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Jan 28, 2003

Total football management

First there was Renaissance Man, now there is Piterman.

Despite the fact that Barcelona lost again, Real Sociedad won the 'Winter Champions' title and Ronaldo scored again, the media's attention last weekend - prior to King Louis' great fall - was almost exclusively focused on a naturalised American, born in Ukraine 39 years ago, by the name of Dimitri Piterman.

Piterman has made a lot of money in the property business, and has just invested a small wedge of his earnings into Racing Santander, buying up a 24 per cent share and becoming the majority shareholder.

In case the news has yet to depart these shores, he has also dispensed with the previous manager, Manolo Preciado, and his Director of Football, local hero Quique Setién.

This was not because he bore them any grudges, but because he wishes to impose the concept of 'total management' on his new club - by which he means that he thinks it is better that a club president be involved at all levels, including team manager. And Piterman looks as though he intends to carry out his experiment, because he is the 21st century's answer to Leonardo da Vinci, the original model of Renaissance Man.

Historians will recall that this person was the idealised male - the man who signified the end of the stifling Middle Ages. He was poet, soldier, priest and philosopher, and was probably a bit handy with a paintbrush too. But times have changed.

Piterman (or 'Doberman' as my friend the barman put it) was last in Santander in 1992, training for the Barcelona Olympics - for which he narrowly failed to qualify.

An all-round sportsman, successful businessman and philosopher of life, the American is also good-looking, in an Aryan sort of way. But my attempts to find out if he can paint fell on stony ground this weekend, as did my attempts to wheedle from a member of staff at Palamós FC, over on the Costa Brava, what she and the club actually thought of him.

It was 'Sin comentarios' (no comment) all the way down the telephone line. Piterman speaks decent Spanish and had been hanging around the Costa Brava for a couple of years, having originally bought his way into football via Palamós, actually the first Catalan side to turn professional (a year before Barça) but now languishing in Segunda 'B'.

No-one seemed to care much whilst he was bumbling around anonymously down there, but now that he has thrust his blond mane into the flashbulbs of the top-flight, it has been a rather different story.

On Sunday, Racing - a workmanlike club who have had their moments in this season's top division - were playing at Osasuna, one of their relegation rivals.

Piterman's announcement last week that he intended to be manager as well as president had finally moved the Spanish Federation to act, banning him from the bench because he possesses no formal coach's qualifications.

His sidekick, the alarmingly-named Chuchi Gómez Cos, brought along for the ride from Palamós, does indeed possess a coaching badge, but it seems that he is happy to play the puppet king.

At Osasuna on Sunday, Gómez Cos sat on the bench, but Piterman, after spending practically the whole day charming the Pamplona officials, managed to persuade them to corroborate him as a photographer, so that he could sit close to the bench.

Sport has not only become big business, it has also waded deep into the corridors of academia, moving into such previously unchallenged territory as biology, economics, sociology and psychology. The universities are heaving with it and it's created lots of ways for lots more folk to make a living.

With his wrap-around orange bib and a suspicious absence of camera, he sat against the fence surrounded by various security men and faced by a churning sea of paparazzi. Osasuna had seen nothing like it for years. During the game, Piterman talked constantly on his mobile to his mate Chuchi, effectively sticking up two fingers in the direction of the Spanish FA and taking his first steps towards management of a major Spanish side.

Call it what you like, the man has bravado. Racing lost 1-3, but Piterman's Keeganesque declarations before the game, that he liked to 'attack and nothing but' were not really the factors responsible for the defeat. The players were on auto-drive, playing from memory and knowledge of each other. Piterman has not had time as yet to stamp his style onto proceedings, assuming, of course, that he has a style to stamp.

Piterman is actually quite funny, and confident with it, as befits a self-made young buck. Asked last week if he thought that it was a tad pushy to take over the manager's reins when he had neither the experience nor the qualifications, he replied, "There's a complete idiot running a very powerful country without a qualification to his name - and you tell me that I have to have a diploma to manage a football team?"

No prizes as to whom he was alluding. And his principal argument - that a president of a club works more efficiently if he is also involved at the grass-roots is actually not such a bad idea.

The problem is that in this case, the principle under experimentation has meant the departure of a popular local manager, Manolo Preciado, who was doing a decent enough job and who was popular with fans and players alike.

Quique Setién, who walked as well, is a local hero, second only to Pedro Munitis, the little forward who has come back this season on loan from Real Madrid.

On TV on Sunday night, Setién, as befits the man, was remarkably restrained, refusing to be drawn into slagging Piterman off and only repeating what he had already said to the press, namely that he and Preciado had been willing to negotiate some concession of territory, but that the area of team-management was a no-go zone.

After copious talks well into the dark of two early mornings, the manager and his Director of Football walked off with a compensation package that will leave them solvent but sombre.

Piterman insists that the job of coach is not the black art it is often portrayed. He may have a point, but this is not the right time to be coming out with such rufflers.

Sport has not only become big business, it has also waded deep into the corridors of academia, moving into such previously unchallenged territory as biology, economics, sociology and psychology. The universities are heaving with it and it's created lots of ways for lots more folk to make a living.

I have no problem with this personally, and if I were a rich man I'd love to have a personal trainer (after I'd bought Grimsby Town), but for now it seems that the more sport is portrayed as a complex web of disciplines, the better for the post-modern world.

Piterman's stance is actually a traditional one, and one that harks back to the days when successful football management was really the same thing as man-management, accompanied by the art of keeping it simple.

As Denis Law once remarked of Matt Busby's tactical talks: 'We didn't have any tactics at Man United. Busby would come in and say "Now remember what I've told you. Just give it to George".'

This was just as well, since Best was rarely to be seen on the training ground. Keeping it simple didn't serve them too badly.

Pedro Munitis and his Racing pals have an interesting new boss
Pedro Munitis and his Racing pals have an interesting new boss

Stuart Pearce's legendary use of the Sex Pistols to charge him up before a game rather suggests that he wasn't too attentive to any of the advice that Brian Clough and subsequent managers were giving him, and we know from players' biographies that footballers have notoriously short attention spans, and have no interest whatsoever in tactics.

Roy Keane put it well in his recent book where he said that Clough was no tactical genius, but rather motivated the players by a combination of fear and acute observation. When he wrote that Clough 'never missed a thing' he was simply confirming the old adage that what players respect most are the human qualities that are rarely learnt on university courses.

And Piterman has that 'Don't f*** with me' look about him. He has what they call in the army 'Officer qualities'. Even if he talks crap, he looks as though he means it.

Footballers, for all their bluster, like to be bossed around and organised. They have been brought up on a diet of obedience and conformity, and all apart from the Dutch seem to be fairly happy for it to stay that way.

The Santander players are probably sad to see Preciado go, but it would be foolish to underestimate Piterman, and it will be interesting to see how the soap-opera develops in the next few weeks. As ever with Spanish football, entertainment guaranteed.


  • Out now! Phil's new book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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