2010 is not a year that will be remembered fondly in Turkish football. For the third time running, Turkey had been campaigning hard — and spending millions — to convince Uefa that the European Championships should be staged there. In the end, the organisation headed by Michel Platini awarded the 2016 tournament to France by just one vote. It was an unpredicted setback for the Turkish Football Federation and a great disappointment for one of its bid's champions, Guus Hiddink, who'd left Chelsea a year previously to manage the Turkish senior squad.

The Dutchman had already looked after four other national teams — Holland (quarter-finalists at Euro 96 and semi-finalists at the 1998 World Cup), South Korea (who reached the same stage of the competition in 2002), Australia (who, in 2006, qualified for the second round for the first time in their history) and Russia (who made the last four at Euro 2008). In this interview, given in a smart hotel in Istanbul, Hiddink mentions his 'failures'; there have been few over a career started at De Graafschap in 1982, and all of them occurred at clubs which were particularly volatile in political terms at the time (Fenerbahçe, Valencia, Real Madrid and Real Betis). Hiddink has earned the right to be considered one of the greatest managers of his generation, despite the fact that of the 14 trophies he has claimed, no fewer than 12 were won with PSV, 11 of them in domestic competitions. It is true that the 12th was the 1988 Champions League, and, had it not been for a series of controversial refereeing decisions in an astonishingly intense semi-final against Barcelona, he might have added a 13th with Chelsea in 2008-09.


How and why did you become Turkey's manager, when a number of clubs were keen on you at the time — Chelsea among them?

Well, with age [Hiddink turned 64 on 8 November 2010] I loved working with clubs, and I loved working with Chelsea, because I could exert a direct influence on the team and on the lives of my players day in, day out. Not just on the players, in fact, but also on the scouts, etc, etc. That's a huge thing. With a national team, it's a different job. There are periods of great intensity, when you play games, and others when your influence is negligible, nothing like the influence clubs have on their players. Then, as big competitions loom, your influence grows again, and the four or five weeks before a tournament are the most intense of them all. But I'll admit that it is a greater challenge to look after a club than a national team — when you're younger than I am today.

So there was never was a chance of your staying longer at Chelsea, even after winning the FA Cup final?

Working with Chelsea was a bit of a luxury. I spent five fantastic months there... but I had committed myself to Russia. One thing surprised me at Chelsea — the warmth in the human relationships in that club. I'm not saying that just because of my links with Frank Arnesen, but of what I saw throughout the whole club. I'm still in touch with the players, and I might even pay them a visit from time to time. Another thing I loved in England: when you've done work there — and we did some pretty good work together — you're always welcome when you're back. Nobody asks you: "what on earth are you doing here?"

You had a very strong relationship with Didier Drogba, did you not?

When you get older, you widen your horizons. I've done work in Soweto for an Aids awareness charity called 'Educate and Medicate'; Didier too has done a lot of work in Africa for that initiative, using football as a tool for education. The influence a Didier Drogba has is enormous — that brought us closer, this idea that football goes beyond football. I remember going back to South Korea a few months after the 2002 World Cup. A game between North and South Korea had been organised. The result had been a very diplomatic 0-0 draw, but nobody cared about that. Everybody cared about the power of football to unite people. Some members of my staff had family in the Communist north, whom they hadn't seen for decades. They hadn't even been able to talk on the telephone. Of course, football can't solve anything on its own, but it can play a huge part. When Nigeria was embroiled in a civil war at the end of the 1960s, Pelé's Santos played there, and the military chiefs said, "Right, we were slaughtering each other yesterday, but, now, we won't shoot anyone for three days, so that we can watch the game." But once the match was over, they started fighting again.

What could Turkey offer you that others couldn't?

I'd met representatives of the Turkish Football Federation on several occasions, and I'd been impressed — not just by what they had in mind for the national team, but also for Turkish football in general; and it is because of the seriousness of their approach that I tied my future with them. What's more, I knew Turkey already; I'd worked there, when I was Fenerbahçe's head coach in the 1990-91 season, just before I went to Valencia. Many things have changed in Turkish football since then. The passion was already there, of course. This is a country where people still play on artificial pitches at one in the morning! It truly is a football-mad country — and this passion is something that speaks to me. I don't want to sound like a propagandist, but what attracted me were not just the opportunities, but also the enthusiasm with which people want to embrace them. I love that.

