The coach of the Polish national team, Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, has coached 12 different club teams and is at the helm of his fourth different national team. He reportedly speaks six different languages and currently has Poland one point off the pace behind Finland in Euro 2008 qualifying. He is being hailed as a saviour in Poland for having the country in contention for their first ever trip to European Championship.
Recently, he talked to David Ruiz of Spanish daily Marca. This is a rough translation of that interview.
What keeps you going?
Just soccer in general, it's because I like working as a coach. As long as my mind and body can handle it, I'll continue working. I'm one of those people that thinks that your true age is on the inside. My passport says that I'm 64-years-old, but I don't feel that old. I'm still in love with soccer, and that's my motivation.
How did you come about working in Poland?
Because they have a rich history, in World Cups and the Olympics, which they won in 1972. When I was analyzing the job offer, I could see that it was a country with lots of talent. The national team wants to take the next step, so I saw it as a good choice. They have a bright future.
How have they reacted to their first foreign coach?
Well, the same way Spain would react to a foreign coach, not very well. What happens is that we're in 2007, there really aren't any borders anymore. Coaches and players from all different kinds of places are in foreign countries these days...English teams are playing with 11 foreigners. Sure, at first it was hard. But I always concentrate on my work, in my players, and in the game. They are the only things I think about.
Poland took it pretty hard after they were eliminated in Germany, but four months on, there seems to be a lot of excitement concerning the national team's prospects. What's you secret?
There really isn't one. These days, you have to be a real coach. You have to devise the right training exercises, prepare both technically and tactically. That's half of it. The other half, which is maybe more important, is managing the players, creating an atmosphere where the players feel like they have a stake in what's going on. You have to be aware of a player's psychology.
You've always been a man who can spot talent, regardless of person's age or name. How's it working out in Poland?
Very well. We have a group of youngsters with a bright future. Almost everyone in the world had told me that Poland wasn't ready to compete at the national level, that they weren't talented enough, that they were too naive. But the truth is that the lads have responded really well. We're changing that mentality.
This style of finding players allowed you to come upon Frank Rijkaard while at Ajax. How do you see your pupil as a coach?
He's been phenomenal. I have a good relationship with Frank and I'm very happy to see what he's been able to do at Barcelona. He always had a winning personality as a player, since his debut with me at the age of 17. He always had great vision on the pitch, that's why it doesn't surprise me how well he's done as a coach. And to do it at a club like Barca, it can be tough job. But he's doing great there.
Do you see him repeating in Europe?
I think so. Right now they're going through a rough patch, but his players are so talented and the team is so well coached that I see them as favorites to win the Champions League. Beyond how good the individuals are, they are the best team in Europe.
What's left for you to accomplish in soccer?
Nothing. Just enjoy my job every day, to teach the youngsters because that's what I like doing. For me, it's the most wonderful thing in the world.
Not winning the European Cup, has that been the biggest disappointment in your career?
Yes, I think so, though I've won 10 or 11 titles with Ajax, Real Madrid, and Feyenoord. I've been to two World Cups... I live a rich life, I can't complain.
I imagine that you've been following the current situation at Real Madrid. What's your diagnosis?
Looking in from the outside, it's difficult to truly understand what's going on. Though I think that management has concentrated on the marketing side of things in the last couple of years. While it's probably been a success in financial terms, the club has lost too much ground on the sporting side of the equation. It seems that the vision of the current president and coach is to correct the imbalance. The fans have to understand that it takes time to get things right. I understand that the supporters, at a club like Real, are used to seeing their team play well against the best sides, winning titles, and they're right in wanting and expecting that. But there are times in a club's history when you most start from scratch, and that moment has arrived.
Is [Fabio] Capello the right man for the job?
I know Fabio pretty well and I think he's perfectly equipped for this project. The change needed is radical in nature, and he hasn't had much time. It's a process that's going to take a couple more months, and I assure you that there will be some pretty low times in that dressing room, but I'm sure that Fabio will find the way out of it.
You won three league titles in a row with Real. What do you have to do to get a big club winning again?
You have to make good decisions. The first, clean house, and it looks like that's being done. Then, you have to find the type of players that can succeed at a club like Real.
Like you did?
I had a lot of luck because there were two or three players in the side that helped me out. [Jose Antonio] Camacho, who was the captain, was of great help to me. He led the team and kept everyone in line, we never had any problems. If something wasn't going right, Jose would let me know, and we'd have a chat about it. We looked for solutions and then moved forward. Having players like Michel, [Ricardo] Gallego, Hugo Sanchez, [Bernd] Schuster or Santillana, with personality, gave an advantage because they conducted themselves like professionals and led by example. Everyone knew what their role within the team was. It created an orderly and relaxed atmosphere in the dressing room.
The still remember your methods at Real, and the way you worked with players back then. How have you been able to keep up with the times?
It's just just a case of watching a lot of soccer and carefully digesting what you see. This sport is constantly changing, it isn't the same game that you saw 10 or 20 years ago, so you have to adapt. When I watch Chelsea play, I want to know why they're such a great team. How they're organized, what formation they play in, their tactics, everything. You have to retool your methods every year, the way you talk and explain things to players, the way you prepare them.
Was that Real squad the best team you've overseen in your 40 years of coaching?
Without a doubt. We had a fantastic side with Michel, Gallego, [Rafael] Gordillo, Hugo [Sanchez], Camacho, elBuitre [Emilio Butragueno], etc. Everyone knew who the 11 were by heart. They were incredible. I've been at this for 40 years and looking back, my best days were on that bench.
Leo Beenhakker Interview (in Spanish) [Marca]