Caveating The Whole “No Foreign Coach Has Won A World Cup” Thing

Foreigh coach? So what.... (Photo credit: Matt Mathai)

Data collaborators on this piece include: Jacob Chambliss, Gregorio, Robert Jonas, Luke Sandblom, Matthew Acconciamessa, Calvin Paquette, Garrett Tozier, Jonathan Stein

Please support: The Others May Live Foundation, The NorthStar Soccer Club


As you’ve heard countless times at The Shin Guardian, one of our favorite expressions is, “You can’t look at an observation in isolation, you need to look at the whole body of work.”

A heady and applicable statement when evaluating two-goal Conor Casey games in San Pedro Sula, Robbie Findley at Nottingham Forest, and Edgar Castillo at leftback last week.

Happel: Going where no foreign coach has went since....

A sister expression to the aforementioned might as well be, “Blanket statements are fun for media distribution, but the underlying story doesn’t always match.”

A great example here may be, “Michael Bradley has won playing time every club he’s went to.” Of course, that generalization came to abrupt end with Michael Bradley’s abbreviated tenure at Aston Villa.

Previously Bradley had been with a mere three clubs (a small number of observations), the defunct MLS MetroStars (where his father was the coach), Heerenveen (where he started), and Borussia Mönchengladbach
where he again started.

Bradley’s tenure with Aston Villa came to end after failing to win a single starting role in league competition.

But does that tell the story? Bradley from eye witness accounts was considered a step slow for the Prem (true or untrue), but was the Junior Bradley the victim of a numbers game, a new manager, a casualty of the homegrown rule or did ‘Gladbach
ask for too much for Bradley? Should Bradley be considered a C – C+ player now because he earned a starting spot at three out of now four pitstops?

Hardly fair, but a muddled picture nonetheless.

Taking a look at another broad billboard axiom–this one, “No foreign coach has won the World Cup”–shows its obvious truth, but also adds some color that would seem to suggest that a Jurgen Klinsmann hire for the United States should not be cast in a negative light just because he is foreign.

Here’s what we did. TSG took a look at the past 10 men’s World Cups (1978 – 2010) in attempt to just add a little bit more clarity to that statement.

What we found:

Could 2014 be the year?

• Since 1978, the trend of foreign managers directing international sides at the World Cup has continued to increase, from a low of about 6% in 1978 to about 37% in 2010. This would seem to suggest that FAs are more comfortable going outside of their nationality to compete at the highest stage.

• If you consider the following clubs as the true powerhouses of the international game: Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, the Netherlands….

….only one of these teams employed a foreign coach during a World Cup….and he came in a runner-up in 1978. Ernst Happel managed the Netherlands to the #2 spot in 1978.

Conclusion: Might have a better shot at a foreign coach winning the World Cup if he, you know, managed a powerhouse team.

•  Continually, there have been 8 teams that have won the World Cup (Brazil, Italy, West Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England and Spain). Only one outlier–England–has employed a foreign coach during the last 10 World Cups.

(Note, Uruguay had Argentine Daniel Passarella (now president of River Plate) as head coach during qualifying of World Cup 2002, but he resigned given inability to get players into the squad.)

Bora! Indeed, thumbs up!

•  In fact, the strongest teams to employ a foreign coach during the last 10 World Cups would have to be: (that aforementioned) Happel with Netherlands in 1978, Bora Milutinovic with an oleo of teams if you will (Mexico, Nigeria, Costa Rica and the United States), South Korea who astonished with Guus Hiddink in 2002 and, of course, Sven Goran-Erickson’s merry-go-rounds with England.

•  Taking it one step further (and this is highly subjective). There have been 232 coaching stints at the World Cup from 1978 through 2010. 65 of them were instances of a foreign national coach. That’s 28%…not bad for a potential win, right?

Wrong? By our count only 13 of them or 5.6% overall were instances where a foreign national coach had even of a sliver of a shot of making the title game and 3 of those 13 were teams manned by serial foreign helmsman Milutinonovic.