A large proportion of your current squad plays in the Spor Toto Süper Lig, which is seen as a disadvantage by some in Turkey. Would you rather that your players played in their home league, or abroad?

There is a phase in a player's career when he should definitely stay at home. If he's got the right kind of personality, he can become a model for many youngsters. But I understand that, later, he might be tempted to join one of the bigger leagues... provided he chooses the right team. I remember when I was in charge of the Netherlands, from 1996 to 1998, all our players were leaving for England or Italy when they'd reached the age of 23 or 24, and people were going mad in my country, they were screaming, "We're losing all our talents!" OK, but we're a small country, and we have the obligation to unearth new talent — constantly. And this is one of the keys of our success: our football is geared towards the identification and the nurturing of these talents, from the age of six or eight. Our system works. I was telling those who complained of the exodus towards Milan or the Premier League, "This is a good thing. If these players are made an offer, and it's a good one, they'll acquire a lot of experience in a tougher championship, and when they come back to the national team they'll be better equipped to defend it."

Can your work with the national team really have an impact on Turkish football as a whole, which seems to be going through something of a rut at the moment?

The national team is a catalyst for football as a whole in the country it represents: I saw that in Russia. When the national team improves, which was the case in Russia before and during the 2008 European Championship, there is a new enthusiasm, a new élan which permeates football at every level, and which you can use as a weapon to enrich sport at grassroots level, not just at the top. That is crucial. And this relationship works both ways. If, as a consequence of success, football progresses at the lower levels, this feeds back into the national team. It is not a process of dependency, but of parallel development.

Turkey's national team, however, seems on the decline compared to where it was in the early 2000s

I don't know. I'm still engaged in a process of discovery. I gather information, I watch games — but I don't want to be over-informed either. Too much information can hamper your thinking. I want to look at things with my own eyes. I've got two, three people who can advise me, but a very important part of my role is to identify new players, study them in the flesh and on video, understand how we can bring them in to succeed and qualify for the 2012 Euros. I'm not one for looking back — I much prefer to project myself in the future, taking my own decisions.

Your task won't be easy as far as qualification is concerned: your group is widely considered one of the toughest

Germany again, always! Everybody knows them. As Gary Lineker says, "Football is 11 men against 11 others and, in the end, Germany wins"... sometimes. But it's true. It's a tough group. Germany never fails to qualify. They're a team of fighters, which means that our priority will be to fight as well. But I still don't underestimate the chances of Belgium, who can call on a group of very gifted young players. Austria can be dangerous as well. Yes, it's a tough, tough group, but I'm an eternal optimist.

Is there such a thing as a 'Turkish' style of playing that you need to nurture, or are you more of a manager who hopes to mould this style into your own?

Well, football has become more... international. Globalised. You don't perceive differences in the 'styles' of playing as you did in the past — except, maybe, as far as clubs are concerned. But not at national team level. Years and years ago, you had a 'typical' Italian style, same for the English, or the French. You could identify a team just by watching it play, without looking at the colour of their jersey. Today, we play a quasi-universal kind of football, with just a few exceptions, negative exceptions by the way, where the accent is put on defending and counter-attacking. But, by and large, this type of negative football is not the type of football which achieves results today. Good!

You've often managed to get 'lesser' teams to perform better, both in terms of quality of play and results, than what was expected of them. What's the secret?

I've also failed on some occasions. There are no careers without failures. And there is no secret. When I arrive at a new team, I look around. I sniff around. And we work, hard. To get the maximum from a player... well, in football, in sport, as in life, maybe, any person is able to do more than what he or she thinks is possible, and this, for multiple reasons, which can have to do with an excess as well as a deficit in confidence. All individuals who are gifted with a potential to do something can attain a higher level of performance, improve by 10 or 15 percent. The key is to identify what will trigger that improvement. If players understand what they have to do on a football pitch, what their mission within the team is, then you obtain a combination that works.

