The sky-diving stunt Bayern Munich boss Ottmar Hitzfeld performed at the behest of German TV station Premiere a few years ago was not at all symbolic. His coaching career has never been in free-fall.
During the early 1990s, Hitzfeld twice guided Grasshopper Zurich to the Swiss championship (1989-90 and 1990-91); his Borussia Dortmund side spectacularly claimed consecutive Bundesliga titles (1994-95 and 1995-96) and upset hot favourites Juventus in the 1997 Champions League Final; and since taking over at Bayern Munich in summer 1998, his Midas touch has remained fully functioning. The coach has led the Bavarian club to the League title for the past three seasons and the 2000 German Cup.
A winner such as Hitzfeld would never openly declare himself satisfied with Bayern’s close encounters with Champions League glory in recent times – the cruel loss to Manchester United in the 1999 Final and narrow 3-2 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid in last season’s semis. Even so, the fact that his supremely organised side have made the last four for three straight years is no mean feat, and Hitzfeld thoroughly deserves to be rated alongside the likes of Hennes Weisweiler, Udo Lattek, Ernst Happel, Max Merkel and Otto Rehhagel in the hall of fame of great Germanclub coaches.
Bayern Munich pay the 52-year-old some œ1.2million per season and they believe he is worth every pfennig. “It’s our good fortune to have Ottmar Hitzfeld,” says Bayern vice-president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “He understands us. He’s brought peace and quiet to the team. He has clear ideas of how things should be and has never let the smallest fire break out.”
Rummenigge is quite right to point to the way Hitzfeld has imposed his authority at the club. Under his predecessors, Giovanni Trapattoni and Otto Rehhagel, too many Bayern stars lived up to the ‘FC Hollywood’ tag by displaying over-active egos and indiscipline. But bad behaviour and internal dissent are anathema to Hitzfeld and he has never shied away from taking a hard line against any miscreants.
After one nocturnal escapade too far, Mario Basler was shown the door in the autumn of 1999, while Lothar Matthaus, Bixente Lizarazu, Thomas Helmer, Mehmet Scholl, Giovane Elber and others have all had to accept fines for stepping out of line.
Bayern midfield star Stefan Effenberg does not think that such ‘Pay As You Misbehave’ deductions work. “Some players will get stomach ulcers over it, but others will go to work on their golf and wait for another contract with another club,” he has said. Yet there can be no doubt that the players know the line they must not cross and that Hitzfeld’s tightly run ship has made Bayern a far more competitive force.
However, he is no Captain Bligh figure, faced with a mutinous crew. Hitzfeld’s inter-personal skills and grasp of psychology are excellent, too, and they have to be when working with a 25-man squad packed with internationals while rotating the first 11 from match to match.
It is a measure of Hitzfeld’s success that his reputation for man-management best practice has extended far beyond the world of football. Indeed, Daimler-Chrysler chief Jurgen Schrempp has gone on record as describing Hitzfeld as a role model for German business leaders.
Hitzfeld’s other forte, of course, is his tactical awareness. Long gone are the days at Grasshopper when he rigidly stuck to a 4-4-2 formation. Now he is noted for his flexibility and innovation. The use of three forwards was a relic from a bygone era until Hitzfeld arrived at Bayern, his team can line up in a variety of shapes – though they seem strongest in a 3-4-3 – and his well-drilled charges think nothing of seamlessly switching from one formation to another during the course of a game.
In keeping with his former life as a maths teacher, the coach’s gameplans are concocted with geometric precision and, always composed, he is rarely short of a quick solution to changing circumstances on the field. Somewhat less scientific, though, is his one superstition. When he loses, he puts his hand into his jacket pocket and fingers a rosary. He will be hoping to stay away from it in on Wednesday.