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18 November 2023

Sarina Wiegman’s mystery playbook

In her book the Lionesses coach shows composure and compassion – but the art of football management remains a puzzle.

By Emma John

Among the many memorable scenes after England’s Euro 2022 victory was the players’ gatecrashing appearance at Sarina Wiegman’s post-match conference. As her charges burst into the room singing, “Football’s coming home…” Wiegman clapped along, delighted at the intrusion. It was as vibrant an image of the team spirit she had inspired as anything from the previous 120 minutes.

When the goalkeeper Mary Earps climbed on to the table to dance – what she thought was a table, anyway – her manager’s indulgent look turned to alarm. “It was actually a flimsy plank, definitely not meant for standing on,” Wiegman recalls in her new book, What It Takes: My Playbook on Life and Leadership. “I tried to grab her hand and in that split second wondered if the plank would support her weight.”

[See also: Sport is just fodder for documentaries now]

A football manager’s work is never done, as Wiegman’s career continues to prove. She is the only person to have won back-to-back European championships with two different countries, guiding the Netherlands and then England to their maiden titles. In August she took the Lionesses to their first World Cup final, and at the end of the tournament was crowned Fifa’s female coach of the year for the third time. But now successive defeats in England’s recent Nations League fixtures have left their Olympic qualification in the balance. This December they must win both their remaining games against Scotland and the Netherlands to secure their place in Paris next year.

Wiegman will not be panicking. The word “calm” comes up no fewer than 25 times in her book, marginally more than two other favourite Wiegman adjectives: “direct” and “honest”. Players speak of her with affection tempered by awe, and her tactical nous – as when she adopted an entirely new formation halfway through this summer’s World Cup campaign – goes less remarked upon than the straightforward way she communicates and behaves with the people around her.

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Born in the Hague in 1969, Wiegman was officially prohibited from playing football with boys. But her parents, Nico and Wil, encouraged her to play alongside her twin brother, and Wiegman cut her hair short so that the coaches wouldn’t notice her gender. She made the first of her 104 appearances for her country at the age of 17, and during her nine-year playing career for Ter Leede won both the Dutch championship and the KNVB Cup, all the while working a day job as a PE teacher. She became manager of Ter Leede in 2006, and was later appointed head coach for the Netherlands women’s team. In 2020 she replaced Phil Neville, whose management of the Lionesses was defined by the team’s increasingly poor performance.

Our admiration for great football managers is fuelled by their rare ability to inspire and unite. In frustrated moments, all fans noisily claim they could do a better job than the current gaffer, and that their team’s problems would be easily solved by selling the left-back/subbing the striker/getting the players to practise penalties. But building a winning team is a skill that very few master. The true art of management remains an almost spiritual mystery and holds an irresistible appeal. Nothing else could explain the number of books that have been written about Brian Clough.

In 2020 the novelist Anthony Quinn published a charmingly personal examination of Jürgen Klopp, underscored by an impossible yearning to be one of the lucky souls under the Liverpool manager’s leadership. “At present there is an alarming scarcity in British life of public figures we revere or admire,” Quinn concludes. “All the more reason why in this era of dire tumult and anxiety we look to someone who has not just authority but common sense, decency, a will to honour the life we have been given, and the wit to enjoy it.”

Wiegman has enjoyed a similar prestige since last summer’s Euros victory. The no-nonsense Dutchwoman may not share Klopp’s charisma and humour but the managers’ approaches have plenty in common. Both are described by those who have played under them as supremely tough yet incredibly humane. Both inherited talented sides that perennially underperformed, and quickly rebuilt their collective confidence.

Wiegman was taking her England team on a parallel journey to the national men’s side. Gareth Southgate, the man whose missed penalty sent England crashing out of Euro 96, understands more than anyone the burden, and terror, of expectation. James Graham’s play Dear England, recently transferred from the National Theatre to the West End, focuses on how that traumatic experience has informed his coaching, and his goal to dismantle England’s fear of failure. It isn’t learning to win that’s important, Southgate tells his players: “We need to learn how to lose.” Wiegman rarely shouts in the book, but the one time she does, it’s to yell, “I don’t give a shit if you make mistakes!” Also like Southgate, Wiegman has doubled down on the radical concepts of kindness, empathy and vulnerability inside the FA’s traditionally macho set-up, helping to transform a wider footballing culture that was more accustomed to Alex Ferguson’s famous “hairdryer” outbursts.

