It is a long way from Sao Paulo to Seoul and after a dismal 2014 World Cup, there was plenty of time on the way home for Korea Football Association (KFA) officials time to think about a new head coach for the national team. Carlos Queiroz had long been attractive but seemed to be staying with Iran. Thoughts turned to Bert van Marwijk but the Dutchman was too expensive.
The KFA’s pockets may not have been deep enough but there is no questioning their taste. Van Marwijk has taken Saudi Arabia to a first World Cup since 2006. Queiroz has delivered a first-ever second successive appearance on the global stage for Iran. Fortunately South Korea qualified for the 2018 World Cup also or there would be some envious glances cast in the direction of Riyadh and Tehran this week and some recriminatory ones over the canteen tables in KFA House in Seoul.
Van Marwijk and Queiroz have made a real difference, snatching half of the continent’s automatic allocation for West Asia for the first time since Australia entered Asian qualification ahead of the 2010 tournament.
Plenty has been written about Queiroz. It takes someone a little bit different to occupy a West Asian hot seat for six years. In Brazil 2014 Iran were the best performing Asian team. Three years on, they were the best qualifier –unbeaten and clinical and up to 24 in FIFA’s rankings. The IFF may find the Mozambique-born manager hard to handle at times but they know when they are onto a good thing.
Go to Tehran now and as well as the usual 100,000 crowd at the Azadi, there is now a solid, well-organised team that has some real attacking talent. Six years has seen the side get progressively younger yet with growing international experience. Things can change but Iran are the one Asian qualifier that, on present form, can look forward to Russia with confidence of an extended stay especially if the draw is kind.
Seeing Iran go from strength to strength has been painful in Riyadh. After the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup final, there has been little to cheer. The revolving door that leads to the office of the head coach of the Saudi national team moves faster than Fahad Al Muwallad with the ball at his feet and is just as deadly. Assuming Van Marwijk hangs around for the World Cup, and that is a pretty safe assumption to make given the events of this week, he will become the longest-serving boss since the eighties.
After missing out on the 2010 and 2014 tournament, all knew how desperate Saudi Arabia were to get back to the stage they consider their natural home. Once you get out of the World Cup cycle, it can become progressively harder to get back in. This theory was backed up as the team went close in 2010 but was nowhere near 2014.
There can be a fine line between success and failure.. If two more of Australia’s 40 plus shots against Thailand had gone in then Saudi Arabia would have needed to score more against Japan. Yet the Green Falcons are flying towards Russia.
And that means while there is some criticism in Australia over the perceived idealism of coach Ange Postecoglou, there is appreciation in Riyadh of Van Marwijk’s pragmatism. The Dutchman was focused on getting to the World Cup and that alone. Preparation starts now.
The big coaching names cost money but in Riyadh and Tehran –at the moment at least –there is little doubt that Bert Van Marwijk and Carlos Queiroz have been worth every riyal or rial.