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It was inevitable that some eyebrows would be raised when Chivas, the football version of a bastion of Mexican nationalism, named a Dutchman as the man tasked with breaking the club's ever-increasing run of tournaments without titles.
Even more remarkable is that the coach in question is not well known outside Holland. But most dissent in the Chivas ranks will still come from something else that John van’t Schip is not -- Mexican. For a club that prides itself on its Mexican identity, it will always take a little swallowing of pride to put a foreigner in charge, particularly one tasked with returning the franchise to respectability after a terrible tournament.
Van’t Schip, it turns out, could hardly be less Mexican. The former Ajax and Genoa winger was born in Canada and has played and coached his whole career in Europe, before a brief stint in Australia, the last stop on the winding road that has brought him to Omnilife.
But despite the established tradition of fielding only Mexican players, Chivas has a long history of choosing foreign coaches. Ricardo Ferreti, Ricardo Lavolpe and Hans Westerhoff are some of the more colorful foreigners to lead Chivas over the past years. Westerhoff was also the last expatriate to head the team, the scouting legend taking charge for his second stint ahead of Chivas for just a few months in early 2006.
That was also the last year that Chivas hoisted a league trophy, and though it came under Westerhoff’s immediate successor Chepo de la Torre, it will have been a reminder during the present coaching search that there are always non-Mexican options on the table for a club that can spend whatever it likes on a coach.
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That admission and the influence of high-profile consultant Johan Cruyff led to the choice of van’t Schip, who despite his lack of a Mexican passport certainly has the profile to do the job in Guadalajara. He may not be a household name there or anywhere on this side of the Atlantic, but van’t Schip may be just what the proud Chivas franchise needs to right the ship after a terrible Clausura 2012 followed an embarrassing early exit from the Apertura Liguilla.
Admittedly, Van’t Schip hasn’t had many high-end head coaching jobs. In fact he hasn’t had many at all. Besides Melbourne, his only other stint at the head of a top-flight team was a season in charge at Twente, a decade ago. But his experience developing talent suggests the former Ajax man may just have the stuff to get the most out of Chivas’ young stable of players.
It’s no coincidence that van’t Schip has spent most of his coaching and playing days around clubs renowned for developing talent. The Ajax resume, both as player and assistant coach, speaks for itself; Ajax was possibly the most renowned talent-creating franchise in the world in pre-La Mesilla days. From there, the coach eventually moved on to lead Melbourne Heart, an Australian team with a decided focus on youth development.
Like Heart, and much more importantly like Ajax, Chivas is a team that will always focus on putting its youth products on the field. In bringing in van’t Schap, Chivas leadership at least assures that the budding youth movement that highlighted this failed campaign won’t be wholly reversed. While other coaches might have been inclined to bench the likes of Carlos Fierro or Erick Torres to bring in more credentialed veterans, van’t Schap should have plenty of patience with Chivas’ numerous young prospects.
So in hiring van’t Schap, Chivas is undoubtedly bringing in a coach with the wherewithal to evaluate and even help improve the impressive production coming from the Goats’ youth ranks of late. In fact, this is likely a step towards producing even more world-quality players.
The risky bet here, then, comes on the pitch. Until his teams take the field, it will remain unclear if van’t Schap has the tactical acuity necessary to manage a congested league and international schedule at this level. Game and player management are much less certain to translate across cultural gaps than talent evaluation. The Dutchman will also find that heading up Chivas in the era of short tournaments and round-the-clock media coverage is a new world in terms of pressure. In Mexican football, a crisis can be born almost overnight. (Just remember that only a few months back, Chivas had finished the Apertura on top of the table.)
In that sense, this move certainly has the potential to blow up. The good news is that with Cruyff’s backing, van’t Schap will get every chance in the world to make it work. In the end his success will depend less on the Chivas undoubted ability to produce players for the first team than on the Dutchman’s quick adaptation to a new culture and rapid-fire environment with pitfalls at every turn. The question then becomes: Can this Dutchman handle the head role at Chivas any better than his failed Mexican predecessors?