In The Manager (2013), Mike Carson quotes Ferguson explaining that “the human beings that we deal with now are more fragile than they ever were”. Carson, whose book drew from the experiences of dozens of league bosses, concluded that “leading footballers is increasingly difficult”, with a widening social gap between the generations and age no longer commanding automatic respect. Another contributor, the Welsh manager Tony Pulis, noted that footballers “take things more personally than they did 20 years ago” and that motivating players one-on-one has become more important than revving them up at half-time.

What they most respond to, however, is authenticity and integrity – someone who gives them a consistent message, and backs it up with their actions. It’s why Barcelona’s star-studded dressing room was willing to bend itself to Pep Guardiola’s rules, and why Arsène Wenger inspired lifelong devotion at Arsenal. It’s also the secret to Wiegman’s success, with her vision built on the simple principle of giving your all to the task that lies immediately in front of you and not worrying about anything further down the line.

[See also: What the Lionesses taught us]

Given Wiegman’s candour and equanimity are recurring themes in What It Takes, it seems fair enough to tell you that the book is disappointingly dull. Described as part memoir, part leadership manual, it falls shy of fulfilling either remit, and her career highlights – that Chloe Kelly goal! Those Mary Earps saves! – are rendered with no sense for drama nor ear for emotion. Wiegman’s ghostwriter, Jeroen Visscher, is unable, or unwilling, to penetrate her matter-of-fact exterior, and the moment England win the Euros is described in a tone that’s practical to the point of parody: “I cheered and what followed was a group hug.”

Maybe the lack of detail about individual interactions with the squad is a deliberate omission, given her ongoing role; instead there are regular contributions from those who have worked with her, from star players like Merel van Dongen and Beth Mead to her ever-present assistant coach Arjan Veurink. These tend to read like employees’ annual appraisal forms (“Our interaction during training sessions had a positive impact on me”) with the worthy exception of Lucy Bronze, always one of the most outspoken members of the England squad. It is Bronze who, better than anyone, articulates how Wiegman turned the Lionesses around. “In the past we had coaching staff who provided clarity in their goals but couldn’t create an environment that brought out the best in us,” says Bronze. “On the other hand, we also had staff who we could challenge, but they lacked the clarity we needed to collectively achieve our objectives.” Feel free to guess which one Phil Neville was at your leisure.

There are a few fascinating glimpses into the way Wiegman works. She runs a psychological experiment on her players by putting them into a training game then refereeing it unfairly. She takes her Dutch mentor, Foppe de Haan – then in his seventies – to task when he speaks to the media without her authorisation. As a person working in her second language, she thinks carefully about communication and cultural differences, even eschewing the word “OK” because it has a less positive connotation in English than it does in Dutch.

She has spoken quite movingly in interviews publicising the book, about the loss of her sister Diana – at one stage her manager – three weeks before the Euros in 2022. This, more than the book, offers a window into the understanding and compassion with which she approaches her role. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from Wiegman’s slightly underwhelming account is that even an inspirational football manager can’t and won’t get everything right all the time. Or, as the perceptive Bronze says in What It Takes, “Sarina is not a wizard… She doesn’t have a magic wand with which to perform miracles.”

Emma Hayes, who on 14 November became the world’s highest paid female coach when she was appointed to head the US women’s team, titled her own memoir Kill the Unicorn for just such a reason. “None of us have a crystal ball,” she wrote. “Perhaps it’s best not to believe the hype.” And perhaps it’s better to enjoy a great football manager’s talents on the pitch, rather than on the page.

What It Takes: My Playbook on Life and Leadership
Sarina Wiegman
HarperCollins, 256pp, £22

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style