x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hector Cuper opposite side of coin from Diego Maradona

If Diego Maradona, even in his 50s, remains impulsive, whimsical, given to extravagant gesture, Hector Cuper has always seemed the professional epitome of stoicism, a person for whom order and discretion are bred into his bones.

After much speculation Hector Cuper of Argentina was introduced as the new head coach at Al Wasl in the Arabian Gulf League on Thursday. Juan Manuel Serrano Arce / AP Photo
After much speculation Hector Cuper of Argentina was introduced as the new head coach at Al Wasl in the Arabian Gulf League on Thursday. Juan Manuel Serrano Arce / AP Photo

Hector Cuper could scarcely differ more from the previous Argentinian hired as head coach at Al Wasl.

If Diego Maradona, even in his 50s, remains impulsive, whimsical, given to extravagant gesture, Cuper has always seemed the professional epitome of stoicism, a person for whom order and discretion are bred into his bones.

But like Maradona, he is addicted to the sport which has given him a good living, 20 years of it as a coach.

What football has not provided Cuper, at crucial moments, is good fortune. His burden is to carry the label of serial runner-up.

It may be an unfair caricature of a man who has tackled a variety of jobs, in a range of places, and excelled at some of them. Most notably, at Inter Milan and Valencia, he gained global respect and renown.

At both of those jobs he lifted the clubs. But at both of them, he could not quite burnish a body of sound, impressive work with the silverware he came so close to that he could almost touch it.

At Inter, the Cuper era – which lasted just over two seasons – is now remembered chiefly for the lost title. Inter had hired him as the umpteenth solution to a neurotic, 12-year period without a league title, a pursuit at which huge money had been hurled.

He got nearer than many of his predecessors, and enjoyed unusually sustained support from Massimo Moratti, Inter’s president at that time. But on the last day of his first season, 2001/02, Inter blew their big chance.

They led the table going into the final fixture, away at Lazio, a point clear of Juventus. They took an early lead, then suffered an equaliser.

They led again, and then were drawn back to parity by Lazio. This was a Lazio side with little to play for and a Lazio side whose fans, in many cases, were urging their own team to lose to keep the title from Juve – a fiercer enemy of the Rome club than are Inter.

Lazio won 4-2. Once again Inter had turned brittle, the frailty that Cuper, stern, organised and unemotional, had been brought in to cure. Juventus won the league that year and the next, in which Inter finished second, a greater distance behind.

Cuper had been recruited by Inter after his successes in Spain. He moved there after spells in charge of Lanus and Huracan, the latter the Buenos Aires club where he spent the final years of his career as a centre-back good enough to have won five caps for Argentina in the Maradona epoch.

On Real Mallorca’s bench, he made an instant impact. Playing disciplined, not especially decorative football, Mallorca reached a domestic cup final in 1998. The next year, they made it to an unprecedented European final, the old Cup Winners Cup. They lost both, although the idea that silver medals, never golds were some sort of Cuper jinx had not yet taken hold.

At Valencia, he guided a rugged team to successive Uefa Champions League finals, in 2000 and 2001. To get there at all exceeded anything Valencia had ever achieved, although for many Spaniards the sharp-minded engineer behind the Valencia juggernaut seemed an enigma.

He gave little away about himself or his feelings, his face inscrutably tough, his public statements terse and his mood apparently unaltered whether he was talking about triumph or setback.

His tactics did not charm purists, either. Cuper’s Valencia were ruthless on the counterattack, fast and intense. They blitzed some very talented opponents. But they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid in the first of their European Cup finals and, in heart-breaking fashion, lost on penalties to Bayern Munich 12 months later.

Two years after that, in the same competition, Cuper’s Inter exited at the semi-final stage on away goals against AC Milan.

The past decade has been spent further from the elite, though it has still been busy for Cuper. He helped save Mallorca from relegation in 2004/05. He could not repeat the trick when Parma hired him for a short-term rescue job in 2008.

There have been brief stints at Real Betis and Racing Santander, an unfulfilling 16 months as manager of Georgia’s national side and, most recently, a Turkish adventure, with Orduspor. There were also some rewarding times in Greece, coaching Aris Thessaloniki.

They reached a cup final under his watch. The outcome? Silver, again.

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