By Bruce Holloway
Fritz Schmid's professional appreciation of chaos theory may be his saving grace on his first anniversary as All Whites coach.
Last February, the 59-year-old Swiss succeeded Anthony Hudson as coach of the New Zealand men's football team, with his four-year contract taking him through to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
But with the technical director and chief executive who oversaw his appointment both having resigned from New Zealand Football following an independent review which among other things called for new recruitment policies and greater consultation on appointments such as his, Schmid must soldier on with an uncertain chain of command.
He is still without a permanent chief executive or technical director to answer to - or a high performance director.
He has yet to gain the support of some leading Kiwi coaches, and like his predecessors, faces a battle getting games for the All Whites. Frustratingly, he has failed to secure anything for the March international window, meaning it will be a year between matches by the time of the next window in June.
There is also a backdrop of competing demands in terms of international priorities for New Zealand women, Olympic and under-20 teams this year.
His best players are scattered around the globe and regularly unavailable, and a lack of co-ordination between top domestic competition and international windows further conspires against matches, while Schmid remains relatively unknown in New Zealand.
Indeed, it could be argued he is to date the most anonymous All Whites coach since Juan Schwanner in 1967-68, and has so far presided over just four matches, all overseas.
However, Schmid is also perhaps our most pointy-headed All Whites coach since Allan Jones in 1984, with a background which includes degrees in English, German and journalism at the University of Zurich, a Masters in Sport Management from the Johan Cruyff Institute and a Masters in International Project Management from the International Academy of Business and Financial Management (Singapore).
And a genuine nugget from his broader academic back catalogue is a 2011 German-published book: "Vom Sager zum Frager: A systemic approach to chaos and self-organising processes in football".
"Football is about as predictable as a tornado and as foreseeable as the Lotto results," Schmid observes in this 177-page hardback (which has an English translation online).
"Football is a highly chaotic game characterised by an incredibly complex variety of unpredictabilities and possibilities, and that is why being able to deal with the chance factor is of utmost importance - control is an illusion!" Schmid writes.
The nerdy essence of the book is to focus on the question of to what extent is it possible to derive insights for football coaching and training from chaos theory or "systems thinking".
To hear an All Whites coach muse on how football is as unreliable as the weather and control is a figment of our imagination is a sobering reality check.
But Schmid goes even further in his book and considers the philosophic proposition that, with so many variables at play in football, "does anybody ever know anything?"
"We are light years away from knowing how football works and entire galaxies away from knowing how success comes about. Given the complexity of the game, I am not sure we will ever find the key to success in football."
In person, Schmid is quick to qualify this by pointing out such quotes from his book are merely propositions for further debate.
But you half wonder whether this "nobody knows" chaos hypothesis - where "everyone thinks they know everything but no one knows which factors decide who wins" - shouldn't first be applied to New Zealand Football where Schmid is perhaps the one remaining mystery after the controversial departure of technical director Andreas Heraf and chief executive Andy Martin late last year.
Schmid avoided direct fall-out from that upheaval, though October's independent review into NZ Football concluded the national body's recruitment policy needed to be reviewed.
However, Schmid, softly spoken and confident, is adamant there was nothing untoward about his appointment.
"I know the process I went through," he says. "Interestingly, when I was technical director in Malaysia, I introduced a similar selection process for key positions in the high performance sector ... you have the transparency of a full-scale selection process, and you have an outside agency do all the recruitment steps and you go through a full screening, Skype interviews, everything."
But Schmid was effectively hired by Heraf, who coached Austria's under-20s with Schmid as an assistant during 2011-13.
However, he says links between the two were overstated and High Performance Sport New Zealand were engaged for the selection process.
"Our exchanges [in Austria] were basically limited to coaches' meetings, when I would present some aspects of our strategic approach to our international team.
"The only contact I had with Andreas Heraf here was when I noticed the vacancy. I asked him if the position was still open, or if they had already reached a stage where it was too late to send in an application."
