MOSCOW - It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Russian soccer - its bosses, media and fans - sees Dutchman Guus Hiddink as its last chance for survival. Following the disgrace of the national team's failure to qualify for Germany 2006, the game's local leaders decided to adopt a similar approach to that in Russian basketball and volleyball - appoint a foreign coach.
Despite all the boasting about a coach of Hiddink's caliber, some turned up their noses and even spoke of trampled national pride; but the facts are tough to argue with, and there simply are no coaches of Hiddink's quality in Russia today.
"Three hundred years ago, the Dutch, in keeping with a request from Czar Peter the Great, taught us how to build ships; now, they are teaching us to build soccer," Boris Bogdanov, a leading Russian soccer pundit, commented recently - somewhat ironically, of course.
And to help Hiddink build soccer for the Russians, Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich stepped in, and arranged an out-of-this-world contract for the coach - 12 million euros for two years. For his part, Hiddink has promised to rescue "the beached Russian national team."
Cut above the rest
On the professional level, Hiddink is most certainly a member of the elite club of the world's best coaches. In 1998, he took the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals, and then caused a sensation four years later when he found himself at the same stage with South Korea.
His success with South Korea, by the way, has afforded him mythical status in the country. "The Koreans, in contrast to the Japanese, are considered reasonable and rather thrifty people," wrote the Dutch daily, De Telegraaf, recently. "If they consciously choose to fly thousands of kilometers to visit the birthplace of a soccer coach, it is truly something extraordinary. You have to see it to believe it.
"Every spring, from the month of May in particular, begins a Korean invasion of Holland," the paper reported. "It's a real pilgrimage. Dozens of buses arrive in Varsseveld, and [the Koreans] go into the Hiddink museum with the sense that they are entering a house of prayer... Hiddink is more revered in Korea than every one of the local movie stars, not to mention the politicians."
Tax offender, nothing more
Efforts to find chinks in Hiddink's biography have come to naught. The experienced coach appears to artistically combine the genius of his work with the players with perfect media and society relations.
"Hiddink is not just a personality, but also a gentleman and wonderful psychologist," De Telegraaf noted. "He isn't involved in any scandal that could blacken his name, nor any spicy story. At most, his name may come up in the context of slight differences of opinion with the tax authorities.
"He has never behaved rudely toward the media, and will answer every question - even if it cuts into his free time and despite being tired. Hiddink always seems to find the right word to say to the players to ease tension and restore their self-confidence. He doesn't distance himself from the apprentices, and has nothing against sharing a glass or two of good beer with them.
"Hiddink speaks six languages fluently, and has never found it difficult to get along with people from a different culture or with different mentalities. In Russia, too, this model is sure to repeat itself," De Telegraaf said.
Hiddink has not left much room for doubt, and has declared that his first objective with the Russian national team is qualification for Euro 2008. Russian soccer chief Vitaly Mutko went a little further, and declared that the team had the ability to be crowned European champion in 2012 or 2016.
The successful Dutchman now has the task of getting the Russian soccer engine back on the right track - westward. And his first test will come tomorrow, in his team's friendly international against Latvia.
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