Management changes are an almost daily occurrence in football, but last week Shanghai SIPG boss Andre Villas-Boas came up with an entirely original reason for resigning his post.
The 40-year-old walked away from the Chinese Super League club not due to poor form, nor a fall-out with the board, but because he plans to contest a gruelling rally across the deserts of South America.
The announcement that Villas-Boas will contest the 2018 edition of the Dakar Rally next month seemed to come from nowhere. This season he led Shanghai SIPG to runner-up spot in the Chinese top-tier and his salary was a reported £11 million per annum. Given that Villas-Boas turned 40 in October, this seemed like a mid-life crisis of gargantuan proportions.
But its roots are much deeper. Back in 2013, while he was still Spurs boss, Villas-Boas told Portuguese newspaper O Jogo: “In the next five to 10 years, I will quit coaching.
To compete in the Dakar Rally is a lifetime ambition for me and is something I know I have to do. It went from a passion to an obligation, a destination of life, but I can only do it when I leave football. I will do it.”
So Villas-Boas has been seriously considering a run at the Dakar for quite some time, perhaps since childhood. The initial news was accompanied by the fact that his uncle contested the event in 1982. A little digging reveals that Pedro Villas-Boas actually took the start three times – in 1982, 1984 and 1985 – though always as a co-driver rather than the man at the wheel.
A VERY SERIOUS CHALLENGE
The younger Villas-Boas will handle driving duties in a Toyota Hilux; he’d initially wanted to contest the event on a motorbike, but was talked out of it. His fellow countryman and Dakar veteran Ruben Faria will act as co-driver.
Despite the experienced Faria handling navigation duties, Villas-Boas faces a crossover challenge that has few parallels. Rio Ferdinand may be taking up boxing, but he’s not going to begin his new career against one of the sport’s most fearsome opponents, one capable of putting him on the canvas with a single blow.
Yet that analogy fits with what Villas-Boas is taking on. Previously a mad dash from Paris to West Africa via the Sahara desert, the Dakar takes its name from the Senegalese capital where the event used to conclude. These days it’s held in South America – passing through Argentina, Peru and Bolivia – but the Dakar name was considered so iconic that it was retained when the rally switched continents in 2009.
No matter where it is staged, the Dakar has always ranked among the most intense and dangerous motorsport endeavours. It’s one of the few major events where death is still a genuine possibility that competitors must make their peace with before taking the start. Whereas circuit racing grows increasingly low-risk thanks to improvements to tracks and medical facilities, you can’t apply a great deal of health and safety to a massive desert. A total of 70 people, 28 of them competitors, have died on the event. The Dakar has teeth and sometimes it bites.
Villas-Boas is by no means the first famous name to contest the Dakar. Several have done so over the years, with outcomes that vary from heroic to disastrous.
Many come from other sports – though strictly speaking Villas-Boas was never a professional sportsman – with French entrants particularly common.
The crossover between rugby and desert rallying is more natural than it might at first seem: both require tremendous physical strength and a willingness to take big hits, be they from opposition players or bumpy terrain. Making use of their experience, French internationals Christian Califano and Philippe Bernat-Salles, who were teammates in the losing World Cup final side of 1999, have both contested the Dakar.
You can see parallels between rallying and downhill skiing, too. Both are high-speed, high-risk pursuits played out on unpredictable terrain, where small surface changes can have dire consequences.
The best example is skier Luc Alphand. The Frenchman specialised in speed events and was the Alpine Ski World Cup winner in 1997. Then, aged 31, he quit competing professionally and switched his attentions to the Dakar.
His first start, in 1998, could easily have been enough to send him back to the slopes for good: Alphand and his co-driver spent two nights lost in the desert and had to be rescued by helicopter, abandoning their car in the dunes.
But he persevered, joined the crack Mitsubishi team, and in 2006 won the event. Either side of this he finished as runner-up, a remarkable three-year run for someone with no prior experience of top-level rallying.
There is an explanation for how he made the switch work. Alphand didn’t take up rallying as a hobby: he applied the same highly professional approach he had to skiing and made it his full-time focus. The Frenchman later explained that both sports required the ability to analyse terrain at high speed, be it snow or sand, and make rapid judgements.
THE LOST SOULS
On the flip side, there have been several famous names whose Dakar exploits Villas-Boas will not want to emulate.
In many cases, they didn’t enter with major expectations. You wouldn’t anticipate a star turn from Prince Albert of Monaco or his sister Princess Caroline, who both contested the 1985 event. Albert drove a Mitsubishi Pajero, while Caroline was co-driver to her husband Stefano Casiraghi in a truck. Both retired following accidents. Albert returned to the rally the following year, but after crashing out in roughly the same spot decided not to push his luck any further.
The most infamous case is that of Mark Thatcher, whose mother Margaret was British Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. Mark demonstrated how not to prepare for a cross-desert rally – and just how wrong things can go.
Thatcher took up motorsport during the seventies and competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time in 1980. It was during this event that a sponsor invited him to contest the Paris-Dakar, which had run for the first time two years earlier.
Thatcher’s entry was slated for 1982, giving him almost 18 months to ready himself, but he didn’t exactly make full use of the time.
“I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing," he later wrote. "I did half a day's testing and the day after that we were driving out of the Place de la Concorde in Paris."
Thatcher was tackling the event as navigator of a Peugeot 504, with the experienced and respected Anne-Charlotte Verney handling the driving and her fellow countryman Jacky Garnier working as their on-board mechanic.
They left Paris on New Year's Day 1982, but on day three the crew hit trouble close to the Algeria-Mali border. The Peugeot’s rear axle had broken and they lost sight of their convoy.
This would have been a matter for the event’s organisers, were it not for the fact that Thatcher’s mother was one of the world’s most powerful politicians. The crew’s disappearance soon became front-page news and an exhaustive search effort was launched.
They were eventually found five days later, 31 miles off course. Anne-Charlotte Verney later said she believed they could have survived for just two more days. It’s little surprise that Thatcher was not asked to bring his navigational skills to the event again.
A SERIOUS CONTENDER?
How will Villas-Boas acquit himself? To emulate Alphand will be almost impossible. Villas-Boas has worked at a high level in sport, but he has not competed in the sense that Alphand did. The skier had transferable skills that he took to his new challenge, and he dedicated himself to it fully. On top of that, he was almost 10 years younger than Villas-Boas is today.
Aside from having no rallying experience worth mentioning, Villas-Boas does not have the history of calculated risk-taking that Alphand did. Throwing on an extra striker in the 85th minute does not compare with the split-second decisions made on a ski slope or the Dakar.
This is not to suggest that Villas-Boas will be a failure; in fact, the Portuguese could do a very good job if he dedicates himself to the sport. The question is, does he really plan to make this his primary focus or will he be back in football early next year?
It’s difficult to guess. Villas-Boas is an unconventional character. When it was announced that he’d be contesting the Dakar, the sense of surprise was accompanied by a feeling that if any top-level manager was going to do something like this, it would probably be him.
The fact that he originally wanted to contest the event on a bike – the most solitary and dangerous way of doing so – suggests he’s not going to South America to look cool and have his photo taken. He cares about this event, knows what it means and understands the risks.
That is a very solid foundation on which to build. There’s certain to be huge interest from the football world when the event begins in Peru on January 6.