Back in Spain with Racing Santander, but has a coach ever stood on the brink of glory so often only for it to go horribly wrong?
What do Sir Alex Ferguson, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Carlo Ancelotti, José Mourinho and Josep Guardiola have in common? They are the only members of an elite group of managers who have won the UEFA Champions League twice. As members of the group, they are always guaranteed work at the top level of world football. This season a familiar face returns to Spain, a man who has come as close as anyone to entering this group.
Héctor Cúper will probably feel he is the unluckiest manager in football. He has stood on the brink of European glory on three separate occasions and lost them all. In addition to European heartache, Cúper has seen two of his sides throw away league titles on the last day of the season as well as losing two domestic cup finals. His failure to convert even half of those failures into successes means that today he is managing Racing Santander and not one of Europe's top clubs.
Héctor Raúl Cúper was born in 1955 in Santa Fe, Argentina. A player of modest ability, Cúper won five caps for Argentina and spent his entire playing career in his homeland. Two years after hanging up his boots he moved into football management at Huracán. His impact was immediate as his team raced to the top of the Argentinian Primera División. Huracán had only ever won the league title once but went into the final game of the season needing just a draw away to second placed Independiente to clinch the league title. It was Cúper's first major game as a manager but, in what was to become a recurring theme, his team failed to deliver at the last hurdle. After just one season at Huracán Cúper decided to move on, joining Club Atlético Lanús where he won his first piece of silverware. In a rare bit of good luck, Lanús beat Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia in the final of the 1996 Copa Conmebol. Despite the last day hiccup at Huracán, Cúper had started his managerial career in promising fashion and this soon led to interest from across the Atlantic. In 1997 a concrete offer arrived from La Liga side Real Mallorca. The Balearic side were hardly a huge name but they offered Cúper a chance to manage in one of Europe's top leagues and that was an opportunity he couldn't turn down.
Cúper's time at Real Mallorca was relatively successful but as with much of his career, it was tinged with a sense of what if? In his first season he took the club closer than anyone previously had to winning the Copa del Rey, losing the final on penalty kicks to Barcelona. His second season started in triumphant fashion with revenge in the Super Copa de España against Barcelona (the club's first major honour) but ended with another cup final defeat. This time the victors were Lazio and the loss was in the European Cup Winners Cup. In just two seasons Cúper had taken a modest La Liga side to their highest ever league finish as well as a national and European final. That being said, there were signs even then that the big breaks were not going his way and he was destined to be an underachiever. Of course amongst Real Mallorca fans Cúper was close to legendary status. He had put the club on the map both nationally and internationally and they now had Champions League football to look forward to. However, it seemed Cúper had decided he had taken Mallorca as far as he could and accepted an offer from Valencia to become their new coach.
Prior to 1999, the Spanish league had been dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona in much the same way as it is now. When Cúper took over at Valencia there were signs of other teams coming onto the scene. Deportivo La Coruña, who would go on to win the 1999/00 championship, were one potential challenger. The other was Valencia who had won the 1999 Copa del Rey under Claudio Ranieri. The Italian had moved onto Atlético Madrid and so it fell upon Cúper to keep the momentum going. His first match was the Super Copa de España final, the competition he had won the previous year with Real Mallorca. Once again the opponents were Barcelona and once again Cúper emerged victorious. Nobody knew it at the time but that was to be the last tournament Cúper would win. Domestically Valencia finished joint second with Barcelona but the big breakthrough came in Europe. Valencia took the Champions League by storm, cruising through to the final where they faced Real Madrid. Under normal circumstances Valencia would go into such a match as under-dogs but on this occasion they had every reason to feel confident. In the semi-finals they had comfortably dispatched Barcelona 5-3 and had finished above Real Madrid in the league. It seemed to many that the club was on the verge of their first Champions League title but for whatever reason, be it over-confidence or stage fright, Valencia simply didn't turn up and Real Madrid ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
Very few teams are good enough to reach consecutive Champions League finals but a year after the defeat in Paris, Valencia and Héctor Cúper were in their second. This time the match took place in Milan and the opponents were German champions Bayern Munich. A year wiser and the memories of Paris still fresh in their minds, Valencia were more determined than ever to cement their place in history. In Bayern though, they found an opponent equally determined after their defeat to Manchester United two years previously. The game was predictably tense and after 120 minutes the teams were tied at 1-1. For the second time in Cúper's career a cup final went to penalties, and just like the previous one, it went against him. Bayern celebrated their fourth European Cup whilst Ottmar Hitzfeld secured his place in football history. Valencia were visibly shattered going on to finish fifth in the league and thus miss out on a third bite at the Champions League. That led to top stars such as Gaizka Mendieta leaving the club and also prompted Italian giants Inter Milan to make a move for Cúper. Whether he felt his Valencia team was cursed or the task of rebuilding was too big, he accepted Inter's offer and moved to Serie A.