Today, Schmid describes New Zealand Football as a body "in transition".
"The awkward situation for me at New Zealand Football was not regarding my potential relationship or connection with Andreas Heraf but that I was in an organisation where there was nobody to connect with.
"It has made it difficult to bring forward ideas about a future strategic direction in the absence of key personnel."
And Schmid partially rejects the proposition that he is still unknown, delighting in the anecdotal evidence of having been recently shouted a free pizza in Hamilton after a Domino's staff member recognised him.
Meanwhile, Schmid described his relationship with Heraf as one of "mutual professional respect".
"It doesn't mean you have to have the same philosophy in football, or like each other as a person, but as a coach, you always respect your colleagues."
Heraf quickly fell out of public and squad favour when he opted for negative tactics after surmising his New Zealand women could never compete internationally with quality opposition.
Schmid admits he faces a similar challenge with the All Whites.
"When I spoke to the board, they asked me how long it would be before we could win a game like Peru [New Zealand's opponents in the intercontinental playoffs for the last World Cup].
"I told them we can beat Peru any time in a given situation. We can beat bigger teams. The question is whether we can beat them consistently, where we can be level with them on a long-term basis.
"With our qualities, we have the ability to put up a good performance. The Kiwi spirit and our unique mentality will allow us to punch above our weight, which we see in many sports."
But Schmid doesn't buy the line we can't compete because of our small population, pointing to the likes of Denmark, Panama, Croatia and Costa Rica all making the World Cup finals.
The challenges and difficulties he would meet as All Whites coach, including a limited budget, were known well in advance.
"But within the context of Fifa having one extra ticket for Oceania in World Cup finals from 2026, the under-20s of 2019 are a big focus.
"You have to consider the generation of players who will represent New Zealand around this time.
"The goal is not only one of maintaining supremacy in Oceania but having a competitive representative of Oceania if we go to the World Cup again.
"It may be that I am the first All Whites coach to focus on a cycle beyond the duration of his own contract."
Schmid notes the most successful countries plan not in terms of cycles, but in terms of decades. That's why he was happy to take such an inexperienced All Whites squad to the Intercontinental Cup in India last year.
The traditional response to this argument is that giving out national caps prematurely horribly devalues the All Whites shirt.
Schmid counters: "Yes, we also want immediate performances, but how about working on the long-term value of the brand?
"Young players need an opportunity to grow into this to understand the environment. And they might be the ones who have to meet big expectations in eight years."
With no All Whites matches to prepare for, Schmid fills his weeks by watching a lot of football, attending domestic training sessions and keeping in touch with players, coaches and clubs. He assists with the preparation of the New Zealand under-20s who are preparing for their World Cup in Poland in May.
There are "technical visits" to the seven federations, while he also assists in arranging trials.
Schmid works out of a boutique 6m x 4m office overlooking the North Harbour No 2 pitch.
There is a spartan bookshelf with what looks like Lonely Planet guides alongside an imposing hardback on periodisation (the systematic planning of athletic training).
The one element of luxury is a mini espresso machine from which barista Schmid brews a quality short black.
He scatters screeds of All Whites spreadsheets across his desk, with performance grids and statistical comparisons with best-performance internationally.
To give an illustration of finding patterns in chaos, Schmid scribbles a few dots and dashes on one of his papers.
It looks like gibberish, until he adds a few more dashes, and suddenly it becomes apparent he is writing FRITZ upside down in large letters.
"You don't have all the information you need to identify this, but as I add elements, sooner or later, you identify a pattern. Football is interaction, and if you identify the key elements, you also observe the patterns."
I said 'no, give me an All White', and they did not know our players.
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In terms of his role as All Whites coach, most are still deciphering Schmid's patterns.
In his office, Schmid also has copies of all the media statements made by predecessor Hudson about the tough grind in getting All Whites fixtures.
