Creating empathy in the football world

In the cut-throat world of football, empathy typically doesn’t get managers very far. But, says the sports writer and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper, the inclusive leadership of football manager Guus Hiddink is at the root of his success.

Guus Hiddink grabs your shoulders by way of greeting. But then, growing up with five brothers gave him a gift for the chummy ‘right matey’ gesture. The former manager of Chelsea, Russia, South Korea, Real Madrid and many other football teams is a solid, jowly, soothing presence. Hiddink managed through empathy; he let the people around him flatter their own egos.

Starting out at PSV Eindhoven in the 1980s, the young coach with a Groucho Marx moustache had less status than some of his players. But he didn’t mind. He smoked cigarettes with his stars, swapping jokes and listening to their ideas as if they were brothers. In 1988 the provincial Dutch club won the European Cup.

'He encouraged his players to make mistakes. All he asked was that they have fun.'

That summer he persuaded the Brazilian striker Romario to join PSV. Hiddink knew that Romario was difficult. The best players often are, because they can afford to be. If Romario prioritised sleeping (his hobby) over attending compulsory team lunches, Hiddink let him. The flipside was that Romario had to perform when it counted.

Hiddink understood just when footballers needed motivation, and when (more often) they needed to be relaxed. Russian footballers played with fear of failure because their coaches berated them for mistakes. When Hiddink became coach of Russia, he encouraged his players to make mistakes. All he asked was that they have fun.

After Russia reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008 playing joyous, ebullient football, their star, Andrei Arshavin, muttered something about ‘a wise Dutch coach’, and cried. And almost all Hiddink’s former players speak about him with respect – some even with love.

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