Friday 7 August ~
If the surveys are anything to go by, there’s no point in speculating on the outcome of this season’s Bundesliga. Bayern for the title, Bremen for the cup, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart in the Champions League. However, pre-season pontificating about the first managerial dismissal has been conspicuous by its absence. And no wonder: not since the heady days of the bellicose Werner Lorant and lachrymose Frank Pagelsdorf a decade ago has the league had so many headcases in its coaching ranks. Anyone foolish enough to suggest a potential sacking would be well advised to go ex-directory or put on rubber gloves before opening their morning post.
The prime candidate for a full-blown ruck is Bayern’s new coach Louis van Gaal, whose short temper and imposing stature are enough to ensure that he’ll silence the three boardroom stooges Rummenigge, Beckenbauer and Hoeness by simply banging their heads together. Hot on his heels is Schalke’s Felix Magath, who may soon be regretting his departure from reigning champions Wolfsburg. At the Lower Saxony club, Magath could do, say and spend what the hell he liked. At Schalke, coaches seem to be answerable to anybody who’s ever owned a car with a Gelsenkirchen numberplate. In fact, “the Slave Driver” – so called because of training methods akin to those employed by Sergeant Major Wilson in The Hill – is clearly feeling the pressure already: during a pre-season game, he was caught on camera swearing at a water bucket after the wrong Schalke player had taken a free-kick.
A dark horse for third place on the rostrum of violence is long-serving Werder Bremen boss Thomas Schaaf. Once inert and taciturn – he has listed “tiramisu” as one of his hobbies – he’s gradually become as bristly as his NCO moustache. What started out as a raised eyebrow during an interview ten years ago has developed into regular outbursts of shouty touchline gymnastics reminiscent of his mentor Otto Rehhagel.
However, it’s the potential for tears rather than tear-ups that predominates, with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Michael Skibbe the pick of the mimosa bed. Allegedly a decent tactician – although people often view his record with the same disdain as they do Peter Sarstedt’s – Skibbe always seems to be on the verge of “having something in his eye”, due in no small part to his Lamb Chop voice and the incurable inability to look older than 14.
Another lip-quiverer is Tommy Tuchel, a youth-team coach and children’s-TV-presenter-lookalike, who was thrust into the spotlight at Mainz after Jörn Andersen was sacked four days before the season started. Tuchel has claimed repeatedly that his “dream has come true”, forgetting that most dreams are so ghastly that you wake up in a cold sweat with all dribble on your face. Hoffenheim’s Ralf Rangnick has never really recovered from his stint at Schalke, where his boss admitted that he didn’t actually know his name, so it won’t take much to have him reaching for the Kleenex – particularly when he realises there are only a few thousand people who actually like Hoffenheim.
Waiting in the wings are Hanover’s Dieter Hecking (whose usual line of nervous sweat above his top lip turned into a full-blown beer moustache after his Hanover team’s recent ineptitude in the cup), Freiburgs’s Robin Dutt (who apparently possesses a sensitive side after ordering his players to keep their shirts on during last season’s promotion celebrations because his niece was in the ground) and Lucien Favre and Marcel Koller at Hertha Berlin and Bochum respectively (whose lilting, spittle-heavy Swiss accents admittedly make them sound a tad moister than they actually are).
Despite all the madness, the white-hot favourite for the first sacking is HSV’s resolutely sensible Bruno Labbadia. With a reputation for being thorough, disciplined and a good man-manager, the former HSV striker is, on paper, the ideal choice for a club that prides itself on a non-nonsense Hanseatic work ethic. What the clean-living, well-turned-out Labbadia doesn’t know is that his club's greatest successes have almost always coincided with the coach resembling a tramp: the trophy-winning HSV sides of the late 1970s and early 1980s were managed first by the hard-drinking Branko Zebec and then Ernst Happel, a 60-a-day man and the only man in the Bundesliga ever to look like Klaus Kinski’s dad. Unless Labbadia embarks on a Korn-and-Capstan diet immediately, he'll be replaced a few weeks either side of Christmas, hopefully by Bundesliga stalwart Friedhelm Funkel, who more often than not looks like he's fallen out of the back of a dustcart.
Even if the bosses behave themselves, Bayern go down and Mainz finish the season as unbeaten champions, there’s still one odds-on cert to look forward to: Lothar Matthäus debating with himself whether he should occupy the first vacant managerial seat, even before he’s been asked (and possibly even before the managerial seat has actually been vacated). The first victim will probably be Michael Frontzeck at Lothar’s old stamping ground Mönchengladbach, and his old mucker Armin Veh at Wolfsburg shouldn’t expect to be spared the knife in the back, either. With a managerial career that’s taken in teams as diverse as Clube Paranaense in Brazil and the made-for-TV Borussia Banana, Lothar’s not really all that bothered who he bothers. To rehash the old Spitting Image joke about Michael Caine: “Lothar, you can do anything. The problem is, you do do anything.” Matt Nation