But how do you identify this 'trigger'? Honestly... I don't know. I like... I like 'playing' with human beings. I like human challenges. It depends on personalities, of course. You must be able to judge which type of player you're dealing with — as a human being. There is no over-riding 'general' approach to the work you do with a particular team. This guy looks a bit arrogant to me: I'll have to fight with him if he starts behaving like a prima donna. Maybe he's got other qualities, of which he might not be aware, and which I'll try to make him focus on. To get to the highest level the first thing people must do is to have a better understanding of themselves. As to me, my job is to analyse them — and be ready to accept that my assistants might contradict me, sometimes, telling me, "Hey, boss, what you've just done, that wasn't the right thing to do." It is a process which is in constant flux.

Does that mean that, for you, who is frequently placed in a situation which is not of your own making, with teams which have already established tactical traditions, a manager's job is primarily to establish human relationships with staff and players rather than to work on the technical side of the game?

It is a matter of complementarity, not exclusion. The specifically technical part of my job is part and parcel of this search for improvement, at national team as well as at club level. You want your team to play like you want football to be played. In my case, this means playing a game that people take pleasure in watching, and that players take pleasure in playing. Why do we get as enthusiastic as we do about Barcelona and Lionel Messi? Because he plays like a kid. It's as if he told his mum as he's leaving home, "Right, I'm off to play football. I'll be back at eight o'clock tonight." Even if there are 100,000 people in the stadium, and millions more in front of their TVs, it doesn't affect the way he approaches football and his behaviour on the pitch. He is not polluted by things which are external to the game itself. We coaches should reflect on that. Our role is to create the environment in which a Messi will really 'play'. This said, tactics and strategy have a part to play, obviously — especially, in the case of a national team, during the first phase of a tournament, when qualification can hinge on a weakness that you've identified in your opponent's organisation. So you think, you think, until your head is that big... You're already playing two, three matches ahead, if you see what I mean. How can we hurt them? That's something you prepare 'upstream'.

How do you prepare 'upstream' against Barcelona to beat them, then?

Well, we were very close to doing it with Chelsea in 2009, weren't we? But you remember what happened in that semi-final? I do! [Hiddink bursts out laughing.] I was very, very frustrated not to have won. But later on, you remember the pleasure you felt playing against Liverpool... and Barcelona. It was all part of a great game that turned out awful at the end. It's not always the best team that wins. Maybe Barcelona will go out this year because of a shot that hits the post and goes out rather than in. But when you play the kind of football they play, you go to the semi-finals, you go to the final, and if you don't win, when you see as beautiful a football as that, you know that it's given happiness to an awful lot of people.

Do you think that this Barcelona team is actually far better than the Spanish national side? Don't you have a feeling that international club football at Champions League level is far superior to what we now see at World Cups?

I try to see things in perspective. It's true that, today, Barcelona leads the way — as Arsenal has done in the past, and, in my opinion, still does, even if things haven't worked their way in the Champions League so far. In the past, national teams provided a 'quality standard' to which everybody aspired, clubs included. I'm thinking of Michel Platini's France, which was so, so attractive. I'm also thinking of my Netherlands team between 1996 and 1998, when we changed a lot of things after the failure at Euro 96.

In those days, national teams were still the leaders in terms of tactical innovation and the beauty of their play. Nowadays, our attention is focused on the Champions League, and Barcelona is ahead of everyone else as far as 'philosophy' of playing is concerned. But I feel that this trend — the desire to attack, to go forward — is something that is affecting football worldwide. You very rarely see teams that are happy just sitting back in their own halves, waiting for a chance to counter-attack. Football has changed — it is more attack-minded, more attractive than it's been for a long time.

Do you feel a particular affinity with Barcelona's football because of the role the Dutch have played in shaping it since the days of Johan Cruyff?

Most certainly. That's the way we Dutch love to play. Even in the late 1960s, we loved to press high up the pitch, we were very aggressive in getting the ball back in the opposition's half. It was and is a strategy that is high risk. Because of it, you'll lose a game from time to time. But it is ultimately successful. Just as Dutch football was successful then, Barcelona is successful today. It's a good thing for football.