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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Young coach Andre Villas-Boas takes international soccer by storm

At 33, Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas already has an impressive list of accomplishments in international soccer, including winning the Europa League and leading FC Porto to an unbeaten season.

May 21, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Coach Andre Villas-Boas celebrates at the final whistle of FC Porto's victory over Braga in the Europa League final at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on Wednesday.
Coach Andre Villas-Boas celebrates at the final whistle of FC Porto's… (Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters )

One man is a World Cup winner from Argentina, widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of his generation but no great shakes when it comes to being a coach.

Nevertheless, the Al Wasl club of Dubai last week saw fit to name Diego Armando Maradona, 50, as its new coach. Well, good luck with that. The publicity stunt should last a matter of weeks or months, not years.

The other man is from Portugal and the closest he ever came to a World Cup was watching one, perhaps in person, more likely on television. He was never a player, at least not as a professional.

Nevertheless, Andre Villas-Boas, 33, is on a fast track to becoming one of the world's elite coaches. If he one day has charge of the Portuguese team at a World Cup, it will be no great surprise.

Already, he has achieved more in one season than most coaches do in a career.

In the European season that draws to a close on Saturday when Barcelona and Manchester United square off in London for the European Champions League title, Villas-Boas already has accomplished more than either Barcelona's "Pep" Guardiola or Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson.

— He has won the Portuguese SuperCup with FC Porto, defeating arch rival Benfica in the season's traditional curtain raiser.

— He has led Porto to an unbeaten season, winning the Portuguese league by a record 21 points, or a full seven games, over perennial champion Benfica and finishing with a 27-0-3 record. In the process, his team scored 73 goals and allowed only 16. The fact that the league championship was clinched with five games to spare and with a victory at Benfica's Stadium of Light made the feat even more dramatic. The fact that Porto set league records for points won and consecutive victories made the feat even more emphatic.

— He has led Porto to the Portuguese Cup final, where a victory over Vitoria Guimaraes on Sunday is all but assured. If accomplished, it would mean that Villas-Boas would have completed the domestic double in his first full season as a coach and won four trophies in all.

— He has won the Europa League, the continent's second-biggest prize after the Champions League, and done so in tremendous style. Porto swept aside opponents from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Turkey. By the time it shut out fellow Portuguese team Braga, 1-0, in Thursday's rather drab final in Dublin, Porto had gone 14-2-1 in the tournament, had outscored opponents, 44-16, and had won every road game. The victory made Villas-Boas the youngest coach ever to win a major European club competition.

— Of his 53 matches in all competitions since taking charge of FC Porto in June, Villas-Boas has won 47.

So who is this thirty-something phenomenon who already has been linked at various times to the likes of Liverpool, AS Roma, Chelsea, and several other top teams?

"I am just a cog in a very effective club with super talents," he has said. "Players are decisive in modern football; if you don't have the players, you run into a wall."

Porto has the players, most notably Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who scored a record 17 goals in the Europa League, previously the UEFA Cup, including the winner in the final. That broke Jurgen Klinsmann's record of 15.

Falcao's strike partner is Brazil's wonderfully and appropriately named Hulk, who led all scorers in the Portuguese league with 23 goals.

Despite such feats, the focus has been on Villas-Boas, much to his displeasure.

"People focus too much on the manager," he has said. "It's down to the structure of the club and the players. Football is not a one-man show. My job is to nurture talent, to allow players to explore their capabilities to the full. You have to free them and let them make their own choices. I'm no dictator."

Helton, Porto's Brazilian goalkeeper and captain, said that philosophy is precisely why the team has flourished.

"He looks after us and tries to give us what we need, while making sure he gets what he wants from us tactically," he said of Villas-Boas. "He gives us tranquility and reminds us what we're capable of" achieving.

It was a former England coach, the late Sir Bobby Robson, who gave Villas-Boas his break when the youngster was only 16 and Robson was Porto's coach. "He was the reason I am where I am today," the Porto-born Villas-Boas has said.

Robson had also launched Jose Mourinho's career, and Mourinho later had Villas-Boas under his wing as a scout at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan.

Now, Villas-Boas is very much his own man, and what the future holds can only be imagined.

"Titles and records are tumbling at his feet, and where this all stops no one knows," the Irish Independent said after Porto's victory in Dublin.

Funnily enough, it was Maradona who, with some help, knocked Robson's England out of the 1986 World Cup. But a quarter-century later, Robson has the last laugh. His proteges are flourishing as coaches while Maradona flounders.

Poetic justice, perhaps.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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