Scholars could debate for hours whether Udo Lattek (eight German league titles and three European trophies) or Ottmar Hitzfeld (nine national titles, two Champions Leagues and one Club World Cup) is most deserving of the title "most successful German coach of all time". But definitively answering that question appears futile given the outstanding successes both of them enjoyed. Hitzfeld's extraordinary time in Germany began in Dortmund in 1991. Driven by the pursuit of success, the first of his seven German titles came four years later and left him with "unique feelings of happiness".
Before we begin, there is a silent reminder of Hitzfeld's background as a qualified teacher of mathematics and physical education. He has neatly placed some accurately hand-written notes on the desk beside him and is outstandingly well prepared for this interview, in which we take a deep dive into the past – and in particular the 1994/95 campaign, which saw Borussia Dortmund claim their first league title since 1963 against the odds. The 71-year-old is as energetic as he was at the start of his highly successful spell in Dortmund, which lasted from 1991 to 1997 and saw the club celebrate two Bundesliga titles and the UEFA Champions League, as well as finishing runner-up in the league and the UEFA Cup. Hitzfeld has been through some difficult times too, suffering ill health, but that is fortunately behind him now. He has been enjoying life as a football pensioner for six years, describing it as "the best period of life I have ever had".
How significant was the 1995 title-winning season for you?
95 was the greatest title in my career. It was my first championship in Germany. And Dortmund hadn't been German champions for 32 years. I'll never forget those emotions, those feelings of happiness. It was crazy – a mixture of pride and relief. I shed some tears, which rarely happens. All the pressure was gone. A unique and defining experience.
It might've happened earlier in your career. Three years earlier, in your first season at BVB, you were just minutes away from winning the title...
...yes, until Buchwald put Stuttgart 2-1 ahead against Leverkusen. On the journey home Dr. Niebaum said, who knows, maybe it's a good thing that we aren't German champions now. The expectations would've been much higher, and we might not have strengthened the team the way we did after that. What followed was a continuous process.
But not always a linear one. The 93/94 season was difficult after finishing as runners-up in 91/92 and having such a successful European campaign in 92/93. Why was that?
If you have to go through setbacks, you always go back to the basics. We learned the hard way that year. The team had been continuously strengthened, but that's not always a guarantee that the team will come together immediately when you bring in well-known names, international players. The difference from one player to the next is greater. The expectations are higher. It was a bad season – and perhaps also important for the following year.
Setbacks, which we'll talk about a little later, shaped a season which ended on 17 June 1995 with the happy ending we'd been hoping for but – given the events of the previous weeks – we had not been expecting. What memories do you have of that final day of the season 25 years ago?
The pressure was enormous. We knew that we would have this chance if we could win our match. It was a good situation that Bremen had to go away to Bayern Munich and Otto Rehhagel was the new coach there. That definitely made some kind of difference. Bayern were looking to save their season to some extent. A cheer went through the crowd whenever a goal was scored in Munich. That's how you immediately knew, something's happened, we can do this! At the end it was unbelievably emotional the way that all the spectators streamed onto the pitch. Were you on the pitch as well?
...yes I was, back then I was there for the radio, and at times I feared I was going to get crushed...
I also felt uneasy and had the feeling that people wanted to crush me. I then fled, so to speak, and had to push my way through to get to the catacombs.
How much pressure was there to achieve success before that first title-winning season?
The fact that president Dr. Gerd Niebaum went public and set big goals was only natural. It was vital to us financially that we became champions. Because only the champions played in the Champions League. And only there could you bring money back in. It was a balancing act for the club at the time.
In addition to technical know-how, what does a coach need in order to be successful nowadays?
Everything has to be right: the make-up of the team, the tactical concept on the pitch, the intensity and frequency of the training sessions. You need to have superb colleagues. I was fortunate to have had Michael Henke by my side, who became a true friend. There was an incredible bond of trust between the two of us. And I also had a very close relationship with Michael Meier. I felt at ease with Henke and Meier. That was necessary to build up the strength you then need to deal with setbacks.
Did your teacher training help you to lead a team with many alpha characters?
In general, I set my own course early on in life and gave myself goals I wanted to achieve. In 1971, I called Helmut Benthaus in Basel and asked if I could attend the trial training session. At that time the coach was still listed in the phone book. I took fate into my own hands and that's how I got into professional football. I did my teacher training simultaneously. I also profited from that later on. The experience of having been through everything as a football player also helped me as a coach. It is important to get a feeling for people. When we lost, I generally wasn't tough on the team but instead tried to understand the players.
