Fighting for legitimacy: The Zonal Marking Controversy among Spanish Football Managers in the Nineties

By Carlos García-Martí

In recent years, there has been renewed interest for the sociological and historical framework of sports coaching. This paper aims to improve the knowledge about how tactical matters and training methods evolve over time and how national coaching cultures change because of foreign influence and social factors. In particular, we focus on how the introduction of Arrigo Sacchi ‘s ideas about zonal marking and the training methods imported by Dutch managers changed working practice and the professional culture of managers in Spain in the late eighties and nineties. In order to do so, 23 semi-structured interviews were carried out, 10 with former managers and 11 with former footballers from the Spanish first and second division at the time. Spanish football managers in the eighties relied heavily on physical training methods imported from Sports Science and popularized by Eastern Europe managers in the late seventies, but proved their specific football expertise by choosing through intuition the right marks in a man-to-man defense, leaving any other tactical matters to the players. The adoption of Arrigo Sacchi’s complex zonal marking forced them to develop a thorough tactical work which included automation of collective movements and behaviors through new tactical exercises, which in turn forced them to integrate physical, technical and tactical training in ball-centered exercises, inspired by the newly appointed Dutch managers.
This modernization process made them adopt a more abstract and rationalized approach to football and reduce the players’ free will, but also made them dependent on players consent and comprehension, which again made them develop communication and pedagogical skills.
Tactical ideas evolve and disseminate over time, changing not only how teams perform on the pitch, but also their social relations and professional profiles.


  • Zonal Marking
  • Spanish Football
  • History
  • Sociology
  • Coaching
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