If there is one thing that cannot be escaped in football, it is the rivalry created due to the competitive nature of the sport.
Be it between certain players, clubs or countries with similar ambitions and don’t for a second think that rivalry doesn’t spill over to the benches, where coaches tactically fight it out vying to become the best.
Throughout the history of football, and sport in general, rivalry has largely been the driving force behind spectators' interest in the game, and the reason many of us, after decades of watching, remain entrenched.
For me personally, a Manchester United vs Arsenal match was always intensified by the pre- and post-match jabs, subliminal or not, between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. One often trying to get the better of the other. It was the breeding ground for the famous ‘mind games’ which sometimes went as far as the one calling the others team the best in the world, in a form of reverse psychology.
Another great example was the El Clasico when longstanding rivals Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were on opposite ends of the field, with each trying to outperform the other to snatch the advantage in the argument of who is the better player.
Those two specifically often say that they do not take note of the other, but as someone who has been in this game for so long, I can tell you that both players, despite being well into their 30s, are very much aware of what the other does on the field, even if they do play in different leagues now.
One rivalry that has encapsulated the world over the last few years has been that between the tactical geniuses that is Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. A rivalry that started in Germany has carried on to England where season after season, Liverpool and Manchester City push each other to the wire, with fractions often separating the two.
Both coaches have admitted that their counterparts have made them better coaches and kept them on their toes. Guardiola when recently asked about his relationship with Klopp responded with
“‘I don’t know if Jurgen respect me, but I respect him a lot. He makes me a better manager… his teams are positive, aggressive and they want to attack. I try to imitate him. We aren't friends, we don't have dinner together, we will have dinner one day in the hall of fame, I have his telephone number, but I don't call him.”
This is something I can completely relate with as I too have had my fair share of rivalries throughout my coaching career.
It’s actually a very unique relationship to have when you think about it, as these rivalries have you spending hours, weeks and even years assessing your opponents’ ideas, philosophies and approaches, growing together, pushing each other yet as is the case with Klopp and Guardiola, you often remain strangers. Professionally entangled in each others lives but yet still just merely aquaintances.
One thing about a coaches rivalry is that it is never just one coach versus the other- simply because we are not the ones playing.
Rather, it is the multi-faceted challenge of setting up your team in such a way that tactically you can gain the upper hand, while then still needing to rely on your players to execute. Personally, I live for the thrill of that tactical battle, constantly assessing and calculating play in order to get the result on the day. While knowing my opponent is doing exactly the same.
Perhaps one of the rivalries which stands out to me is the one with Muhsin Ertugral, mostly for the media attention that it got at the time.
As two fierce competitors, myself and Muhsin often managed to get the best out of each other.
Muhsin and I are not friends by any stretch of the imagination, we are acquaintances and have chatted over a cup of coffee when we bumped into each other in the past, but the competition shared with him is one that will remain.
I remember the 2006/07 season where I won the league championship, by 10 clear points as the coach of Mamelodi Sundowns. We were by far the standout team in the PSL that season, producing some scintillating moments in what was widely regarded as a ‘perfect season’ at the time.
A few of these moments included winning 18 matches in a row, scoring 27 goals in 11 games and not forgetting when with 10 men completing 44 passes without losing the ball against Kaizer Chiefs – this achieved the ‘Finest moment’ award that season.
There was no real surprise then on the back of the fine season we were having, that Mamelodi Sundowns largely dominated the prestegious end of season PSL awards ceremony.
Godfrey Sapula was crowned as the domestic premiership Player of the Season and the Players' Player of the season, while Calvin Marlin was named Goalkeeper of the Season. As a team, we also scooped the award for ‘perfectly balanced team of the season’
We had won most of the awards that evening except one, the one which had the most personal significance to me - The Coach of the season.
What made it even harder to digest was the the award was won by my biggest rival that season, Muhsin Ertugral!
Sure, he had done well to finish in fourth place with a relatively young Ajax Cape Town team, while playing some great attacking football. However, the competitive side of me is quick to remember that the players which Muhsin nicknamed “chickens” and was getting a lot of praise for grooming were infact players promoted by me two seasons earlier!
The likes of Mkhanyisile Siwahla, Clifford Ngobeni, Granwald Scott, Haji Shumana and Nazeer Allie all featured prominently during my tenure at Ajax.
A question I still ask myself 15 years later is how did a coach who won all and sundry that season lose the Coach of the Season award to someone who finished fourth? How is that possible?
But the truth is that’s the nature of rivalries – the fuel to the fire. There is always a bias somewhere, and of course when its personal, you will always find it difficult to accept when it goes against you. But that’s the beauty of competition.
When I think of some of the other rivalries I've enjoyed through the years, the likes of Jomo Sono, Clive Barker, Gavin Hunt, and Pitso Mosimane all spring to mind. All of which I could share a similar story of intense competition.
With Jomo for example, it was to see who would take South Africa to the 2002 World cup as National team coach. A position I would eventually have to wait over decade to realise.
At the end of the day, these coaches were never my enemies, although we did not go out for dinner together, nor did we share a cup of coffee on a weekly basis. What we did have however, was a deep respect for the other. They challenged me to be better and kept me hungry to succeed.
There have been countless other rivalries that I was involved in, in the past and will be in future. It is that sense of rivalry that I look forward to most when I do return to the dugout in pursuit of my fifth league title.
Before signing off this week please let me know if you’re enjoying the stories and if there any stories you would like to hear about. Also feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them in my next column. That’s it for this week. Make sure you head to www.soccer6.co.za to go play the TAB Soccer pools this week and keep the above story in mind.
Yours in football,
Coach Gordon Igesund