(For your own review of which managers were guiding “able” teams, enclosed here is a list of all managers at all men’s World Cups from 1978-2010.)

So, “No Foreign Coach Has Won a World Cup.”

Sure it’s a true statement, but is a 5.6% shot really legit?

Maybe 2014 changes that?

51 responses to this post.

  1. The Stat Guardians! Nicely done. What was your quiver of 13 with a sliver?

    (you mention 7 in the article, bora, sven, guus & happel)


  2. Posted by Mike on 2011/08/16 at 6:20 AM

    Cant forget about George Raynor of the UK who got Sweden to the title game in 1958 vs. Brazil or Robert Millar, the Scot who led a fledgling USA team to third place in the inaugural WC in 1930.

    The thing about that statistic is that it adds further pressure to the FA’s to hire someone from within the country because in some countries there would be a tremendous amount of public backlash (I cant imagine Brazil ever having a non-Brazilian manage the national team).


  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 6:22 AM

    There’a link to review the coaches up there.

    Also was interesting which I should’ve put up top.

    Most foreign coaches look like they’re hired *to get the team to the World Cup* as oppose to progress once there.


  4. Great example of causation fallacy. Correlation does not equal causation.

    Then there’s that other caveat that you can find in any investment disclosure; As Michael Bradley demonstrates, “past performance does not guarantee future results.”

    I imagine that whenever a country from outside Europe or South America gets around to winning the world cup, it’s highly likely to be with a foreign manager.


  5. Posted by Ufficio on 2011/08/16 at 7:38 AM

    Sure it’s a true statement, but is a 5.6% shot really legit?

    Small quibble here (if I’m reading the quoted statement correctly): it seems you’re conflating two different concepts here. Noting “5.6% of all World Cup teams have been foreign-coached and have had some chance of winning” by no means allows you to infer “there has been a 5.6% chance of foreign coach winning a World Cup”.

    Great piece, otherwise. I’ve seen this argument used a few times in opposition to the Klinsmann hire. This is silly not only for the reasons outlined in this post, but also for the fact that we’re not going to be contenders for the title in 2014 with our talent pool, regardless of the coach. We’d pretty much all agree that a quarterfinal appearance would be considered a success, and that certainly has been accomplished by foreign coaches before.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 7:52 AM

      On 5.6% chance it sure does–I can make that probability from before groups are drawn.


      • Posted by Ufficio on 2011/08/16 at 8:45 AM

        I’m not sure what you mean, but trust me that figuring the probability of a foreign-coached team having won a cup is a completely different – and more complicated – calculation.

        As a quick illustration, the Netherlands in ’78 was one of the strongest teams in a field of 16, giving them much better a 5.6% chance of winning that cup. So the chance of some foreign coach winning a cup in the period from ’78 on is already known to be better than 5.6%.

        Any subsequent foreign coach with a chance to win only pushes that number up.


        • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 8:47 AM

          Just speaking numbers here. “Netherlands…one of the strongest teams” (while true) is also subjective.

          5.6% treats all teams the same.


          • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 4:18 PM

            “5.6% overall were instances where a foreign national coach had even of a sliver of a shot of making the title game…” ‘Sliver’ is qualitative, no?

            Also, football has globalised a lot during this period, especially in non-traditional markets, whilst much of Europe has fragmentened leading to more small countries. Both have somewhat a lack of “expertise” at the highest level.

            Not the World Cup, but Greece won Euro04 with a German.


            • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 4:27 PM

              Great point on Greece winning Euro 2004!

            • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 4:29 PM

              And Scolari was the Portugese coach. Yes, I think…need to check that.

