While Czech players barely ever entertain the idea of earning the so-called ‘easy money’ in the Middle East and usually stop early on their travels to the East, in Turkey, Czech managers make for a different case. The Persian Gulf region has been getting plenty of them and all kinds too.
Martin Pulpit is the latest addition to the list, embarking on his new adventure in the Saudi second division with Al-Watani, and he also happens to be that one-of-a-kind head coach who deserves some broad introduction…
It would be an overstatement to call Martin Pulpit a ‘misunderstood genius’. He most certainly is misunderstood, or disrespected rather, but it’s hardly due to any unorthodox genius per se.
His dealings with players are often reported to be incredibly harsh, his vocabulary features way too many dirty words, his summer camps are basically boot camps designed for soldiers, and… well, his self-admiration reaches unbearable levels. I’m talking Tim Sherwood standard.
Over the years, Martin Pulpit has showed no critical self-reflection whatsoever and for this – as well as notoriously dull, defensive minded football produced by his sides – he is universally mocked, if not outright hated.
When asked about his upcoming Middle Eastern experience, Pulpit himself admitted he needed a change of environment, which for him personally represents even more intriguing reward than money.
And understandably so, because here in Saudi Arabia, the 48-year-old can surely expect something different and perhaps purifying. He won’t be able to communicate with players in the most direct of manners he’s used to, plus he’ll miss his loyal assistant coach for the first time in ages.
Still, these nuances will hardly change the very nature of Pulpit’s personality, on which his relative success has been firmly based so far.
He’s the king of short-term progress, which shall impress his Saudi bosses, but he’s also a very demanding head coach, which may not impress his (almost exclusively) Saudi boys.
Either way, there is one guy Pulpit could eventually prove to be able to emulate: Karel Jarolím.
You see, there’s no pedant in the Czech Republic as widely recognized as him; famous for extensive diets and broad scouting network organised by his daughter, Jarolím & Saudi football was hardly a match made in heaven. Yet it worked out to some rather impressive extent.
Al-Ahli Jeddah is obviously a big club, compared to Al-Watani anyway, but their 2011/12 campaign under Jarolím’s guidance was still something else. First Asian Champions League final since 1986 and the highest league finish in nine years – that’s, indeed, not too shabby.
However, Karel Jarolím has one peculiar defect; the one he shares with Martin Pulpit without any reservation. Every achievement of his tends to inevitably blow into his face.
The best example is, coincidentally, provided by my long suffering boyhood club Slavia Prague. Jarolím got it back into the spotlight, on top of the Czech pyramid, and for those back-to-back titles he deserves an enormous amount of credit.
During that era, Slavia fans started using a saying similar to “Wenger knows”, and as time has gone by, it’s sadly acquired some distinctively negative conotation. Jarolím got obsessed with his own success and pushed the club back into the waters of mediocrity.
More or less the same happened to Al-Ahli SC that finished 5th the year after the great 2011/12 season. And more or less is now (probably) happening to his current employers back in the Czech Republic.
Martin Pulpit follows the same pattern, albeit on a lower scale. His three promotions to Czech top flight with three different clubs in space of seven years are nowhere short of miracle.
At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that all the promotions resulted in a mess in the dressing room and premature sacking of the outspoken coach, who then routinely proceeded to moan about virtually anything around him.
For every good month there is a bad one in Pulpit’s world. Will his Al-Watani stint be no different, or will it offer a twist or two? In this case, it’s harder than ever to deliver any sort of prediction…
Now 72-year-old Milan Máčala once famously said he initially thought he’d go to the Middle East for a year or so and then get kicked out again. The reality, however, couldn’t be more different. In fact, my generation doesn’t even recall him coaching in his home country.
After he made sure he’d forever remain the last head coach of the Czechoslovakia national team (the two countries split in 1993), Máčala went onto become the manager of almost all Middle Eastern national sides, while not ignoring the club scene either.
And he hasn’t just been everywhere, mind you – he’s been genuinely successful at what he’s doing.
In Kuwait in particular, he’s still fondly remembered for two consecutive Gulf Cup triumphs in 1996 and 1998, bridged by the very bizarre loan (yes, an actual loan) to the United Arab Emirates for one tournament only.
“In my opinion, and in the opinion of most, he’s without a doubt the 2nd greatest we’ve ever had. And the one who could’ve achieved so much more if it weren’t for our bad luck,” our Kuwaiti football consultant Khalid told me.
Speaking of bad luck, he’s had it all. Only a better goal difference would require his Oman to participate in the first Olympics ever (2004) and only a couple of missed chances denied his Bahrain a historic World Cup appearance in 2010.