And you tried to use players according to their strengths. Did you consciously accept that you would be publicly criticised? You were accused of not being "modern" because you stuck to the idea of a sweeper instead of introducing a back four, which had long since been the tactical norm for top international clubs.
In the end, it all comes down to the players you have. You have to find the optimal way for them to fit together. I can't introduce a system that the players can't implement. I wanted to introduce a back four in Dortmund. But I would've probably been sacked from the role by the time I'd got that working. When I started, in 1991, a sweeper still played behind the defence in the Bundesliga, and two man markers would track the opposition forwards. The most important thing is to have a feeling for what can bring success. It's like a puzzle that you put together. As a coach you must not be stubborn, but flexible. Because only success will prove you right in the end.
A dream start to the 1994/95 league campaign followed a 6-3 elimination from the DFB Cup after extra-time against Kaiserslautern. Was that a key game on the way to winning the title? Franz Beckenbauer said at the time: "They won't be champions with that defence."
Now that you remind me, the memories are coming back. A nightmare. The Betzenberg was always a bogey ground. And that was a terrible defeat. But we put that behind us and showed character. If you show a reaction after such games, it means that you can cope with setbacks.
What made you decide to bring Matthias Sammer from midfield into the defence? That move may have been the key to you winning the championship.
With Júlio César I actually wanted to switch to a back four. But that didn't work out. Then I had planned to make him a sweeper. He was a sensational player and did an excellent job, but he didn't communicate and that meant he couldn't marshal the team. You could put Matthias in a defensive role, give him freedom or let him play in front of it, because you had a life insurance in Julio César: unbelievably fast and strong in the tackle, a very intelligent player. He spotted everything. The well-organised defence was then a building block to allow us to shine offensively as well.
"It was a stroke of fortune for me as a coach"
Flemming Povlsen sustained a torn cruciate ligament in Kaiserslautern. Stéphane Chapuisat followed suit midway through March of 95 and then Kalle Riedle suffered the same, awful injury in the lead-up to Matchday 31.
That was a bitter time. It was an incredible blow to the team, losing their best strikers. One is enough. We had to create a sense of now more than ever. Fortunately, Borussia Dortmund has always provided good youth training. I promoted Lars Ricken and Ibrahim Tanko. Fortunately, both had strong nerves. Lars had a special talent anyway, as he stayed cool and had a strong finish. Tanko was a bit coltish, but that meant he had a certain energy about him. It was a stroke of fortune for me as a coach to have two talented youngsters who could take the pressure. But they also had nothing to lose.
However, the championship lead was lost on Matchday 29 following a 3-1 away defeat at the hands of your direct rivals Bremen. How did you react to this additional setback?
There are many bitter moments that you experience during a season. Bremen have always been very strong at home, with enthusiastic home support. It drove the team forward. And Rehhagel was a strong motivator. We lost unnecessarily. That set us back a bit. But as long as you theoretically have a chance, as a coach you believe that you can win the title.
Did you trust in yourself or seek advice from others during this period?
I of course spoke a lot with Michael Henke and Michael Meier, but I had to make the decisions myself because I bore responsibility and I had to take the rap. I am a self-educator, I always deal with everything myself and make the decisions alone. In my life as a coach I have seldom exchanged ideas because I didn't want to be influenced.
You were held to draws by Freiburg and Gladbach on Matchday 31 and 32 respectively. How much did that eat away at your nerves?
One always forgets that we had been hit by injuries in attacking positions. We had enough chances to win those matches. It was a season with constant setbacks. That was annoying. And the pressure was enormous.
By half-time on the penultimate matchday in Duisburg, everything seemed lost: your team was 1-0 behind, while Werder were leading 2-0 against Karlsruhe. Do you still remember your half-time team talk?
It is normal to try to gee the team up when they are behind. To radiate optimism, to show that you are totally convinced by the team and to motivate each individual. I said: even if they score one more goal, we have the class to score two or three ourselves.
And that's what happened. Duisburg made it 2-0 shortly after the break, but it ultimately finished 3-2.
The way we came back was fantastic. Michael Zorc – yet again – scored an important penalty. And then Stefan Reuter, with his attacking drive, coolly steered the game decisively in our favour with his two goals.
The euphoria was back, as was the belief in the city that you could win the title. Did you notice that as well?
The woman at the newsstand told me when I bought my paper: Mr. Hitzfeld, we can do this! This attitude of the people impressed me. I always had the feeling in Dortmund that the fans were behind us. That's really true love. I can judge that, as I was at Bayern, a club that's used to success and where many things are taken for granted. In Dortmund you love the club and stand behind BVB, even when things are going badly – something you rarely experience with other clubs.
