Hiddink Has Big Plans in Russia

MTHiddink speaking to a reporter in the Marriott Royal Aurora on Saturday.
Guus Hiddink, coach of Russia's national football team, looked relaxed Saturday night as he leaned back in an armchair in the lobby bar in the Marriott Royal Aurora.

But it was probably the last quiet night that the Dutchman would enjoy for the next few weeks.

On Sunday morning, Hiddink and the team left for the Rottach-Egern training camp in Germany for 10 days of training ahead of the European Championship.

Sipping his favorite drink, a cappuccino, the coach talked up his team's long-shot bid in the European Championship and dismissed speculation that he might take over as manager of the Chelsea football club. He spoke enthusiastically about the future of Russian football and far less enthusiastically about Russian bureaucracy.

The Russian national team faces a huge challenge in the European Championship, and its first match on June 10 will be against bookmakers' favorite, Spain. Hiddink, however, spoke with confidence.

"To be honest, we are not the favorite, but there is ambition in the national team, and I like it very much that the players feel proud to play for their country," he said.

Hiddink, 61, wore a white pullover, stylish black pants and no watch. When he first came to Russia to sign a $2.65 million, two-year contract in April 2006, he favored raspberry slacks and bedroom slippers — attire that was frowned upon by the conservative Moscow sports establishment.

Hiddink said he had not prolonged his contract, which expires in July, but he planned to coach in Russia for at least two more years. He said he had received several offers recently but declined them all. "I am staying in Russia," he said.

Earlier Saturday, Chelsea fired manager Avram Grant, three days after his team lost to Manchester United on penalties in the Champions League final in Moscow. British bookmakers and newspapers have named Hiddink as the likeliest candidate to fill Avram's seat.

The couch brushed off the rumors. "I have agreed with the Russian Football Federation that I will work for the next two years, until the World Cup in 2010," he said.

Hiddink said he had watched Manchester United beat Chelsea on Wednesday. "I supported Chelsea, but that is because of the relation we have," he said. Chelsea owner, billionaire Roman Abramovich, pays Hiddink's salary as a sponsor of the national team. "I deeply respect Manchester United. It is a club with tradition."

Growing more excited and gesturing a lot, the coach said Russia needed to train young football players to be ready to join professional teams in four to five years. "Young players need to be brought up in modern conditions," he said. "The way you treat young people today is the way professional football will be played tomorrow."

Hiddink said he is consulting football clubs around the country in modernizing their training.

"The football infrastructure, stadiums are the key things," he said.

Hiddink said he had not heard the football anthem that State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov recently wrote in support of the national team. Politicians have taken a keen interest in sports, with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meeting St. Petersburg's Zenit football club after their UEFA Cup victory on May 14. The country's leaders also congratulated the national hockey team after its triumph over Canada to win the World Hockey Championship on May 18.

But the support has not gone beyond words, Hiddink said. "I don't think there is a politicization of Russian football," he said, shrugging. "Politicians can actually provide lots of positive things to national football, for young kids to have a place to learn, for us to have better conditions to train. Through their power they can provide much-needed football infrastructure. So we are hoping and waiting that their actions will follow words."

Russian businesses could help fill the gap, he said. "All around the world, sports and business can help each other. Russian business sponsors clubs, and it also invests in the regions, which I like very much," he said.

After spending more than two years in Russia, Hiddink acknowledged that he still has not come to terms with one important part of Russian life — bureaucracy.

"I love working here very much, but sometimes we are a little bit to slow in managing things," he said.

As an example, he described a project to build football academies for young people. "We have the money, and we have the plan. But with all these papers and papers, it lasts for years," he said.

As Hiddink spoke an attractive blonde in high heels tap-tapped her way over to request an autograph. The coach seemed to enjoy the moment, but he did not want to talk about it. "I will not talk about beautiful Russian women," he said. "No comment!"