Former Scotland manager remains influential player in the beautiful game
ANDY Roxburgh is in Switzerland and talking about cake. In the land famed for its pastries, chocolate and other sweet things that seems appropriate enough. In this case, however, Roxburgh isn’t simply looking ahead to his afternoon coffee break. Unsurprisingly, it is sport that is foremost in his mind.
“I describe football as being like a cake,” he begins intriguingly. “The thin icing on the top is the professional game, the fruit level underneath is the elite youth players who might mature or might not, and the bulk of the cake is the grassroots. You have to take care of all aspects of the football cake.”
Any list of the most influential Scots in world football would surely have Roxburgh near the top, somewhere near his old friend and one-time Falkirk teammate, Sir Alex Ferguson. He is showing no sign of letting up or slowing down as he approaches his 72nd birthday.
Instead, he has begun the process of adding another chapter to an already lengthy and varied tale.
Roxburgh has always been a pioneering figure. He disapproves of any talk of the “academic” side of football but it is that thoughtful, methodical approach that has earned him respect throughout the decades from many of the game’s leading figures. The Scottish Football Association’s first director of coaching, he was a surprise but also a successful appointment as Scotland manager, taking the nation to back-to-back major tournaments for the first time. From there he was appointed Uefa’s technical director where he stayed in post for 18 years, ahead of a two-year stint with the New York Red Bulls as sporting director.
Now he is in the early stages of what must surely be his most daunting challenge yet after agreeing to become the technical director for the Asian Football Confederation after years of working on the continent on an ad-hoc basis.
His remit is effectively to replicate, where possible, his achievements at Uefa but he must try to do so in a continent so vast geographically – it stretches, in football terms, from Australia, through the Far East and Indian subcontinent, all the way to the Middle East – and disparate in terms of resources and wealth. What can be done in Japan and Korea is likely to be much different to what can be achieved in places like Cambodia, Bangladesh or Syria. Roxburgh has his work cut out but he is enthusiastic about the job ahead.
“This is a more complex situation than in Europe,” he adds. “We have greater extremes in Asia that we didn’t face there. But it’s a matter of tackling things step-by-step. There are differences away from football as well. Some of the nations are well-advanced, like Japan, Korea and Australia, and what they do is comparable with the leading nations in Europe. But then there are others who clearly need a lot of development and a lot of help.”
The AFC clearly has high hopes. Upon announcing Roxburgh’s appointment, general secretary Alex Soosay said – only half-joking – that recruiting the Scot would help win a World Cup for Asia. Roxburgh laughs that off but acknowledged there is an expectation that the gap between the continent and Europe and South America could eventually be narrowed.
“If you look at the men’s side, apart from when Korea and Japan hosted the World Cup, they haven’t done all that well. In the last World Cup they had four teams and none of them won a game. So, therefore, there is clearly a challenge to try to close that gap. It’s fine to have dreams and goals about winning World Cups but the main thing is to be pragmatic. The Scottish mentality is to be more practical and take things step-by-step. You have to be realistic as well as having dreams.”
Roxburgh’s job covers so many different strands but his forte remains in the fields of coach education and player development. He will gather all of Asia’s national team managers in August for a conference where he hopes there will be a free exchange of views, rather than him simply telling them what they ought to be aspiring to.
“Arséne Wenger used to say to me that the most important thing I did at Uefa was bringing them all together. That way they learn off each other. It’s not a matter of telling everyone what to do and saying ‘here’s your solution’. You do try to feed in the latest trends
It is the Messis or Iniestas of this world who are often the antidote to structures and organisations . . . And that’s great
and ideas but it’s better to provide the platform and then listen to their thoughts.”
Roxburgh, who will split half his working life between Asia and Europe, worked extensively with Fifa earlier in his career, serving as a member of its technical committee and study group at six World Cups. He is saddened by the recent scandals that have enveloped the governing body but hoped the sport would eventually emerge cleansed and renewed.
“It’s very sad for the image of football what has happened. For people who are involved in the game in the practical or development side, we just get on with our work. There are so
many things in football that disturb us and you constantly battle against them but the game survives. It is so popular worldwide that blips happen and it still goes on. The will is still there to make football strong, to continue its growth and development. That to me should always be the focus.”
The greatest paradox involving Roxburgh is that he is a man who must push for uniformity while craving the unique.
The sight of a Lionel Messi dribble or an Andres Iniesta defence-splitting pass still gets his heart racing, even if these are acts of genius that he can’t possible ever hope to pass on in any coaching manual or training session. “You get fashions that come and go. The bottom line, though, is the fundamentals and those never change.
“Coaches who are always thinking ahead and trying to outsmart their opponents, and talented players who are well-coached – these things will always remain.
“I was at the Champions League final and the quality of the game was fantastic. Clearly Barcelona were more creative than Juventus but a player like Andrea Pirlo is just phenomenal. He’s just an artist.
The great players make the difference. Creative coaches, too, can do that, boys like Pep Guardiola.
“When it comes down to it, it is the Messis or Iniestas of this world who are often the antidote to structures and organisations.
“That will always be the way. The great creative players will always be able to dismantle the best-organised defences. And that’s great.”
Ferguson is yet to convince Roxburgh of the merits of retirement. “He’s not slowed down either – he’s still hyperactive. He’s away from the frontline in football but he’s still got plenty going on. And in my case, as long as somebody thinks you can contribute then I’m happy to do that. If you’ve still got the health, energy and enthusiasm, and somebody wants you, then keep going.”
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