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 5:11 PM

              Yes, Big Phil was the Portugal coach during WC06 [he knocked us out of WC02 and WC06!]…

          • Posted by Ufficio on 2011/08/16 at 5:20 PM

            I think we’re talking past each other a bit here, but I’ll let go at this point, as this thread has probably seen enough of my mathematical pedantry :>

            It’s a minor point at any rate, and the overarching theme of your article is spot on.


  6. Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 7:51 AM

    One other note:

    1) It did seem that many coaches had club or “local” experience (an asst. national team role) prior to their section for their roles. Given Klinsmann’s time in the US that would qualify.


  7. Posted by Charlie G. on 2011/08/16 at 7:57 AM

    If this were baseball, they’d say “he’s due”…


  8. Posted by dth on 2011/08/16 at 10:02 AM

    Well done, of course, but kind of an irrelevant question as far as the U.S. is concerned. Hiring Klinsmann isn’t about winning the 2014 cup or not; it’s about whether we’re setting ourselves up to contend in 2022 or 26.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 10:15 AM

      Don’t think those are mutually exclusive. But this is more general on hiring a foreign coach.

      In truth the goals of most of the foreign coaches were “Get my team to the group stage of the World Cup”

      So either way you cut it the cliche is off-target.


    • Posted by Martin on 2011/08/16 at 3:29 PM

      “Hiring Klinsmann isn’t about winning the 2014 cup or not; it’s about whether we’re setting ourselves up to contend in 2022 or 26.”

      You say that now.

      However, from what I can tell a significant percentage of US fans, including Sunil, feel the US should have beaten Ghana.

      I’m certain most everyone feels had JK been in charge the US would have.

      That would have put them against Uruguay in the Quarters. Uruguay was/is a better team but better teams lose all the time. All of which means the US fan expectation (not mine by the way) is that JK would have gotten that team to the quarters and maybe the semis.

      Given that, my feeling is the US fan base expects a semi-final to final performance next time around. After all most believe this team will be a lot better next time (no more of Bob’s guys). And once you are in the semifinals, you may as well go all the way.

      Should JK get that far and lose they will crucify him. After all, people are mad at him now for having a slow first half in the Mexico game.


    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/17 at 7:21 AM

      While we are tiptoeing through the statistical tulips I’d like to challenge the “US is playing for 2022” notion implying that somehow we have zero expectation to advance to a WC final before then.
      Let’s take the Dutch as an example since 2002. 02- DNQ/06-Rd 16/10-2nd. Didn’t qualify, pedestrian knockout in 06 and advanced to final through Brazil (upset) Uruguay (expected) in 10 where they played the ugliest final ever and lost convincingly.
      The US record in the same time frame 02-RD 16/06-1ST STAGE/10-RD 16. 02 was a Frings handball, Donovan’s nerves and Kahn fingernail away from a deserved Semi-final appearance. Outplayed and outchanced Germany in every observers estimation. Germany went on to take 2nd. 06- a poor start and Arena’s reliance on his old guard a bit too long (O’Brien/Reyna(remember Ghana?…) did them in.
      10-Qualified for next rd somewhat miraculously and then…while I’ll just quote the entire Dark Horse Pub in Philly when the team sheet came out….CLARK!!!%$&*$$…
      Qualifying groups aside, tournament performance is fairly close over the last 10 yrs with a defeat of Spain’s 1st team and a loss to Brazil’s 1st team in a serious tourney within the last 2 yrs.
      So…..if you look at the US and the Dutch MNT’s in tournament performance over the last 10 yrs you’d have to conclude….?


      • Posted by Jared on 2011/08/17 at 7:49 AM

        Well, first of all you’ve got the US knockout at the wrong stage in 02. They were knocked out in the quarterfinal by Germany.

        Not sure you can call the 06 knockout by the Dutch pedestrian. That game was a mess and a slugfest that the ref completely lost any ability to control it.

        You’d have to conclude that the Dutch are a better team but also play in a stronger region so it’s tougher for them to qualify for the World Cup. I think you are giving too much weight to the Confed Cup. I also think that you can’t compare across World Cups and across teams from different regions like this. Too much changes between each World Cup except for the fact that the talent gap between the US and the Dutch is too large to be made up very quickly.


        • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/17 at 8:37 AM

          First of all, you’re cherry picking niggling data points to debate instead of focusing on the overall point ( I made it very clear that they were knocked out, somewhat unfairly, by Germany (Rd 16 v QF). One step from the semis was the point.
          Why can’t you compare teams results in WC’s? Same tournament, same level of opponents(excepting some luck of the draw/seeding). That’s the whole point. Performing in the WC.
          And on that stage, the US has a comparable track record over the last 3 WC’s. Which is why I’m confused as to why its so far from reality that they couldn’t beat Ghana (finally) face a Uruguay in a semi and find themselves in a final.
          At the end of the day, it’s not about programs, systems, tactics etc it’s results. You’ve upgraded your primary weakness in this last WC cycle (coaching) with a similar player pool.


  9. Posted by SamT on 2011/08/16 at 10:47 AM

    And then there is the definitional question — is Jurgen really a foreign coach?


    • Posted by Paula on 2011/08/16 at 11:52 AM

      That’s a good question. I don’t know whether it’s a certain stereotype of Germans that’s surprising to me by the contrast, but he clearly LIKES the US, more than “Oh, my wife and kids are American so OK, I’ll get along here too”. Idealized notions of the “melting pot” notwithstanding, he’s taken a real shine to Southern California culture specifically. (Well, footballing aside, LA has been home to many German and Austrian immigrants: Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, Arnold Shoenberg). All of the new agey techniques he tried to implement at Bayern may make more sense to players here.

      Also, is the paranoia around foreign mercenary coaches the only reason Hiddink has never been seriously considered? Because he seems like the most obvious choice if you want RESULTS.


    • Posted by Soccernst on 2011/08/16 at 12:13 PM

      Of all the continental european countries, I’d say germany is the most culturally sympatico with the US in the first place. When you consider Klinsmann’s time in the US, I suspect the cultural divide between Happel (an Austrian) coaching Holland after coaching in Belgium is similarly insignificant.

      Hiddink coaching South Korea, or Russia effectively is a whole other ball of wax.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 4:56 PM

      When does JK stop being German and become American? I am not sure what age somebody has to emmigrate to the US to then consider themselves American, but moving at 35, I personally would find it difficult to ever consider him American, even if the law does / no matter how long he lives here [especially after 100+German caps winning the WC and Euros].


      • Posted by Martin on 2011/08/16 at 5:47 PM

        “I personally would find it difficult to ever consider him American”

        Does that matter?

        Americans aren’t fussy as long as you get results.

        Werner Von Braun get Hitler’s rocket program started and then moved here and helped get our space program started. He died a much honored American citizen.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 6:02 PM

          This is a forum where people give their opinions. So unless you have something a little more constructive, and less juvenile, pipe down.


          • Posted by Martin on 2011/08/16 at 7:45 PM

            Really. I read your opinion and your condescending response but I notice you didn’t answer my question.

            Klinsmann was hired to get a result. What does it matter whether you, me or anyone considers him an American?


            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 8:30 PM

              If you read what I wrote below, then you’ll get a good idea re. thoughts about results.

              I have other thoughts re. this overall topic, but probably too strong for TSG, and I do not think the community would appreciate it.

      • Posted by Paula on 2011/08/16 at 6:01 PM

        Well, speaking as an immigrant myself, it largely a matter of how people feel — what culture/identity they identify with most, etc.

        One of the reasons why the El Tri support among many Mexican-born immigrants and Mexican-Americans born in the US is perplexing to US fans is they really don’t understand the “choice”. (We could probably add Giuseppe Rossi and Andy Najar, too.)

