It’s hard now to imagine that Guus Hiddink once got so flustered giving a team-talk that he tried to light the wrong end of a cigarette. These days, bustling around in his big padded coat with his round gold-rimmed glasses and his luxuriant hair, he radiates calm and wisdom.
You always get the impression he could devastate a press conference, that there is a ferocious intelligence burning somewhere beneath, but he prefers gentleness.
He has a remarkable capacity to relax an audience, partly because he generates a faith that he will get it right in the end. It’s as though Miss Marple had become a football manager.
That incident with the cigarette occurred in spring 1987, when Hiddink was the surprise choice to take over from Hans Kraay as manager of PSV Eindhoven. It was out of character; the Dutchman was famously calm. Some worried he was out of his depth; a little over a year later, he led PSV to the European Cup.
It’s his calm that makes Hiddink so valuable to Chelsea at the moment. Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain was a setback, their first defeat since Hiddink replaced Jose Mourinho in December, but the tie is recoverable and there were many positives in the performance, despite a squad depleted by injuries. John Terry and Nemanja Matic should both have recovered for the second leg.
Hiddink’s two months in charge have seen a general calming of the waters. He inherited turmoil. Players were barracked by their own fans for their perceived role in the dismissal of Mourinho. Relegation was a real, if distant, possibility. Diego Costa was out of form and out of sorts.
The mood has changed now. The thought of relegation seems ridiculous. Fans may still dream of a Mourinho dynasty dominating Europe from south-west London, but there is an acceptance that he has gone (although it will be intriguing to see what the reaction will be if he turns up at Stamford Bridge next season managing another Premier League club). Costa has scored eight in his last 11 games.
Just as he did seven years ago after replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari, Hiddink has soothed ruffled feathers.
Given the likelihood that Manchester City—with an eye on their UEFA Champions League tie against Dynamo Kiev—will field a weakened side in the FA Cup on Sunday, the path may be opening up for him to repeat the FA Cup success he managed in 2009.
"People trust him," said Hiddink's brother, Hans, per the Independent. "The most important thing is he never panics."
That perhaps is typical of his upbringing. Hiddink is from Varsseveld, a small agricultural community in the part of the eastern Netherlands known as "the Back Corner." Even the Dutch consider it a laid-back area.
It is remote and quiet even if, in 2002, it became a prime destination for South Korean tourists visiting Europe eager to see the “Guuseum,” an exhibition of Hiddink memorabilia celebrating the coach who took them to the World Cup semi-finals. According to Hans, the values the area prize most are being "modest, down-to earth and normal."
Hiddink was the third of six sons of the local headmaster, Gerrit Hiddink, a notable local figure who was presented with a certificate from United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower in recognition of the work he did with the Resistance during the War, smuggling downed Allied pilots out of the Netherlands.
Gerrit played football for Varsseveld until he was 43 and refereed games until he was 80. The whole family grew up in football, although Guus was the most obsessed—“almost autistic” as Hans, who chose music over football, has put it.
The young Hiddink considered being a farmer—“I love the smell of cow s--t,” he said in a profile in the Financial Times—but sport was his first love, and, having inherited his father’s inclinations as an educator, he took up a part-time job coaching children with learning difficulties.
When he was 21, he began playing for De Graafschap, and although he also had stints at PSV Eindhoven and NEC Nijmegen, it is at De Graafschap, where he played 308 games over three spells, that, as a midfielder at least, he is most fondly remembered. In 2004, the Superboers (Super-farmers), as they are known, elected him their man of the century.
Hiddink retired in 1981 and, still inspired by the desire to impart information, became assistant coach at PSV two years later. Four years after that, he was named coach.
Tactically, he was always been flexible. His South Korea, Australia and Russia teams were always drilled to be able to switch formations at Hiddink’s command. At PSV he was broadly defensive, winning the European Cup by conceding five and scoring nine goals in nine games. With Russia, he was far more expansive.
What has always been constant, though, has been his insistence on relaxation. Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko explained how the Russia squad had once been a desperately serious place, with players determined not merely to do their best but to look professional.
Hiddink encouraged them to swear and to make jokes about each others’ clubs on the first day of any squad gathering.
His time with Russia ended in disappointment, with failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The Anzhi Makhachkala project collapsed when the money supply was turned off. Spells in charge of Turkey and Netherlands did not go well. Hiddink’s record since his last stint at Chelsea has not been good.
But back on familiar ground, the old methods are working. There probably have been too many draws in the league for true satisfaction, but Costa, Matic and Cesc Fabregas have all begun to return to form.
There is a calm about Chelsea that, given the way Mourinho thrived on conflict, probably hasn’t existed since Hiddink was last there. The dream of a repeat of 2012’s Champions League success remains alive, while another FA Cup triumph is a distinct possibility.
Hiddink, in his characteristically benign way, may be salvaging their season.
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