Ismail Atalan: The man behind Sportfreunde Lotte's unlikely German Cup run
As tiny third division side Sportfreunde Lotte prepare to take on Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal quarterfinals on Tuesday, their 36-year-old coach Ismail Atalan is definitely not afraid.
"Nothing is impossible. With organization and motivation you can achieve great things", he says in an exclusive interview to ESPN FC, genuinely believing that another massive upset is not out of question. Having beaten Werder Bremen, Bayer Leverkusen and 1860 Munich in previous rounds, Atalan wants to claim his biggest victory to date and book a semifinal clash against Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena.
To fully understand Atalan's attitude, you have to know his own story -- the unlikely rise from the very bottom to the limelight. He arrived to Germany as a Kurdish refugee from Turkey at the age of five and took significant risks to fulfil his dream, never compromising his principles.
"My father died in a car crash when I was four months old, and it was very difficult for us in my homeland ", Atalan says. "The Kurds can't speak their own language, can't work. My mother wanted a better life, and we went on a long journey to Germany through the whole of Europe. We were poor and shared a two-room apartment for 10 years -- myself with my three elder brothers in one room, my mother with two sisters in another room. I remember where I come from, and that is an advantage for me nowadays".
Ismail had always been obsessed with football, but his playing career didn't materialize even at amateur level. "I was frequently injured and was forced to quit at the age of 23. That is when I decided to become a coach, and the first opportunity came in 2008 when I got a job at 1.FC Gievenbeck in eighth division," he says.
There were quite a few surprises along the way. "When I arrived to our first match, it turned out that we have no shirts. The club then told me that it is the coach's responsibility to wash all the shirts and bring them to games -- and I was unaware of that. I have no idea why the players can't wash their own shirts, maybe they are too busy drinking beer. I didn't complain and washed the shirts on weekly basis for two years," Atalan recalls.
The good work at Gievenbeck was rewarded with a move to sixth division side Davaria Davensberg in 2010, and then to fifth division Roland Beckum in 2012. The income from football was negligible, and Atalan continued working as an insurance agent throughout the years. "I had a day job from eight to five in the office, and then went to coach my teams," he says. However, he had to make a significant decision when Sportfreunde Lotte owner Manfred Wilke called in January 2015.
Lotte were in the fourth tier in Germany, and coaching is a full-time job there. Atalan consulted with his wife Sehena, also a Kurdish refugee with a similar life story, and they chose to dare. "It was a big gamble. Quitting your main job when you have three kids is not easy, but I had to do it. I felt that it was a great opportunity", the coach says. Having read about Atalan's success at his previous clubs, Wilke had the same feeling. They were definitely right.
In his first full season at Lotte last term, Atalan guided the unfashionable club to their first ever promotion to 3. Liga. "We were a small team in our region, and fought against traditional clubs, like Aachen, Oberhausen and the reserve teams of Dortmund and [Borussia] Monchengladbach," Atalan says. Lotte prevailed, with 25 wins and just three defeats in 36 games, but that wasn't enough yet.
"The regional champions aren't promoted directly to 3.Liga -- you have to win the playoffs against the champions from another region," Atalan explains, "Our opponents were Waldhof Mannheim, a huge club. After the goalless draw at home in the first leg, we were underdogs in the return, and they had 25 thousand fans in the stands. We won 2-0. It was a huge achievement."
The secret behind the success is simple. "We believe in ourselves, play as a unit and always attack. I don't need players who can just play individually, I only use those who can play collectively. My favourite star is Andres Iniesta, the ultimate team player," Atalan says.
This approach proved to be highly successful in the third division too. "Lotte's budget is the smallest in the league, just €2million. Only about a thousand fans come to watch our games. All the players in our squad arrived from lower divisions, and there are no veteran stars, but we wanted to try and get another promotion," Atalan says. That goal is feasible, as Lotte are in third place after 25 matches, and in great form, having won four of their last five fixtures -- all clean sheets -- despite preferring an adventurous 4-3-3 formation.
The biggest story was in the Cup, though, as they stunned three big clubs on their way to the first ever quarterfinals appearance. Lotte won 2-1 against Bremen, then came from behind twice -- the second time when down to 10-men -- to draw 2-2 with Leverkusen and beat them on penalties, before thrashing 1860 Munich 2-0.
"I told my players that we have to attack and play without fear. That is how we can surprise our opponents, because they think that small teams only come to defend. I am proud that we played the right way. Werder Bremen officials, Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voller, their striker [Javier] 'Chicharito' [Hernandez} and 1860 Munich coach Vitor Pereira all told me that we were better and fully deserved to win. It is a huge compliment to my work that they recognized that," Atalan says.
He doesn't intend to change anything against Dortmund. "We will attack them too. I know that we can be 5-0 behind after 20 minutes, but we must stick to our strengths, keep believing and hope for the best. This is already by far the greatest season in the 88 years of club history. We can make it even better," Atalan claims.
He has big personal ambitions too. "I want to coach in the Bundesliga," Atalan says, "I know I am capable of it, there is no doubt in my heart about that. I am learning a lot, I have read books of many great coaches and try to take the best from each of them. I spend all my vacations visiting training sessions of different clubs. My wife is not happy, she keeps asking: 'Are you married to me or to the ball?' But I have no other option. Football is my life."
The results at Lotte speak for themselves so far, and the man whom friends jokingly call the Kurdish Mourinho could be on his way to a remarkable career. Thomas Tuchel has been warned.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin