Stirred by a sudden urge to learn English football, Juan Carlos Osorio, then a Colombian footballer-turned-gym instructor living in New York, back-packed to England in the late 90s. He straightaway went to Liverpool’s Melwood training centre, to meet the visionary Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, only for the stiff guards to drive him out of the locality. “For three days, I hung around like an urchin. I even thought of jumping the wall and sneaking in, but you know the guards looked like thugs and the walls were too high,” he later recollected to Spanish daily Marca.
The next best thing was to rent out a house in the locality, in 11 Crown Road, but Thatcherian England was suspicious of Hispanics. An idea struck him: find a step ladder somehow and watch over the high walls. And he wandered into the McManuses household, with whom he would forge a lifelong bond. Tom McManus, a former Salvation Army officer, reluctantly opened the door to find an absolute stranger with a stranger request. He nearly shut the door before his wife Mary volunteered a creaking table from the attic. Before the bemused couple could even comprehend what he was up to, he carried the table to the compound wall and clambered over it.
McManus thought he was a hardwired Liverpool fan, then realised he was not, as Osorio was furiously scribbling something in his notebook. Two hours later, he returned the table, cleaned it and tightened its creaky leg, before requesting them: “Can I borrow your table everyday? I’ll pay you.”
Nonetheless, McManuses found Osorio so polite and friendly that they eventually rented out a tiny room — not big enough for even a large family of cats, according to Tom – on the second floor for 50 pounds a week. Osorio was overjoyed, and for the next two years, until completing a sports and football degree at John Moores University, he would unfailingly watch Liverpool train from the window everyday. “The ground was so close that I used to retrieve stray balls for them. Obviously, they didn’t know who I was,” he would say.
When they were not training, he would drop in at Ewood Park where Blackburn Rovers trained, or the Macron Stadium, home of Bolton Wanderers. “I wanted to learn everything that I could from England, because they played a brand of football very different from us, and I had made a lot of sacrifices to reach England,” he’d said.
A failed footballer, Osorio was living a fairly easy life in New York after completing his BA in Exercise Science from Southern Connecticut State University, marrying an American and setting up a gym, before the English football-fixation and coaching ambition took off. He was on the verge of getting US citizenship, before he decided to sell everything, from cars to watches, to realise his English dream.
“During that time, the ultimate dream for any Colombian was to settle in the US, there was money, there was peace. But I had no qualms in going behind what my mind said was right,” he told Marca.
Years later, after MLS and NBA stints, Osorio got a call from England — relegated Manchester City wanted him as a physical conditioner. Twice he refused, before the prospect of spying on another great manager of his time, Alex Ferguson at the Carrington training ground dawned on him. “The only inviting thing about the new job was sneaking into their training ground and watching Alex go about his job,” he said.
Ferguson, though, was more inviting and allowed him to pick his brains occasionally.
The fundamentals, though, strictly remained Houllierean, forged on endless hours with the notebook observing him and his accomplice Roy Evans. A classic giveaway of the Houllier-fixation is the obsessive rotation of his team, which he staunchly defends in press conferences saying: “Rotation is not a football principle; it is a life principle.” He calls it “alternative tactics”.
In his three prolific years at Atletic Nacional in the Colombian league, Osorio didn’t play the same team on successive occasions in 104 matches, not even the goalkeeper. In 50 matches, Mexico has never lined up with the same players under him, a lightning rod for his critics, derisively calling him the “Tinkerer”. But to the sceptics, he rattles out the stats: “50 games, 33 wins and nine defeats. Now let’s see what their numbers are.”
To further validate his claims, in the seven years before he took over, the federation chipped and chopped as many as seven coaches. Much of the criticism stems from Mexico’s 7-0 thrashing at the hands of bitter rivals Chile, in the Copa America quarterfinals last year.
But Osorio had the last laugh as Chile failed to qualify for the World Cup. What’s more, the World Cup is turning out to be a memorable one, after toppling world champions Germany and South Korea, where again he fielded different teams and engineered subtly different, if dissimilar, strategies.
In both matches, they began with a base 4-3-3 formation, but against Germany they played a narrower game while against Korea he gave his wingers the licence to unleash their pace and skill. Highly disciplined against Germany and outrageously nippy against Korea.
Back home and in the stands, the converted faithful is chanting “Fuera Osorio”, trusting him to guide them past the jinxed pre-quarterfinal hurdle, where they had stumbled in the last six World Cups. But he has one burning dream: To coach in England. And maybe breeze through the gates of Melwood, unobstructed.