Mister motivator

A recent documentary film claims to reveal the dynamics of a German dressing room – that of the national team at the World Cup. But Matt Nation has witnessed a very different side to coaching techniques at a lower level

Rarely has a U-rated film in Germany been as scandal-soaked as Söhnke Wortmann’s Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen (Germany: A Summer’s Fairytale), the fly-on-the-wall documentary about Germany’s World Cup campaign. It revealed more false bonhomie in the German dressing room than at a ­civil‑service office Christmas party. It demonstrated how David Odonkor makes just as much sense when interviewed with a mouthful of toothpaste as without. It exposed young men in sickening states of undress, including flip-flops and towelling socks together. But, most of all, it gave Jürgen Klinsmann the chance to add to his motley collection of alter-egos, in this case as Motivationsmeister.

Precious little is seen in the film of the angelic baker’s boy from Göppingen. Despite a voice that makes him sound like a pensioner who has lost her cat, Klinsmann comes over as a cross between a managerial guru and a building-site foreman. He swears, he spits (albeit involuntarily), he encourages his players to steam into the opposition and he constantly reminds them how many people are rooting for them. This figure appears to increase by five million each time. At one licentious point, he even tells one of his defenders to “breathe all over the opposition”. Never was a Federal Cross of Merit more well deserved than the one that Klinsmann received earlier this year.

As a recently installed member of the coaching staff at a lower-league team in Germany (if An Impossible Job had been about the team in question, my role would be comparable to that of Phil Neal’s understudy), I feel amply qualified to point out the main flaw in Klinsmann’s dressing-room antics: they had about as much to do with day-to-day footballing realities as, well, a World Cup on your own doorstep. Because a German coaching staff’s key to motivation is not about getting down with people young enough to be your son; it’s about brevity.

In fact, there appear to be only four words that German coaches ever use. The first is Pfund, which a player reacts to by shooting from wherever they happen to be. Then there’s ausfächern, whereupon players run in all possible directions, like sheep who’ve just taken an irate shepherd’s salt pellet to their hind quarters. The opposite of ausfächern is apparently kompakt, upon which players instantly revert to the table football formation that they started the game with. And then there’s ab.

Ab is the ultimate proof that football transcends all language barriers. Players who come into the team with no knowledge of German – and possibly never having set foot on a football pitch – understand ab immediately. Which is all the more remarkable, seeing as ab – loosely translatable as “off” – appears to mean absolutely anything. Upon hearing ab from the dugout, even if it’s only the coach breaking wind, a player with the ball at his feet will pass immediately. Or they’ll shoot. Or maybe they’ll embark on a marauding run into the box. Players without the ball will take ab as a signal to overlap or to drop back and cover. On a damp day at the height of runny-nose season, one debutant reacted to ab by performing a Charlottenburger, which entails pressing one’s finger against one nostril and then blowing the contents of one’s respiratory passages out of the other and all over one’s shirt. When he glanced over to the touchline, the coach simply nodded approvingly.

The four words are interrupted only when a player makes a mistake. If you believe Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen, coaches react to misplaced passes and foul throws by pacing up and down with clenched fists, like somebody in a pub car park waiting for the bloke he’s offered out to drink up and come outside. But real coaches don’t do that. They just get exasperated.

A German coach’s exasperation is not that of an angry parent, a teacher out of their depth or the owner of a puppy who still uses carpet slippers as a latrine. It’s one of the worst noises in the world, worse than abattoirs, pneumatic drills, father-in-laws or the words a policeman says when he’s standing at the door with his hat clasped to his chest. Like an AOR earworm, a German coach’s exasperation nestles its way into your sub-conscience and stays there for hours, sometimes days, feeding your will to do nothing but lose faith in everything and everybody. A German coach’s exasperation consists of nothing other than repeating the miscreant’s name, over and over and over again.

Each syllable of the name is drawn out to such an extent that its pitch eventually resembles that of a life-support machine after the patient’s heart has stopped beating. If a Sebastian or an Alexander makes a mistake, it’s not uncommon for the referee to stop play and then add the three minutes on to stoppage time. Fear of their coach’s exasperation is probably the single most important factor in German players ­making as few mistakes as they do.

A film about Germany wouldn’t be complete without an insight into their ­penalty‑taking techniques, of course. A lot has been made of Jens Lehmann’s crib sheet that helped to win the shootout against Argentina in their World Cup ­quarter‑final. ­Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen contains a scene in which number-three keeper Timo Hildebrand fails to psyche out Tim Borowski by offering him far too much space at one side of the goal during penalty practice. What actually happens when the cameras aren’t there is possibly not far off what happens on the training ground in amateur games. Players are told to toe-punt their penalties, with all the finesse and purposefulness of a bride tossing a bouquet of flowers over her shoulder, the theory being that “if you don’t know where the ball’s going, the keeper won’t either”.

But it works. The all-purpose commands, the public humiliation, the farm-hand shooting techniques – they all work. The team I help to run are currently in the top half of the regional sixth division, even though they’ve got no money and only one pitch for more than 20 teams to train and play on. And the technique doesn’t just work at grassroots level, either. Until recently, the city’s most successful team, SV Hamburg, with more pitches than players and money to burn, had a communicative coach – Thomas Doll. He refused to slag off his players in ­public and, as some rumours had it, in private as well. It was only when they were firmly anchored to the foot of the table that they replaced him with taciturn old lag Huub Stevens, who regularly reinvents the German language and sometimes doesn’t even tolerate himself in the dressing room, let alone a camera team. They then proceeded to win twice as many games in a fortnight as they had all season. That would be a film worth making, if only for the four-word screenplay.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month