        But I have no idea whether or not Klinsmann considers himself “American” in that sense. I was mostly referring to the fact that he speaks in colloquialisms that are very familiar for American sensibilities, like players “expressing themselves” and trying to create a “conversation” between different groups (regardless of status — youth players, academy coaches, the media, MLS) about a consensus American “style”. This is a very American, there’s no hierarchy, everyone’s opinion counts kind of management speak.

        I also noticed (as you did) that he wasn’t wearing the quest. But mostly it made me aware of Klinsmann’s obvious awareness that many in the US fanbase have a fear about how foreign coaches may not understand “us”. And the fact that he makes a point of mentioning Bob Bradley, et al in favorable terms in a lot of his interviews. I assumed, as a the first non-American-born coach in a long time, that he thought wearing the crest would be presumptuous.


  10. Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 12:09 PM

    I’ll answer your “Is Jurgen foreign question to ways” Sam (and yes that “to” was on purpose) :>

    1) As commented above, managers that coached or navigated domestically before being instituted as manager seemed to be more successful generally over the past 10 Cups.

    2) I think that either way–despite his time here–his educational upbringing was of course foreign. That’s a positive I think only in terms of…the US has gotten the best of what the US can offer. It’s very American to bring in a foreigner and incorporate things.

    If Klinsmann said that he wanted to focus on winning at all youth levels and play direct football….he wasn’t getting the job.


    • Posted by dth on 2011/08/16 at 12:13 PM

      I think we’ve overstated how unimportant winning is at the youth levels. Let’s look at Spain’s youth teams:

      current European u-21 champions
      current European u-19 champions
      u-20 world cup semifinalists.

      In general, I think you’ll find the most successful nations at the senior level also have success at the youth level. It’s not a perfect correlation by any means, but I do think youth results mean more than is generally assumed.


      • Posted by dth on 2011/08/16 at 12:14 PM

        That said, it’s premised on winning the right way. If you do things the right way at the youth level, and win, chances are you’re going to get a successful crop of senior players.


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/16 at 12:29 PM

        I don’t think we are overstating it. At the end of the day, would you rather have the Brazilian youth or the Portugese youth <—what have they won?

        Tournaments are micro-observations. (You can't look at an observation in isolation, you need to look at the whole body of work.)

        The most successful teams at the senior levels have the most successful youth teams because of two things: a soccer culture that pervades the society and talent.

        That's it.

        That said, the Spaniards, the Portugese, the Brazilians all focus on skill development in their youth systems AND they have the big clubs that focus on the exact same things and manicure the players.

        As I've written a few times, my friend Chris Ordonez–US U-23 team back in the mid 2000s–went to the Barca Academy. He said the emphasis placed on AND the shear competition in regards to the technical was mind-blowing. Not the same in the American youth system.

        I think winning is important, but at the end of the day, winning is typically nothing more than doing a lot of the same fundamental things right with a moment of brilliance here and there.

        You guarantee winning by instilling the fundamentals and the right way to play–not vice versa.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 4:39 PM

          “Tournaments are micro-observations”.

          Yes they are from a statistical standpoint, but it is what actually counts, right? That is what all countries at the start of WCQ [or whatever qualifucation] strive to reach. I think it is ridiculous to think this axiom holds any water here… it doesn’t matter if you go through qualification with maximum points, X clean sheets and Y goals scored. It is ALL about the big dance, at the end of the day.

          Not sure if you remember the 2001 WCQ cycle, but England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich [and ‘only’ got 3 points], and topped the group, while Germany had to qualify through the play-offs. Every English fan loves this. But the reality is, in the WC, England went out in the QFs, and Germany were the beaten finalists.

