No country has ever won the World Cup with a foreign head coach.
That statistic looks set to remain at Qatar 2022, with all eight countries in the quarter-finals having local head coaches.
That trend shouldn’t be too surprising. The countries that are good at producing soccer players are also good at producing soccer coaches. Only nine countries at the World Cup had head coaches from overseas. Only three of those teams: Belgium, Mexico and Iran, were in the top 20 of the FIFA rankings at the start of the tournament.
By the time, the tournament had reached its knockout stages, eight of those nine countries had been knocked out. The sole surviving overseas head coach was South Korea’s Portuguese head coach Paulo Bento.
With one World Cup cycle coming to an end, national teams will be considering which direction they want to go in, and head coaches will be weighing up whether they want to spend another four years in charge of a national team. Paulo Bento has already made that choice. He announced he would leave his post following South Korea’s 4-1 loss to Brazil.
That loss means he might not make global headlines, but South Korea’s improvement under Paulo Bento is clear.
South Korea qualified for the 2014 World Cup on goal difference and finished bottom of their group with one point. In 2018, a dramatic late win against Germany papered over the cracks. Once again South Korea struggled through the final qualifying round and produced dull, unambitious performances against Sweden and Mexico.
By contrast, qualification for 2022 was a breeze, and Bento’s build-up play tactics meant that in the group stage, South Korea had more possession, made more passes and crosses, and had more shots and shots on target than in the group stage in 2018.
South Korea’s improved play comes partly from Bento’s squad selection. Ignoring demands to call up whoever might be on form at the time, he selects each position due to certain criteria. Goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu’s strong distribution skills meant he was given the nod over the hero of the Germany match Jo Hyeon-woo. Bento’s holding midfielders must have a fast enough sprint to be able to cover the full-back position should the full-backs lose position in advanced positions, and the attributes that Bento requires from his number nine have meant that K League top scorers like Joo Min-gyu often don’t get a call up.
National team head coaches get very little time with their squads to implement ideas and tactics. For South Korea, whose stars are based on a different continent, travel time eats into that even more.
To maximize time with players, Bento’s staff have used pre-match warm-ups to work on positioning. While the forwards warm up around the penalty area, Bento’s coaches place the full-backs on the wings and throw or kick balls to Korea’s center backs to control and quickly distribute to precise positions.
Paulo Bento is South Korea’s longest serving head coach, and the team has benefited from having the same coach for the whole World Cup cycle.
Shin Tae-yong had only two full competitive matches as well as friendly games ahead of the 2018 World Cup and Hong Myung-bo only had friendly matches to prepare for the 2014 World Cup. Both of them were up-and-coming prospects who had coached at the Olympics, but had their reputations damaged by being thrust into the national team too early in their careers and without enough time to really make an impact on the team ahead of the World Cup.
The global trend at the moment seems to be for more local managers, with Morocco and Japan’s World Cup performances possibly speeding that trend up. South Korea in 2010 also reached the last 16 with local manager Huh Jung-moo.
Part of the arguments for local coaches comes down to ideas about soccer culture, and that each team should have a coach that fits their culture. The Korean Football Association, like England, has set about developing its own soccer DNA. That DNA includes a proactive style of play, a rather vague term that allows head coaches flexibility, but one that can be seen in Paulo Bento’s South Korean side and was lacking in 2018.
Some critics might have argued for a more defensive, reactive approach for South Korea’s knockout match against Brazil, but such an approach probably wouldn’t have got South Korea through the group stage in the first place, and wouldn’t have had neutrals excited in the way that South Korea’s approach to the Ghana match did.
Whoever the next South Korean manager is, the KFA needs to ensure that the team builds on the improvements made over the last four years, and that a long-term plan is in place, focused on the 2026 World Cup.