The forgotten legends of football: Ottmar Hitzfeld

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Soldiers generally win battles, generals get credit for them. - Napoleon

A football team is like wet clay. Unless and until it has a potter capable of molding it correctly, it never takes shape and never becomes solid. In football, managers have a very important role. They are like generals who define the course and future of a club. We see great managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola etc. who defined the philosophy of a club. But the first modern manager who built clubs on his own ideas and in his own image was Ottmar Hitzfeld.

But he became a manager only after he retired from the game. In his playing days, Hitzfeld was one of the most prolific forwards in erstwhile Soviet Europe. He was most successful at FC Basel, then a major player on the European scene. In his 92 appearances for the club, he scored 66 goals. After his success at Basel, he was snapped up by VfB Stuttgart. He was prolific here too, and earned them promotion to the top division in Germany. He was their talisman and even when he was not scoring, his commitment and leadership on the field were visible. Though his scoring exploits diminished, he still led them to an astounding fourth place finish in the Bundesliga. He then winded up his career at FC Lugano and FC Luzern. In a career that spanned a decade and a half, Hitzfeld scored at a prolific rate. He finished his playing career with 169 goals in 296 appearances. This would have been good enough for any other player, but the Mathematical graduate Hitzfeld was not satisfied yet.

Nicknamed ‘Der General’ or ‘The General’, Hitzfeld is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game. Unlike Sir Alex, he did not build his legacy at one club; unlike Mourinho, he respects the teams he coaches and unlike Guardiola, he did not redefine a club’s playing style. What, then, makes him so successful? I believe it is a mixture of a scientific understanding of the game, a wholesome knowledge of tactics and the ability to equip his team with fighting spirit.

Hitzfeld had always been passionate about coaching and soon joined FC Zug as a coach. After a modest start there, he was lured to greener pastures at FC Aarau. They were minnows at the time, but in his four year reign at the club, Hitzfeld transformed them and won the Swiss Cup which became the first of his many trophies. Hitzfeld caught the eye of Swiss Giants FC Grasshopper and the rest they say is history. He won four trophies in his three seasons at the club. He also did a double, winning the league and the Swiss Cup. And suddenly everybody was taking notice of the man who was leading a team, which was just about decent, to such continuous success.

Offers started to fly in, and Hitzfeld chose Borussia Dortmund as his next destination. The turnaround he brought around was simply amazing. He picked them up from mid-table mediocrity to second position in the league. The next season, they reached the finals of the UEFA Cup but were comprehensively beaten by Juventus. Although Borussia had missed out on the league and the UEFA cup, the signals were there for all to see. Hitzfeld brought in Kohler, Sousa, Moeller and Cesar from Juventus. After a period of rebuilding with them, Dortmund finally won the German Championship in 1994.

They were slowly building themselves up to a world class team. Hitzfeld’s Borussia were similar to Klopp’s Borussia. They had the same free spirit, the same passion and the same combination of pace and guile in their ranks. In terms of tactics too, Hitzfeld preferred the rather unusual 3-5-2. He was flexible in terms of tactics and possessed the personnel who could change the game very quickly. Although it was Hitzfeld who was the main leader, in Matthias Sammer he had a player who really perfected the role of a defensive sweeper or the libero. Sammer was a leader and, much like Keane, inspired his team beyond their potential.

Hitzfeld again led the team to the German championship in 1996, and his protégé Sammer was the European Footballer of the year. But the best was yet to follow. In 1997, Borussia looked unconvincing in the league. But in the Champions League, they reached the finals against Juventus, who had defeated them in the UEFA Cup final in 1992. Juventus were the strongest team in Europe that year. Borussia, though, had beaten Manchester United who had looked genuine contenders for the title that season. Juventus boasted of a lineup with names like Zidane, Deschamps, Vieri and Di Livio. That match was the finest as a coach for Hitzfeld. He deployed Borussia in their usual 3-5-2 and left Paul Lambert with the job of marking Zidane. It turned out to be a masterstroke as Zidane failed to have a substantial impact on the match. Riedle scored two goals in five minutes, but Juventus responded and scored one, and they looked good for another. The decision to bring on a young Rickens paid off and he scored in 16 seconds to put the result beyond doubt. And for his achievement, Hitzfeld received the ‘World Coach of the year’ award.

FUSSBALL: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE/SIEGESFEIER DORTMUND, Muenchen Sheraton Hotel 28.05.97

Next season he was hired by Bayern Munich. As usual, his appointment showed instant effect and Bayern won the league by a record margin. He could have done the treble in his first season, but lost the DFB Pokal on penalties. The UEFA Champions League final was famously lost 1-2 to Manchester United. The next season, the glories continued as Bayern did the domestic double, but were knocked out by eventual winners Real Madrid. At Bayern, Hitzfeld continued his tactical tweaks, and played them in a 5-4-1 formation. This style was less exciting than the one he had adopted with Dortmund. Bayern grinded out results more often than not and played dour and unattractive football. But it was very effective. He did not have a galaxy of stars, but he built a strong unit which supported each other and won the hard way. In the 2000-2001 season, Bayern Munich knocked out Real Madrid and Manchester United en route to the final. The 2001 UCL final was Valencia vs Bayern Munich, the match ended 1-1 and Bayern won on penalties, which was another testament to the mental fortitude instilled by Ottmar Hitzfeld. Hitzfeld again won the ‘World Coach of the year’ and became only the second man after Ernest Happel to win two European Cups.

The next season too, the success continued and Bayern Munich did another domestic double. But soon the opponents caught up and Bayern stopped getting success with their organized form of the game and after a trophy-less season, Hitzfeld was sacked. He declined the post of the German national coach and took a break from the game. When he returned, he returned on a temporary basis for Bayern Munich and was in charge for a season and a half during which he won the DFB Pokal and the German championship.

He then took charge of the Swiss national team, and, with a mediocre team, managed to qualify for the World Cup finals. In the upset of the tournament, his team defeated eventual champions Spain 1-0; although they could not qualify for the next round, it seems that he can improve them even more.

Hitzfeld has won 25 trophies in a 26-year active coaching career. He has adjusted according to his players and his opponents. He has ushered in tactical changes. He has built teams with money and has built them without money too. He has shown that he can grind out results. He is reputedly one of the best man-managers in the game and gets the best out of his men. But he is a name that no one remembers. He is a just a statistic who comes up when we talk about Mourinho and his European titles. This was my attempt to remind people of a truly forgotten legend, both on the field and off it.

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Edited by Staff Editor