank Coleman for his work and to say agur! (goodbye!).
And, since Coleman has renounced the possibility of claiming compensation for the remaining 30 months of his contract (something admirable, considering the fact that many managers prolong their stays at clubs in order to negotiate a better financial settlement), we can be sure enough that his wish for dead presidents is not of a financial nature.