While he understands the need for NZ Football to set wider priorities, he's just as adamant the All Whites can't be ignored.
"There must be a certain priority on the men's national team. We are talking about the credibility of this organisation, we are talking about branding. We are talking about selling a product, and we sell football.
"I will give you an example. I went to Gisborne to deliver a training session with 10-11 year old boys for a sponsor. On the pitch, I asked them what player they wanted to be, and they said 'Ronaldo' and 'Messi'. I said 'no, give me an All White', and they did not know our players.
"So how do you sell our product if you don't see the national team? The women are doing an excellent job to promote this but we also want to have the men's team here."
On the question of player availability when the All Whites do get a gig, it can be even more problematic, and Schmid is trying to build personal relationships.
"I keep teasing them. I have met Chris [Wood], I have been to Winston Reid's house in London, I've met with Ryan Thomas. I keep telling them, 'nice to meet you but sooner or later it would be nice to have you on the pitch'.
"I have just got off the phone with Jeremy Brockie, who was involved in our first game in Spain but had a couple of days with a fever, so might not have been in top shape. I keep teasing him, 'look, 50 games, one goal - we have to change this.'"
Schmid is more publicly reserved than Hudson.
Hudson was a master of self-promotion, with his Wikipedia page polished daily, almost to the point of parody.
By contrast, Schmid's Wikipedia entry is a scant couple of lines (though he does have a modest personal website which notes his previous roles with Basel, Austria and Malaysia).
Amusingly, it is Schmidt who raises the Wikipedia issue.
"Who writes those Wikipedia things?" he asks in a manner so inscrutable it is impossible to tell if he is pitching a job offer or sharing an in-joke.
"If you have to tell people how good you are, maybe you are not as good as you think," he finally observes.
Asked to sum up his own coaching style and philosophy, Schmid cites developing quality relationships, communication, establishing leadership and fostering self-organisation.
He also welcomes critical thinking from his players.
"If you are convinced your way is the right way, you stop asking questions. And it is lop-sided to think you have all the answers."
Beyond that, he says it is for others to say how they see him.
Des Buckingham, the former Wellington Phoenix co-coach who has returned to New Zealand after nine months with the Stoke City reserves to oversee the New Zealand under-20s team, is perhaps Schmid's closest football confidant.
He hails Schmid as an experienced coach with a holistic grasp of football challenges.
"Fritz has had careers in many different environments and he is not only able to relate examples from a football perspective but he's also got other life experiences to call upon.
"I've never seen a head coach try to engage or link to other walks of life like he has done."
But at the other extreme, Schmid flew to Wellington to meet Ole Academy coach Declan Edge, only to get the cold shoulder.
Edge acknowledged he met Schmid but refused to comment, apart from saying he did not recognise his appointment as All Whites coach.
By contrast, Canterbury United coach Willy Gerdsen was impressed by Schmid.
"Fritz is an experienced and highly intelligent coach," Gerdsen said. "He is well-rounded and has a clear plan and a clear vision.
"I have worked for New Zealand Football and know it is not easy getting everything aligned, but he came down to Canterbury, took an interest in players and was very positive in listening to what people had to say."
Chris Milicich (Waitakere United and former New Zealand under-20 coach) said he appreciated Schmid was getting around the country but had seen him take only one low-level session, so couldn't comment.
Danny Hay (Eastern Suburbs and former New Zealand under-17 coach) also said he had not interacted enough with Schmid to comment.
Indeed, our coaching fraternity has mostly still to report back.
In the interim, whereas Hudson was ultimately associated with whiteboard sessions and Jekyll–and-Hyde media relationships, perhaps Schmid can be best understood through his book.
Here, he argues the guiding principle in the coaching process is "the optimisation of the capacity to learn".
"The coach is nothing more than a guide who unearths possibilities and potentials within his team and players. He is the cultivator of a system that is constantly evolving and adapting to new circumstances in its environment. It is a huge task."