          And in American sport, it is al about making sure you qualify for the play-offs. Regular season is pretty much irrelevant at this point, no? Slate is wiped clean…


          • Posted by Dave on 2011/08/16 at 7:18 PM

            Slightly tongue in cheek, I would mention that though though some tout Klinsmann as a sort of savior of German soccer they finished worse under him in 2006(3rd) than in 2002(2nd).
            As for looking at history to predict the future, in the 18 WC’s prior to 2010 only two teams, both South American(Argentina and Brazil), had a World Cup win away from their home continent; 13 of the 18 WCs were won on the winner’s home continent; 11 of the 18 were repeat winners. Yet Spain somehow managed to win the thing in Africa even with the curse of being regarded by many as the best national team in the world.
            Aside, interesting that Brazil has only won one of their five World Cups playing in South America.


            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 8:25 PM

              Very interesting! Back then, the Cup was rotated between South America and Europe, and Mexico was considered South America, in footballing terms, no? Or am I talking out of my arse?

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 4:47 PM

          But I agree with your overall notion about “individuals can be unreliable, where as systems of play not so much”


        • Posted by dth on 2011/08/16 at 4:51 PM

          I’m not sure how your example of Brazilian youth versus Portuguese youth plays into your argument. Of course, Brazilian youth are, in general, more successful than Portuguese youth. They’ve won the u-17 world cup three times and the u20 world cup four times, along with several South American championships.

          And while small observations can be deceiving, a pattern like Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain being the most successful youth countries scarcely seems like a coincidence.

          One final thought. What’s the all-time most successful American youth team? That’d be the 1999 u-17 team that finished fourth in its World Cup. We’re still living off of players from that generation. Again, not something I think is a coincidence.


          • Posted by Jared on 2011/08/17 at 7:57 AM

            One issue in comparing Brazil to Portugal is population. 203 mil for Brazil compared to 10.8 mil in Portugal. That alone gives Brazil a huge advantage considering the fact that the popularity of soccer is similar in both countries.


    • Posted by SamT on 2011/08/16 at 1:37 PM

      On the definitional question, my own belief is that JK is a hybrid. Foreign player, foreign manager, long time US resident, and someone with a deep understanding of the US soccer landscape and player pool. Of course, he will be successful (or not) for reasons well beyond these, but I think his particular background gives him a leg up heading into the job.


      • Posted by Seybold on 2011/08/16 at 9:55 PM

        I agree, he is a hybrid. Even though he’s from Germany, he’s noticeably more of a Californian than anyone in the team except Donovan.


  11. Posted by Gregorio on 2011/08/16 at 12:14 PM

    Great Article Matt, It certainly has brought up some interesting debates concerning getting to the World Cup vs Winning it, and on what the stats say or don’t say. I’m certainly not a statistician or theorist but I think it highlights a common sense insight that a foreign coach has not won the World Cup nor, based on past performances, is there a high likelyhood of it happening. Does this mean future foreign coaches such as Klinsman can’t win the World Cup absolutely not, but the evidence/data strongly suggests its highly unlikely.
    The caveat to all that, is if you don’t get to the dance, your chance of scoring is nil.
    Let’s dream that Klinsi is the outlier, now pass the kool-aid!


  12. Posted by Martin on 2011/08/16 at 3:42 PM


    “Should Bradley be considered a C – C+ player now because he earned a starting spot at three out of now four pitstops?
    Hardly fair, but a muddled picture nonetheless.”

    Donovan failed to earn a spot at Leverkusen (twice). He did well at San Jose, and the Galaxy, failed at Bayern Munich, started at Everton.

    In my book, counting Leverkusen as two separate experiences, Landon earned a starting spot at three out of six pitstops.

    M Bradley’s dad was manager at the Metro Stars but Klinsmann, who clearly rates Donovan as one of his “boys”, was the manager at Bayern ,yet that wasn’t enough to get Donovan going, so I’d rate the favoritism/nepotism factor as a wash.

    Is it easier to do well at San Jose and LA than it is to do well at Heerenveen and Gladbach? I don’t know.

    Does that make Donovan less of a player than Bradley by your logic?


  13. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/16 at 5:13 PM

    Klinsmann maybe the US manager, but he did not wear the badge vs. Mexico!


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