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The man who changed everything

On Monday, Jupp Heynckes was named FIFA World Coach of the Year. It is not only a deserved honour, it was also excellent timing.

That's because in two days, the man whom Heynckes followed in both of his first two managerial posts will celebrate his birthday. And because the man in question is so famous that only a few months ago, kicker magazine said that his coaching career may have been the greatest in the history of the game.

These are strong words, but they weren't written lightly. After all, he is one of only two men who have won all three European Cup competitions, including the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup. And he is the only coach who has done it with three different teams. You can add to this that he has won the Bundesliga eight times, more than anyone else, and that he came out of retirement to save one of the biggest clubs in the land from relegation at the age of 65.

All those stats, though, don't even hint at how crucial a role he has played and how far-reaching his influence has been. Because there are no two ways about it, Udo Lattek irreversibly changed the course of German football history -- on one single day.

It was a day in the second week of February 1970. The German national team was in Seville, for a friendly against Spain, when Franz Beckenbauer walked over to a member of the coaching staff and said: "Mr. Lattek, can I have a word with you?"

Lattek was barely 35 years old at the time. He had never played professional football, had in fact worked as a PE teacher in two small towns near Cologne until accepting an offer to join the German FA (DFB) in 1965. Now he was coaching the national youth football team and serving as an assistant to the national manager, Helmut Schoen.

"Yes, what is it?" Lattek replied, wondering what Beckenbauer could possibly want from him. Then the man who they were already calling the Kaiser dropped the bombshell. "I'm speaking on behalf of the board of Bayern Munich," Beckenbauer said. "They want to know if you'd be interested in coaching the team."

Lattek was stunned. He asked the player why the reigning Double winners weren't happy with coach Branko Zebec and, more importantly, were considering replacing him with a man who had never coached a club side at any level before. Beckenbauer replied that Zebec had alienated the board by refusing to extend his contract, adding: "The board consulted the senior players and all the internationals said they hold you in high esteem and would like to work with you."

Here was the chance of a lifetime, and the highly ambitious Lattek knew he had to grab it with both hands even if that meant jumping in at the deep end. He told Beckenbauer that he would be interested in succeeding Zebec.

A few weeks later, it was a Friday 13, the phone rang in Lattek's Cologne flat. He glanced at the bedside clock through drowsy eyes. It was 4.30 in the morning. He instinctively knew that it was the phone call he had expected since the conversation with Beckenbauer. Lattek picked up the receiver and listened. He woke his wife and told her that Bayern had fired Branko Zebec and that he had to travel to Munich as quickly as possible.

This triggered a chain of events that led to Lattek winning three league titles with Bayern and, crucially, being on the bench for the team's lucky but epochal European Cup win against Atletico Madrid in 1974. That, in turn, earned Lattek the Borussia Moenchengladbach job in 1975 – with them he won the Bundesliga two more times and also the UEFA Cup.

By collecting all this silverware, he certainly made history, not to mention the record books. However, that's not quite the same as truly changing history. In fact, the reason German -- and European -- football would probably be totally different today without Lattek hasn't really that much to do with things that happen on pitches.

First, Lattek's decision to join Bayern Munich in 1970 did not only influence this club's future but changed that of the West Germany team. He had been Schoen's assistant coach for many years and according to the unwritten rules under which the DFB operated, this meant he was being groomed for the main job and was set to become national coach as soon as Schoen retired, either in four or in eight years. But the moment he left the DFB, Lattek was out of the running. (He was replaced by Jupp Derwall, who eventually succeeded Schoen in 1978.)

But there was another, even more momentous way in which Lattek's move to Bayern dramatically changed the course of German football history.

The two best players Lattek had coached in the national youth team during the late 1960s were Paul Breitner, a hothead from near the Austrian border, and Uli Hoeness, a butcher's son with a business brain from Ulm. Both kids had already been snapped up by Bundesliga clubs. More or less. Breitner was about to join 1860 Munich, while Hoeness would have liked to sign for VfB Stuttgart but was strongly tempted to join his pal Breitner at 1860.

At the eleventh hour, Lattek convinced them -- and also Rainer Zobel, who's not that famous but went on to have a distinguished career at Bayern -- to change their plans and instead join him in Munich. So Lattek not only brought three future key players with him, but also in Hoeness the man whose name would become synonymous with Bayern Munich and without whom the club wouldn't be what it is today.

When I was in Munich in November, to research a big magazine story on Bayern, Uli Hoeness said: "There were 18 Bundesliga clubs and I had offers from 16 of them, but no contact whatsoever from Bayern. It was pretty much a done deal that I would join 1860 together with Paul. Their club secretary would appear on my parents' doorstep every second Sunday."

