Big Sam and the decline of the international game
England have become dedicated followers of fashion in modern football, so it was hardly surprising that they opted for Sam Allardyce as their new manager.
He is known as “Big Sam” – but only in England. Elsewhere, he is relatively obscure.
Italy and Spain had already made exactly the same move after Euro 2016, putting new men in charge of the national side who are appreciated at home but mostly unknown to a wider audience.
None have major reputations. Italy’s choice, Giampiero Ventura, is a veteran boss of 18 different clubs, the last of which was Torino. Meanwhile, the Spanish went for Julen Lopetegui, who spent four years working with junior national sides and then a difficult 19 months at Porto without winning a trophy.
Having sacked Marc Wilmots in the wake of a disappointing Euro tournament, Belgium are also looking for a new coach. And they are now advertising the post after being rejected by Louis Van Gaal – powerful evidence that club football is now utterly dominant, that the finest managers want to work in the Champions League and win domestic titles.
In Italy, the initial hope was to lure home Claudio Ranieri after his astonishing Premier League title success with Leicester City. Yet he felt his current job is more fun, more engaging and undoubtedly more lucrative. Would a proud and patriotic man like Ranieri have said no to the Azzurri 30 years ago? It is most unlikely, but the kudos of international football has diminished since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Allardyce accepted the call from the Football Association he said it was the best job in English football – but that is only for a manager who has never been invited to take charge of a major club.
If the choice had been between England and Manchester United, he would have gone to Old Trafford without hesitation, not least because the salary would have been 300 per cent higher.
Managers and coaches also much prefer the day-to-day working life at a club. On his arrival at Chelsea, after two years with the Italian national side, Antonio Conte commented that “I can breathe the grass again”. The frustrations of an international football manager are many. There is precious little time with the players, few matches, and the concentration of work that you are truly judged is at a summer tournament once every two years.
Allardyce, naturally for an ebullient man, came roaring into his new job full of energy and optimism. It is an unexpected opportunity for him to prove his worth and give substance to bold claims of the past that he would be an instant success if ever he had the chance to manage Real Madrid or Internazionale.
It is a fascinating appointment, and probably a good one. England do not lack for talent in the current generation of players, but as the monumental collapse of nerve against Iceland at Euro 2016 illustrated, they lack the required fibre and fortitude.
Allardyce’s charisma and certainty of purpose could be a perfect fit, although the doubters will point to his lack of international experience and argue that his tactics at club level rarely climbed to heights of sophistication.
His hunger for the job – he has taken a pay cut from Sunderland to work with England – is a welcome contrast to the mercenary regime of one of his predecessors, Fabio Capello. But will it be the same for Italy and Spain with their low-profile choices? Will hunger and pride trump a huge reputation? We will see.
All three of these major footballing nations can surely take heart from the experience of Germany in the past decade with head coach Joachim Low.
He was far from a big name when he started, having worked at clubs in Turkey and Austria before becoming such a triumphant success with Die Mannschaft.