The forgotten legends of football: Ottmar Hitzfeld
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.