Hitzfeld deserves legend status
One by one, they have slipped into the twilight. Some, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jupp Heynckes, have set down the cudgels of combat. Others, such as Marcello Lippi and Guus Hiddink, soldier on in the fading glow, with the lure of glory and the adrenaline of cutthroat competition traded in for a final pay day, somewhere on the edges of our consciousness. Yet more, such as Fabio Capello, toil against the setting sun, desperate to summon the old magic.
For now, perhaps just for a few hours, Ottmar Hitzfeld stands alone as the last of the giants. Unlike Ferguson, he has not laid down his hand. Unlike Lippi, he has not cashed in his chips. Unlike Capello, he has not spent the final years of his career recklessly twisting when any sane man would stick, with his reputation suffering at every turn.
Instead, six years ago, as the bookend to his career, Hitzfeld took over as manager of Switzerland. He is lavishly remunerated, of course -- some $3.75 million a year, by all accounts -- but it would be unfair to suggest money was his primary consideration.
Hitzfeld was born in Swabia, in southern Germany, but his football identity has always been inextricably linked to Switzerland; he spent the majority of his playing career there, and it was at Aarau that he first forged his reputation as a manager. His last post was to be a labour of love, his last task to build a young, vibrant Swiss team drawn from across the country's ethnic groups.
Now, it is at an end. Hitzfeld revealed last year that he would follow Ferguson and Heynckes into retirement as soon as Switzerland's time in Brazil came to an end.
His side's victories against Ecuador and Honduras in the group stage meant that, despite a collapse against France, his career will end not in June but in July.
Now he goes into the round of 16 game versus Argentina, against Lionel Messi and all the others, knowing defeat would draw the curtain on his career. Win in Sao Paulo, however, and he will have a stay of execution, a game against either the Belgians or the United States in the quarterfinal.
It might even last into the tournament's final week. One way or the other, though, this is it. The embers are smouldering. The fire is almost out.
It is an appropriate time, then, to place Hitzfeld in his correct historical context. It has long been an oversight that, when the most significant coaches of what might be termed the Champions League age are considered, the 65-year-old's name is not always mentioned. Ferguson, yes. Lippi, yes. Heynckes, yes. Not Hitzfeld, though -- not as often as should be.
Make no mistake: he belongs in that company. The Bundesliga has not always been as fashionable as it is now. There was a time when it was some considerable way behind Italy, Spain and England when it came to attracting players, when it was distinctly lacking in glamour and pizzazz. It was in that era that Hitzfeld twice won the Champions League with German clubs, first Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and then Bayern Munich in 2001.
The latter achievement made him just the second man, after Ernst Happel, to coach two different teams to victory in the European Cup.
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It is a curious function of football's money-soaked epoch that records are not what they used to be. The English domestic double, for instance, used to be the most rare and precious commodity, the exclusive preserve of the very best sides the country had ever produced. Only a handful of teams had ever done it.
Manchester United's first, in 1994, opened the floodgates. Now there are two or three teams who would consider the season a disappointment if they do not finish with at least two trophies.
It is the same with Hitzfeld's personal piece of history. The European Cup existed for almost 50 years, and only one man had ever won it with separate clubs; it lasted for 60 with just two. Now Jose Mourinho has done it, and Heynckes and Carlo Ancelotti. That is not to diminish their achievement, just to point out that it seems somehow normal now.
That switch in perspective, though, should not detract from what Hitzfeld did. His victory with Dortmund, particularly, was the sort of triumph that bore all the hallmarks of a true great.
That was a more profligate Borussia, a team that invested heavily in the pursuit of success, but they were still the small fry on the European stage. That they beat Juventus, the mighty Juventus, in the final, and that they did it on Bayern's territory too show the scale of Hitzfeld's achievement.
His rivals certainly sat up and took notice. He was appointed Bayern manager a year later and, once he had won the Champions League with them too, turned down the opportunity to manage Manchester United in 2002, when Ferguson contemplated hanging up his gloves the first time.
Why, then, has history allowed him to become an afterthought? Perhaps because he did not take that job, because he always worked in the Bundesliga, then only in the peripheral vision of the eyes of the footballing world.
Perhaps it is because nobody used to leave Bayern in the right way; Hitzfeld was sacked after winning four titles in six years in Munich. He claimed a fifth in his second spell there, but there was no Ferguson-esque high on which to go out. They were beaten 4-0 by Zenit Saint Petersburg in the UEFA Cup that year.
Perhaps it is because the paradigm of what we look for in a coach has changed. With one or two very notable exceptions, managers now are not stern, taciturn, granite-jawed men with the air of an unnecessarily strict math teacher. They are all skinny ties and tousled hair and designer stubble, their most potent weapon their charisma. It is telling that Hitzfeld was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann, every inch the modern coach.
The older man looked out of time, out of place.
Whatever the reason, it is an oversight. Hitzfeld can hold his own in the company of even the most gilded of his peers. That will be true whatever happens against Argentina and whenever time is called on his career.
It would be fitting, though, if perhaps Switzerland did pull off a shock; if Hitzfeld, who has targeted the quarterfinals as his aim for the tournament, delivered on his promise; if the last of the giants could stand tall one last time.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.