"But one day Lattek took us aside and asked us: ‘Have you signed a contract somewhere?’ I replied that we had more or less made up our minds but not yet put pen to paper. He said: ‘Stay put, don't do anything, because something is about to happen. We heard that Lattek would become Bayern coach soon after. Only then did Robert Schwan [Bayern's business manager] approach us."

If all this makes it sound as if Lattek has had the rub of the green in life, then it isn't half the story. He grew up during the war and had to flee his East Prussian home when he was ten. His mother literally threw her body across him to protect her child from Russian bullets as they stumbled across the frozen Baltic Sea.

Lattek then spent the next two years of what should have been his childhood in a POW camp in Denmark and most of his adolescence as a menial worker on a farm his father had leased. In a way, this combination of emotional turmoil and physical hardship continued through his adult life. In 1981, his son died of leukaemia at only 15 years of age and the trauma shook Lattek so deeply that he decided to leave Germany. He terminated his contract at Dortmund and joined Barcelona.

Some people suppose it was the loss of his son that led Lattek to turn to alcohol, but it's unlikey, because he had always liked to compare himself to the German actor Hans Albers, once saying: "He drank hard but he also worked hard, just like me."

Lattek worked hard at Barcelona, too, winning the Cup Winners' Cup in 1982. But only three weeks after the final, Diego Maradona arrived in Barcelona to sign his contract and this marked the beginning of Lattek's end in Catalonia. He had already fallen out with Bernd Schuster (according to Jimmy Burns, the player was quoted as calling his coach a drunkard) and his relationship with the Argentinian would be no less volatile.

Lattek returned to Bayern in 1983, winning five more titles but unexpectedly losing the 1987 European Cup final. Still, he seemed to possess an almost uncanny Midas touch, because no sooner had he joined Cologne as director of football than the team embarked on an unbeaten run that lasted from mid-summer to late autumn 1987.

Such was Lattek's stature that the side's success was not attributed to the talent of the coach, a young Christoph Daum, but to a blue sweater Lattek wore on every matchday. Fittingly, it was Lattek's worst enemy in the game, Otto Rehhagel, who broke the spell of this textile good-luck charm when his Werder Bremen team finally defeated Cologne in early November.

In a way, this day was the end of Lattek's trophy-laden career in football. He would never win another title and would return to coaching only briefly -- first as Cologne's interim manager, then during six months at Schalke in the early 1990s and, finally, over five games in 2000 when Borussia Dortmund were fearing relegation so much they begged the pensioner for help.

At the time, Lattek was already a bit of a star in his second career, as a television pundit on a popular football chat show. That he was often put in front of a tactics board to caustically explain what his former colleagues had done wrong was an irony that could not have been lost on his contemporaries.

Because for all his titles and trophies, most people never saw Lattek in the same class as legendary, admired coaches like Ernst Happel or even Zebec. Lattek talked a good game, he knew how to sell himself and he was undoubtedly a great motivator. But he was no master tactician and he would never be known as someone who could build teams.

Even Beckenbauer, who orchestrated Lattek's move to Bayern in 1970, later said: "We had such a fantastic team, all we needed was someone who would humour us." And many Gladbach fans still blame Lattek for the decline of their club, saying he inherited the great team Hennes Weisweiler had assembled and then missed the moment to rebuild.

When I asked former Gladbach player Horst Wohlers about this a few years ago, he said: "Perhaps Lattek failed to bring in young blood, but it was an almost impossible task." Still, the charge that Lattek was opportunistic rather than idealistic certainly contains a grain of truth.

In 1975, he had already signed with Rot-Weiss Essen when suddenly the Moenchengladbach job became available. Without so much as a second thought, Lattek dissolved the Essen contract, saying: "When you have the choice between a Volkswagen and a Mercedes, you always choose the Mercedes, don't you?"

On Thursday, the man who drove the Mercedes far more often than the Volkswagen will celebrate his 79th birthday. It's probably going to be a rather sombre party, as Lattek has been dogged by health issues for many years. He had to undergo two brain operations and suffered a stroke in 2010. Three months ago, he wife of more than 50 years informed the press that her husband suffers from Parkinson's disease.

That is why a lot of people fear Lattek may not have that many more birthdays ahead of him. But whatever happens, he can deal with it. A little over two years ago, Lattek told a Cologne newspaper that his son is never far from his mind. "His death always comes back to me," he said. "It will never leave you." Asked about his own mortality, he replied: "I don't give a damn. I don't fear death."