By Ian Kerr
Pim Verbeek spent his life in football. Growing up in the Netherlands, he was immersed in the game. And over the years his love for the game endured.
He polarised opinion during his tenure as coach of the Socceroos, but was warm and friendly in person. The peripatetic Pim led a life very different to domestic coaches who never go beyond the border.
Pim’s father was a professional footballer for Sparta Rotterdam, and the first game Pim saw as a little boy was a Dutch Cup Final featuring Sparta Rotterdam.
“In those days, everyone played football on the streets,” Pim told me when we spoke in 2015. “And football is of course the number one sport in the Netherlands.”
He followed in his father’s footsteps, playing for Sparta Rotterdam. But a serious injury put paid to any lengthy career.
“I had a bad knee injury when I was 18 years old. When I was 20, 21 years old my knee ligaments were no good, so that was the end of my career.”
He said it matter-of-factly, without even a hint of regret for what might have been. The injury sparked a career transition. Pim studied to be a sports teacher, passing his football coaching courses while at university. He then coached at a series of Dutch clubs over the course of a decade.
How does a domestic club manager who has only ever played and managed in his home country make the move overseas? Pim’s opportunity came when the Dutch FA offered him a job looking after a Japanese team while they were in the Netherlands for two weeks. “I kept in contact when they returned to Japan. Then the opportunity arose in 1998 to take up the job as manager. It’s all about relations – and a little bit of luck. That’s the way it works.”
Pim was soon in Japan taking charge of Omiya Ardija – an amateur team that missed out on being part of the Japanese top flight when the J-League was set up. The second division, known as the J2 League, was about to be launched when Pim was appointed manager of Omiya Ardija.
“It was my job to build up a team from an amateur club into a professional club, working and playing in the J2 League.
“It was a fantastic job. Absolutely fantastic job. I had full authority to do whatever I liked – bring in players, send players out, scout players in Japan – to build up a team in one and a half years time. Japan was a great country to work in.”
An occupational hazard of being a football manager is copping blame and being subject to media inquisitions. Pim copped his share of criticism over the years. How did Pim maintain a love for the game when being lambasted by the media?
“I think every coach will probably give the same answer – it’s about experience. You start to get used to it, you know what’s going to happen, you’re not surprised any more when there’s criticism because of some bad results, or you change a player, or a player’s not happy. You understand how it works in the football world, and that makes life so much easier. If you’re not surprised about what’s happening around you then you can manage that much better.
“Coaches always look for the positive side of football. The moment you lose a game, or there’s criticism, immediately you start thinking about the next game, or what you have to improve. If you do that, then it’s no problem. If you start thinking day in, day out about pressure, about media, about fans, about bad results, then you’re done. That’s the end of your job.
“Being criticised is part of our job. Football coaches get hired to get fired.”
Managers of national teams have their own special hurdles to overcome, working with playing squads for such short periods before matches.
“Tournaments are not so bad. You have the players for a couple of weeks minimum, for the World Cup maybe three weeks. It’s never enough time, but you have time.
“The most difficult part of the job as a national team coach is that you only have two, three or four days to prepare for a match, and you never know exactly how the players come in. When I was in Australia, players were coming from Europe, travelling 28 hours, then there was the time difference. Some players dealt with it easily, others needed more time to adjust. That was the most tricky part of the job you have in Australia – you never know how players will come out of the aeroplane, and you have only two or three days to prepare physically, prepare technically for the opponents, then to construct the best team.
“It’s not always about the best players – it’s about the best team. It’s an interesting job, but it’s a very difficult and challenging one.
“Being a club coach is much easier. It’s seven days per week. You know the players. You can train them as much or as little as you like. You can bring in players from the reserve team.
“As national team coach you never know which players are available for your next game. After each game they’re gone, so you don’t have time to speak with them, to analyse the games with them. There are a lot of challenges for a national team coach. As long as you see it as a challenge there’s no problem. The moment you start seeing it as a problem… yeah, then you have a problem!”
Language poses another challenge for international coaches, who rely on translators, especially during the early stages. “It’s difficult because you can’t bring any emotion to your coaching. Sometimes you want to express something about what’s going well, what’s going wrong. During the match you sometimes miss moments because you need a translator.
“One player you have to tap on the shoulder, another you have to give a kick up the arse, let’s put it that way. It’s easier if you understand the language, but you can’t do that through a translator, so you miss emotion in your coaching.
“If you’re there for a couple of months, you understand more of the language, you can do some technical coaching yourself, you have body language, you can use video analysis, you make the best of it. There’s no doubt that it’s easier when you speak the language.
“The advantage of not speaking the language is that you can’t read the newspapers. You don’t know what’s happening around you so you can fully focus on what you’re doing. You’re not influenced by the club or other managers.”
After coaching the Socceroos, Pim managed the Moroccan Under 23 side. “Morocco is hectic. You have to travel all over Europe to see your players at their clubs, then you have to travel all over Africa to watch the team play. So you travel to Senegal, Ivory Coast, not easy places to go to play football – you have malaria, pills, medicines, heat and the climate.
After finishing his stint in Morocco, Pim spent time working in the media. He was part of FoxSports’ coverage of the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. His willingness to offer a fearless opinion, coupled with his knowledge of the Asian football scene thanks to his coaching experience in Japan, South Korea and Australia made him a compelling panellist.
“I’ve never been afraid to say what I like. I try to be honest – honest towards my players, honest to the people around me. Honesty works. Don’t beat about the bush; just say what you want to say.
“I know how difficult it is when people from the outside, who don’t watch every training session, say which player is the best to play. You have to be in the group the whole time.”
Pim’s football adventure took him all over the world, but that didn’t dull his love for the game.
“Football is my world, it’s my life,” he told me back in 2015. “After two-and-a-half years with Australia, and four years with Morocco, it’s time to concentrate on the family and enjoy life.”