Ottmar Hitzfeld celebrates his 70th birthday
The tears flowed and Ottmar Hitzfeld let them run. The applause of 69,000 people, a red and white bouquet, and the feeling he described as a mixture of pressure and relief were overwhelming. At that moment on 17 May 2008 the parting Bayern coach knew: “This is the end.” First came the tears, “then came Kalle, then came Uli” - and even the club bosses had tears in their eyes. Who else can claim to have touched an entire stadium so much?
It’s not as if Ottmar Hitzfeld didn’t produce numerous other images that have stayed in the memory during his career. His impressive collection includes seven German titles, three DFB Cup wins, two Champions League victories as well a Club World Cup success – triumphs which all tell their own story. Nevertheless when looking back on the occasion of his 70th birthday on 12 January, the final scene is the one that comes to mind from his tenure in Munich. The one in which after two terms of eight years in total (1998-2004, 2007-8), he finally brought his time at FC Bayern to an end. The one in which everyone realised how much they’d miss this man.
“I’m very proud to have been coach of FC Bayern, this job was so much fun,” says Hitzfeld today, a retired man. The former striker was glad to make the journey from tranquil Lörrach to Munich, where he regularly visits his son and soon-to-be three grandchildren in the Bavarian capital. This time he came to visit his old haunt. The big birthday interview at Säbener Straße isn’t about other people, as is so often the case as a distinguished expert in the footballing world – it’s exclusively about him. It’s an unusual role for a coach who never appeared as an eccentric, but who was valued for his quiet and careful leadership style.
Beckenbauer guessed it: Hitzfeld becomes Bayern coach
Talking to Hitzfeld about his life means recalling numerous milestones in Bayern’s history. Even Franz Beckenbauer had an inkling that the matter-of-fact analyst would be a surefire success when, in early 1998, he addressed the then sporting director at Borussia Dortmund with the words “Ottmar, you are the next Bayern coach.” When the sentence was spoken, all Hitzfeld could do was smile, but then things happened quickly. Hitzfeld identifies one key moment: “Giovanni Trapattoni’s outburst – and then it all went quickly.” Likewise, he needed little time at the negotiating table with Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß and Karl Hopfner.
Munich was different from Dortmund, but for Hitzfeld, who had grown up in a middle-class family as the youngest of four children of dentists, it felt good. “To experience the inner-life of this club, the many personalities, the Bayern family, the Mia san Mia,” all of these have shaped him over the years, he says. Especially since the maths graduate and sport teacher took over a team at FC Bayern in which “there was always a bit of theatre.” The nickname ‘FC Hollywood’ comes from this time period, in which big successes were celebrated under Hitzfeld. The team built around captain Stefan Effenberg, world’s best goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, Giovane Elber, Mehmet Scholl and Bixente Lizarazu “was a unit and lived off its solid core.” Scholl once named Hitzfeld “the best coach I’ve ever had,” and he still has a good relationship with most of his former players today, even if he sometimes “raged and gave out costly fines.” That was just part of it.
Successes came step by step as Hitzfeld – incidentally named after Fritz Walter’s brother Ottmar – shaped an era of which people speak fondly to this day. Be it the dramatic title races in 2000 (when Unterhaching beat Leverkusen – “we just grinned”) and 2001 (“the emotions burst out after Patrik Andersson’s free-kick”) or the great finals in the Champions League. Hitzfeld describes the defeat to Manchester United in 1999 as the “bitterest of my life. It was brutal. I was on the floor, distraught.” However, it pushed everyone involved to seek success two years later. Hitzfeld names as a personal strength that he “can always look to the future. You need to have a positive approach if you want to help people reach their goals.” On 23 May 2001, after winning 5-4 in the penalty shoot-out against Valencia, Bayern were living their dream.
It’s not just titles and trophies that remain from his impressive 31-year career, which ended as Switzerland coach at the 2014 World Cup. Hitzfeld gained support far beyond the teams he managed (Zug, Aarau, Grasshoppers, Dortmund, Bayern and Switzerland), because he always acted how he still acts today: a gentleman, loyal, polite, but nevertheless a professional with a firm hand. When current sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic walks through the FC Bayern Erlebniswelt, he is immediately drawn to his ex-coach. The trenchcoat in the Champions League cabinet at the museum looks exactly like Hitzfeld is still wearing it. And even the tactic sheet from the “magical night in Milan” is still very readable.
Hitzfeld, whom Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described as “the greatest gentleman I’ve ever come across in this sport,” racked his brains before every game - and he admits: “I’ve always been very tense.” What people often didn’t consider was what was going on inside.
Retrospectively he regrets not stepping down as Bayern coach for the first time in 2003 – “it would have been better for my health.” He had to recover from a burnout from 2004 onwards, back at home in the Black Forest, until Bayern came knocking again. The decision to return in 2007 came to him suddenly on the ski slopes in Engelberg. “If I’d slept on it one more night I would have turned it down,” he says today laughing. However he won the double once again in 2008 and built up strength for his last coaching job in Switzerland. He led the Swiss national side for six years, before finally retiring nearly five years ago. Nowadays, he’s thoroughly content.
Aged 70 it’s golf, skiing, travel and above all family on the schedule. “I thank God every day for the life I’m able to lead,” he said about his daily routine, which he describes as “fully stress-free.” Hitzfeld does what pleases him and that remains true to his beliefs. His birthday will be an unexciting affair, as he’s never liked being the centre of attention.
Maybe there will be a big bouquet of flowers at least, or maybe even a few tears of joy. One thing is certain: the whole Bayern family send their best wishes from the bottom of their hearts!