Cúper took over at a massive club who hadn't won the league for 12 years. Desperate to emulate their city rivals, Inter had spent big money to bring players such as Ronaldo and Christian Vieri to the club but what they lacked was the right man to mould this group of stars into a Scudetto winning side. Knowing Cúper's track record as a nearly man, it won't be a shock to hear that he nearly won the league at Inter. Once again a league championship was thrown away on the last game of the season with a shock 4-2 defeat to Lazio. Several years later Roberto Mancini eventually brought the title to Inter meaning he went down in history as the man who won Inter's first title since 1989. That blow was to overshadow the rest of Cúper's time at Inter. The following season a chance to rectify that wrong presented itself when Inter drew fierce rivals AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. A win in the arguably biggest Milan derby of all time would blow away the memory of the previous season and catapult Cúper into history. As I'm sure you've now guessed, it didn't happen. Both games took place in the San Siro and after two games the aggregate score was 1-1 but Inter went out on away goals. AC Milan went on to win their sixth Champions League title and eight games into the following season, with Inter in 8th place, Cúper was dismissed.
For the first time in his managerial career, Cúper had been sacked and it sent the once promising coach on a downward spiral. Rather than take some time out of the game to evaluate what had gone wrong and preserve his reputation, Cúper jumped from job to job with disastrous consequences. He started off by going back to an ex-club, Real Mallorca. He took over mid-season with the Balearic club fighting relegation and managed to keep them in the league. However, the following season things didn't work out and he left in mid-season with the club once again bottom of the league. For the start of the next season he was back, this time as manager of Real Betis where he didn't even last until Christmas, again, sacked with the club second bottom. At this point many people would have taken a break but not Cúper. He was determined to prove he still had it and just three months after losing his job at Betis he was back at the helm of a football club. On this occasion it was Italian side Parma and once again it ended in tears. Sacked, a week before the club were officially relegated to Serie B.
When Cúper had been sacked from Inter Milan his reputation as a coach was still good. At all the clubs he had managed, he had done reasonably well. People still remembered the exciting football his Valencia side played. His sacking at Inter didn't reflect too badly on him as coach given the Italian side's famous lack of patience with managers. If he had just kept a low profile for a while, a big club might have come in and offered him another chance but he had now blotted his copy book with two more sackings and a relegation. The situation was bad but not irretrievable, Cúper's next move was vital. Spain or Italy seemed the most logical destinations, maybe even England, but instead he chose Georgia.
In August 2008, Héctor Cúper became the new coach of the Georgian national team with the mission to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The move seemed destined for failure and so it was to prove with Georgia finishing bottom of their qualifying group without a single victory. Unsurprisingly, a year after taking over, Cúper left his post. The option of going back to Spain or Italy was now no longer available and so Cúper looked to another new country, Greece. In November 2009 he took charge of Aris Thessaloniki and things began to pick up. Aris finished the season in 4th place and reached the Greek cup final. Aris had only ever won the cup once and that was in 1970. For Cúper it was a perfect chance to break his cup final jinx and relaunch his career but I suppose you know what happened next. A 1-0 defeat to Panathinaikos was no great shame but it proved that Cúper was still cursed. Last season Aris competed in the Europa League group phase for the first time. After two surprise victories over holders Atlético Madrid, they made it out of the group phase where they were eliminated by Manchester City. In January Cúper stepped down from Aris and in June this year an offer from Racing Santander arrived.
Héctor Cúper is still only 55 but the story so far demonstrates perfectly the fine line in football between legendary status and being just another manager. Some managers go a whole career and win nothing while others can't seem to stop picking up trophies. A goalkeeping error meant Alex McLeish became the first Birmingham manager to win a major trophy since 1963. Of course McLeish is the same manager who won two league titles on the final day of a season, one of which was won on goal difference. Lucky? Perhaps, but history will remember him. Cúper will be hoping the move to the north of Spain will help change his luck but with a power cut putting an end to his first training session, it doesn't look promising.
Jamie is a regular contributor to IBWM, and also edits our favourite Spanish football website, Spanish Football Info.