Monday, June 24, 2024

The Youngest Head Coach in European Soccer Is 30 Years Old—and Nearly Undefeated

If it all felt a little surreal to Still, it’s because it was. Thirty-year-olds who have never played professional soccer or coached a pro team don’t suddenly end up in charge of a top-division club. Nor do they kick things off by going undefeated for 19 games.

So when the streak came to an end this month, the British-Belgian Still took the result as a sign that he was finally growing into the job. Victories had come with surprising ease. Fixing a defeat would be his first proper test.

“Football reality hit us right in the face,” he said after his Reims side fell 2-1 to Olympique Marseille here. “Maybe I’m becoming a real manager now that I’ve lost.”

Still’s youth has become one of the more curious story lines in European soccer this season. At an age when most players have several more seasons ahead of them on the pitch, he is directing things from the dugout. Still is five years younger than his own team’s captain, the starting central defender Yunis Abdelhamid. He is also the same age as the first text message. By the standards of American sports, Still makes the 37-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, Sean McVay, seem more ancient than Knute Rockne.

“He’s young,” Abdelhamid said recently, “but he might be the best coach I’ve ever worked with.”

Which is a ringing endorsement considering the fact that Still hasn’t even had the chance to collect all the certifications required to be a professional head coach in Europe. Still was serving as an assistant at Reims last October when the club fired his boss, manager Oscar Garcia, and handed him a battlefield promotion. The joke around Still soon became that his public fondness for the Football Manager videogame was his primary qualification—ignoring his years of grinding tape as a video analyst.

“Obviously, the diplomas are important, but I’m not just some geek who played Football Manager,” Still says. “I didn’t land at Reims from sitting at my laptop.”

The club, currently ninth in the standings, wasn’t bothered by the gaps on his résumé. The situation just made life a little more expensive in the short term. Because Still doesn’t hold what is known as the UEFA Pro Diploma, handed out by European soccer’s governing body, Reims must now pay a €25,000 ($27,000) fine every time he leads his team out for a game.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary until the club could find a permanent coach. But after Still went five games unbeaten, Reims decided to keep him until at least the end of the season—even if the fines alone are expected to reach a total of €575,000 by then.

Obtaining a license to coach a pro team in Europe isn’t as onerous as, for instance, obtaining a license to fly a commercial airliner. But it isn’t simple either. You need several prerequisite degrees and the final course requires a minimum of 360 hours of education, plus visits to professional clubs, spread out over at least one full season, according to European soccer’s governing body. Some 220 hours of that must also be completed as work experience on the practice field. Still, who spent some of this month’s international break taking courses back in Belgium, expects to complete it in the summer.

In the meantime, he’s found that what he lacks in official certification, he makes up for in understanding a locker room full of millennials and Gen Zers. Still can be equal parts tactics and TikTok.

“I listen to the same music as them, I talk about the same things, we have the same social media,” he says. “It allows me to connect to them in a way that maybe other people can’t.”

Still knows better than most that it could work. He had seen it when he got his start in pro soccer by working for another of the youngest managers in Europe.

Back in 2014, Still was the red-haired 22-year-old knocking around some amateur teams and showing up to a lot of open practices at a second-tier Belgian club named Sint-Truiden. Their coach in those days was a 33-year-old named Yannick Ferrera. Still would say hello once in a while and the two men would wave at each other. Then one day during preseason training, Still introduced himself properly.

“Hi, my name is Will, and I would like to work on a professional football staff,” Ferrera recalls Still telling him. Still described his days in amateur soccer and his coaching studies in the U.K. (He left out the long-running obsession with Football Manager.)

“Well, what can you do?” Ferrera asked. “Can you analyze games?”

Still was certain he could figure it out. Sint-Truiden didn’t have any money to pay him, but if he could help out with watching game tape and crunching some numbers, then Ferrera would offer him an assignment. With the start of the season fast approaching, he told Still to prepare a report on the club’s first opponent. He turned around a phone book.

Ferrera respected the move, because he had pulled it himself a few years earlier, producing a 123-slide opposition report to get his first job at Gent.

“First of all, he had the courage to come and talk to me,” Ferrera says. “It’s not easy when you have no background in professional football…And after that, he was giving everything.”

Soon, Ferrera found more for Still to do. Beyond cutting clips, he was also lacing up his cleats every day for practice to work with groups of players and running certain drills. Though Ferrera couldn’t bring him onto the Sint-Truiden staff, he kicked Still €500 a month for gas and to help out with groceries.

“You could ask him anything and he would do it,” Ferrera says. “I considered him like my little brother.”

That season, Sint-Truiden won the 2014-15 league title and was promoted to the top division. Other clubs in Belgium took notice. Five games into the following season, Standard Liege poached Ferrera, who insisted on bringing Still with him. Together, they won the Belgian cup. And by then, Still’s sights were firmly set on eventually becoming a head coach.

“Some people don’t become coaches at 36 when they finish playing,” Ferrera said. “Some people are born to be coaches.”

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