Nevertheless, for a country that thought its best generation in ages was gone for good, Bahrain under Máčala did extremely well to somehow revitalize the spirit of Asian Cup semifinalists (2004) and give the fabulous likes of Mohamed Salmeen, Ala’a & Mohamed Hubail, Sayed Adnan or Sayed Mahmood Jalal an unexpected send off – as heartbreaking as flattering, I would say.
Yet, despite all this tangible success, and instead of being at least cautiously celebrated, Máčala appears to be more of a weirdo in a regular Czech football fan’s mind. Or, for better or worse, a complete unknown.
His Czech wikipedia page, for instance, is an utter mess – claiming randomly that Máčala won the 2007 Gulf Cup with Kuwait, when he wasn’t even around, while ignoring his actual triumphs in the 1990s.
And he isn’t generally respected by his colleagues back home either. Former Czech national team head coach Jozef Chovanec once claimed “others looked at him as if he was a fool”, when he nominated Máčala for the Czech Manager of the Year award.
That’s just plain ridiculous, when you think about it, isn’t it?
Sure, as an avid Asian football follower based in the heart of Europe, I’ve grown accustomed to low expectations, but this is still too much to grasp for me. And what makes it only a bigger shame is the fact that Máčala makes for a pondering coach whom it’s pleasure to listen to, when you feel like it.
For instance, when Milan Máčala popped into the Czech Republic earlier this year, he acted basically like a 2022 World Cup ambassador; sheding some light on how air conditioning actually proved to be an overwhelming success when tried out in Qatari stadiums and how the Aspire Academy works.
Not long after Máčala gave out this interview, he’s left Al-Ahli Doha – which he’d already tagged as his last stop in the region – and so he’s now back in his motherland, bafflingly unaware of his status as one of the most influential foreigners to ever grace the lands hugging the Persian Gulf…
When it comes to Europeans fleding to the Middle East, most people tend to automatically divide them into two separate groups: distinguished personalities with nothing to lose and something to earn & losers, who hadn’t cut it on the biggest scene.
Now, albeit the reality is obviously not this black & white, the rough outline somehow corresponds with Czech practice, as you could’ve already learnt in previous sections. Martin Pulpit is the clear castaway there, Milan Máčala the veteran.
Although you could argue the latter spent his most productive years in the Middle East, hence he doesn’t really fit the bill, Máčala still had some fine achievements under his belt when he took off to Kuwait. Notably, he’d been voted the Czech Manager of the Year twice (1989 and 1990) right before he got invited to take charge of the senior national team.
Neither Pulpit nor Máčala are alone in their respective brackets, of course. In fact, Máčala is often being robbed of his pioneer status by those Czech fans who are much more familiar with the name of Ivan Hašek.
And how wouldn’t they be? Hašek once combined the roles of Czech FA boss and Czech national team caretaker, which is quite a remarkable feat on its own, let alone when supplemented by the fact he used to be an elite pro.
His career in the Middle East is almost as ilustrious. Hašek has been in and out of the region for 10 years now, therefore he was perfectly suited to serve as Pulpit’s personal consultant with regard to his Saudi stint – especially as he provided Al-Hilal with one of many Saudi Crown Prince Cup trophies (2012) and did better than fine in the UAE as well.
Next up, Miroslav Soukup – a perspective coach, who’s behind the historic Yemeni Gulf Cup campaign in 2014, when they won the most points (2) and conceded the least goals (1) ever, and now stands at the helm of Ittihad Kalba (second tier in the UAE).
In terms of reputation, Soukup doesn’t come close to Ivan Hašek, but the silver 2007 U-20 World Cup remains one of my favourite tournaments to date. Wonderful team effort, great deal of luck and nice throwback to those days when our prospects weren’t moving abroad too soon and without thinking.
Even if Soukup was just a tournament coach – and it would be indeed quite easy to claim just that – he’s still responsible for one of the rare miracles in Czech football history. And virtually the same goes for the last respectable name I want to mention here.
Dušan Uhrin senior is technically a Slovak, but it was only his cautious tactical approach what allowed us to celebrate the biggest achievement on the international scene – silver medals at the 1996 European Championship.
Uhrin’s flirt with the Middle East was brief, but he did leave a considerable mark at Al-Nassr (KSA) with a Cup double in 1998.
As for Pulpit’s mould, there aren’t that many interesting names worth a mention – quite naturally so – but one still stands out. Libor Pala is a nobody in the Czech Republic, somebody in Poland and somebody in Lebanon, where he landed as the first Czech ever.
Pala didn’t stay very long, but he was openly planning to go back as soon as opportunity arises. And given how exciting his stories sound, no one could blame him – more like follow him.
He’s shared a bomb site, noticed some peculiar differences between Christian and Muslim players (Muslims are “better”) as well as fans (Christians are more reluctant to visit stadiums) and coached two members of Hizballah; a parliament party listed as terrorist organisation by the European Union.
And that, for me, is the ultimate coaching experience…