You went into the match against HSV needing to win by two clear goals. Andy Möller opened the scoring with a cheeky free-kick in the ninth minute, low and around the wall. Nobody was expecting that – were you?
No, he wanted to shoot high ... (laughs) ... but he shot low. It was a lucky shot. And Lars Ricken then quickly made it 2-0.
The fans were in two stadia simultaneously: physisally in Dortmund but mentally in Munich...
If something happened there, you'd know about it right away. It was also a great set-up that Bremen had to go to Munich and Rehhagel had become the new coach for Bayern. I already expected that Bayern would beat Bremen or at least get a draw. But it was important for us to do our part too.
What memories do you have of the title celebrations?
We were all happy. I didn't want to break down in tears, and yet I was very emotional because the pressure was off. We'd made millions of fans happy and earned ourselves the greatest-possible success. It was unbelievable that we managed to do it and lift the shield. It was a unique feeling of happiness.
With Ottmar Hitzfeld at the helm, Borussia Dortmund defended their Bundesliga title in 1996 and then became the first German club to win the UEFA Champions League in 1997. The 3-1 win against Juventus was the 273rd and final game in charge of the Black & Yellows for the then 48-year-old. "It was exactly the right decision at the right time. I was the coach for six years. It was gruelling work, and I was rather exhausted."
However, the plan to take a break was briefly called into question when the telephone rang in Goldfasanenweg in the Buchholz district and the voice of Lorenzo Sanz, the president of Real Madrid, could be heard at the other end of the line. "He was desperate to get me. I asked for two days to think it over." Hitzfeld quickly realised: "I might be fired by the time I can learn Spanish." The next day he visited Michael Meier, who was privy to the information. "I'm not going to Real, but I'm not going to continue with Borussia either. I quit." As an alternative, Meier offered him the newly created position of sports manager. "I would handle the transfers; he would handle the finances. That was a very good idea. It was hugely important for me to be able to recuperate."
You enjoyed some big successes in Dortmund, but had even more success in Munich. Where did you have the "nicer" time?
I always live in the now and have never been one to look back. As a coach, that doesn't work at all. You have to deliver all the time. Only today is important – and tomorrow. This constant striving for success demands a lot of energy. After six years at Bayern I had a burn-out. I was even more exhausted than in Dortmund. I had to get away from it all and paused for a year and a half before I re-joined Bayern. I tried it. But after just one year I realized: I don't want to be a coach working day-in, day-out anymore. As the Swiss national coach I could then live in Lörrach; I only had 15 games instead of 60. It was important to take that step and then quit in 2014, at the age of 65, after the World Cup in Brazil. Life now is the most beautiful period I have ever had.
How do you spend all the extra time you didn't have before?
I sometimes wonder about that. I read a lot, walk in the woods for an hour every day with my wife; we play golf and in winter we ski. And we have a large circle of friends. I follow the Bundesliga like all fans. My son lives with his family in Munich. We now have three grandchildren – four, two and one years old. That is a special gift. We enjoy it very much. We talk on Facetime every day and, if the situation permits it, we go back to Munich regularly.
Does that mean the footballing affinity of your grandchildren is predetermined, or does grandpa want to show them where it all began in Germany?
I am quite sure that the grandchildren will get to know Dortmund as well and not just Munich, even though it'd be easier for them to go to the stadium there. My son has sympathies for both clubs – but as a fan he is a Black & Yellow. He stood in the South Stand as a schoolboy. He made many friendships in Dortmund that still exist today, he graduated from high school there and so he still has a close connection to Dortmund.
You have diplomatically sidestepped our attempts to get you to reveal which period you found to be nicer – Dortmund or Munich. Let's have another go: you are on holiday at Lake Lucerne, sitting in a pedalo boat, and Uli Hoeneß and Michael Meier are standing on the shore. Who gets the free seat next to you?
(laughs) I would get out and let the two of them have the pedalo. I had, and still do have, a special relationship with both of them. But I'm even closer to Michael Meier. He was the one who pushed me, who gave me the chance to establish myself in the Bundesliga. He wanted to bring me to Leverkusen before that. In Dortmund it worked out. And the championship in 95 was, as I said, my first in the Bundesliga and one of the best in my career.
Interview: Boris Rupert
Ottmar Hitzfeld's competitive record as BVB boss
- 273 matches
- 149 wins
- 60 draws
- 64 defeats