How Cruyff and the Netherlands inspired the incredible coaching odyssey of Sergio Markarián

How Cruyff and the Netherlands inspired the incredible coaching odyssey of Sergio Markarián

The Netherlands is arguably the greatest, most traditional, footballing nation never to have won the World Cup. The national team – who revolutionised the game with their Total Footbal” approach led by legendary coach Rinus Michels – reached the final of the World Cup in 1974 and 1978, agonisingly losing to the hosts on each occasion. Domestic football was also at its zenith in the 1970s: Ajax and Feyenoord both tasted European Cup success, with the Amsterdammers winning the trophy three times in a row. Individually, Johan Cruyff swept all before him, winning three of the four available Ballon d’Ors between 1971 and 1974.

At the 1974 World Cup, eventually won by hosts West Germany, the Netherlands were drawn against Uruguay in the first group phase. “We were startled by our own quality,” wrote the incomparable Cruyff, referring to the Netherlands’ dismantling of Uruguay in their opening fixture. The 2-0 victory in Hannover flattered the South Americans, themselves twice winners of the greatest prize in world football. Johnny Rep glanced a header home after just seven minutes before completing his brace early in the second half with a relatively easy tap-in following clever build-up play.

It’s often said that football is not as important as life or death, but it cannot be denied that the sport is more than powerful enough to profoundly affect those who it touches. To one Uruguayan fan watching on television back home, the encounter between his countrymen and Oranje wasn’t merely a run-of-the-mill group game and, proving the power of football, would change his life forever. 

Sergio Apraham Markarián Abrahamian was born in Montevideo in November 1944 to parents of Uruguayan and Armenian heritage. Like many boys in the football-mad country of only three million inhabitants across the River Plate from Argentina, a young Markarián dreamt of a career in the game. Unfortunately, in an oft-familiar tale, he didn’t make the grade, sensibly choosing to pursue his education by enrolling at university. By the time of the 1974 World Cup, Markarián, a few months shy of his 30th birthday, was successful in his own right, comfortably employed as a general manager for a large fuel distribution company in Uruguay.

Markarián was so blown away by the destruction of his compatriots that he just knew he had to dedicate his life to the sport. “I nearly cried because of the way they outclassed us,” said Markarián years later. Selling his Mercedes and trading it in for a bus pass, he quit his well-paid job in order to dedicate his life to coaching football. “I had to endure ten very difficult years. When I made that decision I got flak from most of those around me, including my friends and colleagues,” Markarián told FIFA in 2010. However, his wife never lost faith, supporting her husband in his new endeavour.

Markarián’s first coaching assignment came in 1976, when he took charge of the reserve team of Club Atlético Bella Vista. Spells with Danubio and River Plate (Montevideo) followed before a move across the border to neighbouring Paraguay. It was with Club Olimpia, based in the capital Asunción, that he tasted his first real success. The club, ironically founded by a Dutchman, won the Paraguayan Primera División in 1983 and 1985, and although the 1984 Copa Libertadores campaign ended with a whimper, in 1986 Olimpia were just one point away in the second group phase from reaching the final.

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Markarián remained in Paraguay for his next two jobs, performing a stellar job with both Sol de América and Cerro Porteño before being entrusted with the next generation of Paraguayan talent by being given the role of the under-23 coach. The young Paraguayan side qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona by finishing second in the CONMEBOL pre-qualifying tournament, and managed to reach the quarter-finals in the Catalan capital before being eliminated by Ghana after 120 minutes in the iconic Camp Nou.

Paraguay’s stand-out youngster at the showpiece event was Carlos Gamarra, who went on to become one of the senior side’s most capped players and enjoyed an excellent career with European giants Benfica, Internazionale and Atlético Madrid.

Following the Olympics, Markarián spent four years managing in Peru’s capital, Lima, first for Universitario de Deportes and later for Sporting Cristal, winning a league title with each. In 1997 he took Sporting Cristal to the final of the 1997 Copa Libertadores, narrowly losing the final to Cruzeiro 1-0 over two legs.

His first assignment outside his native South America came during the 1998/99 season, when he led Greek minnows Ionikis to a fifth-placed league finish, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the process. Before too long he was back on familiar ground, appointed manager of the Paraguayan national team and tasked with leading the team to the 2002 World Cup. Between September 2000 and March 2001 the Paraguayan’s blazed a trail through the CONMEBOL qualifying group, winning four games out of four and scoring 11 in the process, two of them coming courtesy of flamboyant goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert.

The Paraguayans eventually qualified in the fourth and final automatic spot but it wasn’t deemed enough by the powers that be. Two defeats in the last two games had the potential to force the side into a tricky intercontinental playoff with Australia, and the momentum from the four successive wins had clearly evaporated. Rather than waiting to see if the form would continue when the World Cup kicked off, Markarián was fired, controversially replaced with Italian Cesare Maldini who managed to win over the doubters somewhat by guiding the side to the last 16 of the tournament in South Korea and Japan.

Following the disappointing end to the Paraguay assignment, it was back to club duties, and back to Greece. This time the club in question was much more prestigious, and the Uruguayan led new charges Panathinaikos to a third-place finish in the Greek league in his first season at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.

It was in Europe where El Mago really worked his powers, however, taking The Shamrock all the way to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. In the first phase, Group C was topped with Panathinaikos finishing three points clear of Arsenal despite a 2-1 defeat at Highbury. In the second group phase, Panathinaikos qualified in second behind a dominant Real Madrid, being drawn against another Spanish giant in the last eight in the form of Barcelona.

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A 1-0 first leg victory in Athens, courtesy of an 80th minute Angelos Basinas penalty, had the Greek club’s supporters dreaming of a Champions League semi-final appearance. The excitement was exacerbated when Michalis Konstantinou put Panathinaikos 1-0 up in the Camp Nou after just eight minutes with a stunning long-range effort. However, Barcelona overpowered the visitors and a Luis Enrique brace, as well as a goal for Javier Saviola, killed off any hopes held by the Greeks.

Just one month after the Barcelona tie, Markarián walked out on his club declaring himself exhausted and in need of relaxation. His successor, Fernando Santos, started the 2001/02 season terribly and, when he quit in October 2001, the popular Uruguayan was reinstated in the hot seat, just five months after he himself quit. There would be no easing himself in, and the first game of his second stint was a potentially explosive UEFA Cup second round clash with Turkish giants Fenerbahçe. A 1-1 draw in Istanbul was followed by a comprehensive 4-1 victory in Athens, with the tie all but over at half time of the second leg.

Slovan Liberec and Anderlecht were knocked out in the third and fourth rounds respectively, both by a score of 3-2 on aggregate, with José Mourinho’s Porto awaiting them in the quarter-finals. Almost mimicking the Champions League campaign of the year before, Panathinaikos won the first leg 1-0 but couldn’t seal the deal in the second leg despite home advantage. Brazilian striker Derlei evened the tie up before striking the fatal blow in extra-time to send Mourinho’s men to the semi-finals and once again dump out Markarián’s charges by the slenderest of margins.

On the home front, Markarián turned around the poor start to lead the side to a second placed finish, a slight improvement on the previous year. His biggest success, however tenuous it may seem, was his tactical nous, which is thought to have inspired the Greek national team to success at Euro 2004. 

After a spell with another Greek side, Iraklis Thessaloniki, Markarián was back on happy ground in Paraguay. Adding to the league titles he won over two decades before, Markarián led Libertad to successive championships in 2006 and 2007. Before long, the bags and passport were packed and El Mago was once again leaving for pastures new. He led Cruz Azul to the championship final in Mexico before walking away following disagreements with the club’s power structure over player acquisitions.

Another country awaited, and another league title was added to his list of achievements. This time the beneficiaries were Universidad de Chile, who won the 2009 Torneo Apertura. La U finished in second place during the regular season, yet prevailed in the eight team playoff by beating Unión Española in the final, a side that had finished seven points ahead of them in the table. 

The coach then headed north, to take over the Peruvian national team, building on the reputation enhanced by winning two league titles in the Andean nation. It would be no easy task, with Los Incaicos failing to qualify for the previous six editions of the World Cup. His tenure got off to a strong enough start, with friendly wins over Canada, Costa Rica and Jamaica in preparation for the 2011 Copa América.

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After a reasonably lacklustre group phase – a win, loss and a draw – Peru qualified for the quarter-finals in the Argentina-hosted tournament. An after-extra-time victory over the Colombians in the last eight led to a showdown with his native Uruguay in the semi-finals, although a Luis Suárez double sunk the Peruvians without a trace. A third-placed finish was a reasonable achievement given Peru’s profile on the international stage, and the fact that Markarián had been in the hot seat for less than a year. 

Peru opened the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup with a 2-0 home victory over Paraguay, the country in which Markarián built his reputation as a coach. However, a run of four successive defeats was indicative of a campaign in which the Peruvians failed to gain any real momentum, unable to build on the stellar performance in the 2011 Copa. With one point from the final five fixtures, they finished seventh in the CONMEBOL table, 10 points adrift of the automatic qualification places. In October 2013, despite offers to continue, Markarián quit his role, sticking to his word that he would walk away if he failed to secure World Cup qualification. 

In February 2015 the 70-year-old replaced Claudio Ranieri as Greece manager, the Italian coach dispensed with after a shocking 1-0 home defeat to the Faroe Islands. Just two games and seven months, later Markarián tended his resignation following yet another defeat at the hands of the unheralded Faroes. His resignation was rejected but he would last just one more game – a goalless friendly draw against Poland.

Not even an uncharacteristically thrilling 4-3 win over Hungary on the last match day could prevent the Greeks from finishing bottom of the group, and becoming the first nation in World Cup or European Championship history to finish bottom of a qualifying group that they started as the top seeds of. 

In working life, it is very easy to get stuck in a rut and become comfortable, even if the job leaves you feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged. Few people would have the courage to do what Sergio Markarián did in 1974 after being mesmerised by Johan Cruyff and company, by foregoing the trappings of a well-paid job in favour of a life at the bottom rung of the football coaching ladder. Further still, even fewer would have the bravery to live and work abroad, constantly uprooting your family to forge a career away from home. The spells in Greece – with a language vastly different to his mother tongue of Spanish – stand out as particular challenges for the coach.

The internationalist, inspired by Dutchmen to pursue a new career, managed in six countries, winning league titles in three of them. He also coached three national teams and although he never truly reached the heights of his profession, he’s enjoyed a fascinating career with much to be proud of. Perhaps it’s best to leave the last words to the man himself, speaking to FIFA in 2010: “What matters is that I followed my heart and I can now say that it wasn’t a mistake. I think it’s a great life lesson for my children and grandchildren: they must pursue what they’re passionate about without thinking so much about the risks.” 

By Dan Williamson

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