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Juan Antonio Pizzi follows Bert van Marwijk down the World Cup beach trampling on his sand castles

Tuesday 26th June 2018

The old maxim that no one remembers who finished second isn’t always true. Thanks to Nigel de Jong’s flying karate kick into Xabi Alonso’s diaphragm, everyone recalls the Netherlands were runners-up to Spain in the 2010 World Cup. Especially Xabi Alonso.

Fewer can tell you without Google’s benefit that Bert van Marwijk was the Dutch manager in South Africa. Almost none will have any recollection regarding his toils in obscurity this cycle unless Australia can defeat Peru while France stop Denmark and tiebreakers align in the Socceroos favour. In tandem with Juan Antonio Pizzi, it’s been a strange, ironic tale.

Long story short, Pizzi was preferred to Van Marwijk by Saudi Arabia once their World Cup berth was secured but have watched the Dutchman do a much better job on short notice with Australia. Short story long, the duo travelled in different football circles before their career paths overlapped this year.

Van Marwijk, 66, was an Eredivisie journeyman in the 1970s and 80s. A midfielder, he was capped once by Rinus Michels for Oranje.

Pizzi, 50, is a less famous scion of Rosario, Argentina. Actually born in Santa Fe, he played his youth football at Central, made the senior squad, then bounced around Mexico, Spain, and Portugal, before returning to Rosario and finishing his career on loan to Villarreal. He was a striker who managed 22 caps for Spain, taking part in Euro96 in England and the 1998 World Cup in France. Before getting into coaching, he dabbled in professional polo in Catalonia.

Van Marwijk began his managerial career in 1998 with Fortuna Sittard, 10 years after retiring as a player. All I know about the time between is he didn’t play polo. His work at Fortuna quickly caught Feyenoord’s attention, then Borussia Dortmund. A second stint at Feyenoord followed. Then the KNVB tapped him for the national team. A poor showing in Euro2012 led to his resignation. He had less credibility as a World Cup Final manager than some, given the cynical, he might say pragmatic approach taken against the far more skilled Spaniards. A short, disastrous tenure with Hamburg SV came next, then in 2015, the Saudi Arabia job.

Pizzi had a forgettable three games as co-manager at Atletico Colon in Argentina before going solo in Peru and Chile for six seasons. He then managed Rosario Central and San Lorenzo for a season each before returning to Spain as Valencia boss. That didn’t go well. His lone season was the first in eight that the Bats failed to qualify for Europe. New owner Peter Lim wasn’t impressed. Pizzi rebounded in Mexico, with Leon. Over two campaigns he won 25 matches and lost only six. Chile quickly snapped him up when Jorge Sampaoli left for Sevilla in 2016.

In his two years in Riyadh, van Marwijk built up the Saudi program. The Green Falcons became a force, qualifying ahead of Australia in their AFC group, forcing the Socceroos into successive two-legged ties against Syria and Honduras to earn a place in Russia. When his goal was finally reached, Aussie coach Ange Postecoglou resigned. Four weeks later, he accepted the manager’s job at Yokohama FM in the J.League.

Pizzi coached Chile for one year, failing to qualify for the World Cup despite inheriting players such as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal and ranking in the top ten worldwide, according to FIFA. He switched from Sampaoli’s preferred 4-3-1-2, with the supremely underrated Jorge Valdivia pulling the strings, to a 4-3-3 lacking an attacking midfielder. His tinkering didn’t sit well with the team’s stars although some youngsters were grateful for a chance to break into the ageing squad. The FFC listened to the veterans. Pizzi was sacked.

That mattered little to the SAFF, who promptly axed Van Marwijk despite his excellent qualifying campaign, and brought in the Argentine. An embarrassing loss to Russia showed how poor their judgment had been. While the Sbornaya were tournament hosts, they were also the lowest ranked team in the group. There was genuine doubt among critics they could advance. Opinions changed when they rang up five against Pizzi’s hapless squad. The Saudi's showing against eventual group winners Uruguay was better, conceding just the one goal in defeat. On the other hand, it appeared La Celeste were conserving energy, playing down to just above their opponent's level. A 2-1 victory over Egypt saved face for the Saudis although probably not Pizzi’s job.

Meanwhile, Van Marwijk journeyed Down Under and did his best to form a bond with an entirely new squad. If the Socceroos performances in Group C are any indication, he made more friends among both young and old squad members than Pizzi did in Chile. He certainly won over fans when rumours [he denies] that Van Marwijk was paying additional World Cup coaches out of pocket arose.

Supporters can’t complain about the end product, either. Australia lost 2-1 to France, with most viewers feeling the side were hard done by with regards to officiating and VAR. A dubious penalty rescued France on a day they were outworked and outplayed. A hard-fought one-goal draw with Denmark followed. The Aussies had it all to do and then some against Peru today.

Peru finally found its stride in this tournament, however, albeit too late. Paulo Guerrero, who couldn't buy a goal in the first two matches, created one with a brilliant cross from one side of the box to the other. Andre Carillo met it and sent a first-touch volley back against the grain to beat Matt Ryan. He then added his own, finishing a quick counterattack after the Socceroos turned the ball over at midfield. Australia pressed but couldn't find a finish.

Their tournament may be over, but they put on a more convincing show than Saudi Arabia. Bert van Marwijk will land on his feet. He is expected to switch roles with assistant Mark van Bommel, who is filling the vacant manager’s chair at Eredivisie champions PSV Eindhoven. Where Juan Antonio Pizzi will land is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, the SAFF has learned not to fix what isn’t broken.

Juan Pablo Aravena assisted with this article.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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