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Jul 2, 2013

Foreign legion

There were 250 journalists from 11 countries and no less than 50 television or radio stations on hand when Bayern presented Pep Guardiola last week. Sky Germany began its live coverage at 9 o'clock, three hours before the Catalan went anywhere near the cameras. We'd never seen anything like it.

However, that tells you more about the modern media frenzy than about Guardiola's stature, because he certainly isn't the first coach to come to the Bundesliga from abroad as a full-fledged legend.

There was the Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, of course, who was already regularly described as "the most successful coach in the world" when he started his first stint at Bayern in 1994. But Trap wasn't the first foreign managerial superstar, either.

It should have been the fabled Ernst Happel, still one of only four men who have won the European Cup (or the Champions League) with two different teams - not to mention that only the width of a goal post separated him from also winning the World Cup.

In early 1978, Hamburg's new business manager Günter Netzer was trying to find a new coach for his club. That is, he had already targeted his man - the Austrian Happel, who'd long intrigued Netzer with his futuristic football. Happel's teams used zonal marking and combined a bold offside trap with attacking the opposition deep in their own half. Back then, most people used the ice-hockey term "forechecking" to describe this tactic. Happel preferred the word "pressing".

The first problem with Happel was that he was expensive. The second was that he lacked the type of coaching badge which the German FA (DFB) demanded of everyone who coached a professional team in the country.

As you may know, this technicality constitutes a problem to this day. As recently as 2008, VfB Stuttgart manager Markus Babbel was forced to attend coaching school during the week and look after his team in, so to speak, his spare time.

Which is why Netzer phoned Hermann Neuberger, then the president of the DFB, and asked if Happel could be granted an exemption from the rule. Neuberger refused. Netzer had to change his plan and signed Branko Zebec.

East European coaches like Zebec were highly popular during the first decades of the Bundesliga. Zlatko Cajkovski - known as "Czik", the stub, for his lack of height - won promotion with Bayern Munich and built the great team that won the 1967 Cup Winners' Cup. Then Zebec took over the side and led Bayern to their first Bundesliga title. (He would also introduce zonal marking to Germany a handful of years later with Brunswick.)

These two men came from Yugoslavia, just like Ivica Horvat, who won the 1972 German FA Cup with Schalke or Slobodan Cendic, who took Saarbrücken to the Bundesliga in 1976. But there were also numerous Hungarians, such as Gyula Lorant or Pal Csernai, coaching in Germany. One, Jeno Csaknady, even holds the dubious distinction of being the first man to take over a Bundesliga team because someone else had been fired. (In November 1963, Csaknady replaced Herbert Widmayer in Nuremberg.)

Yet none of these men could be called a celebrity coach. So Netzer would have pulled off the biggest coaching deal in league history until that time if he had been allowed to sign Happel in the summer of 1978. Instead, it was left to Cologne to raise this particular bar to an unprecedented height some two years later, in the autumn of 1980. Funnily, Barcelona played a few roles in the tale.

Cologne was in turmoil in October 1980. An expensive and highly-touted team was underperforming so badly that the fans had grown testy. Coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott called the atmosphere at the ground "a nightmare", but a lot of it was his own doing. Heddergott had alienated almost everyone at the club and none more so than Bernd Schuster, German football's biggest talent.

Schuster was about to get the hell out of Cologne and the only question was which club could afford to buy him. The New York Cosmos were favourites to sign the midfielder, until a conflict between the Players' Union and the North American Soccer League put the deal in limbo. When a rival offer from Barcelona arrived, Schuster was gone in sixty seconds.

Ironically, despite Schuster's haste to leave Cologne, Heddergott eventually left a couple of days before him. The club fired Heddergott in mid-October and put conditioning coach Rolf Herings in temporary charge of the team while the board discussed some famous names. The well-known German coaches Udo Lattek, Karl-Heinz Feldkamp and Dietrich Weise were considered - as was the 52-year-old Dutchman Rinus Michels.

Not every Cologne player was happy to hear that name, because Michels was known as a strict disciplinarian - hence his nicknames such as 'The Dictator' or 'The General'. But he was also a living legend, the inventor of Total Football. A few years ago, David Winner wrote: "Without Rinus Michels, who in 1999 was chosen by FIFA as 'Coach of the Century', Ajax would not have become a world famous club. Without Michels, Holland would not have become a great football nation. It is hard to overstate the importance of the charismatic Amsterdammer."

Indeed. In fact, one could and maybe should add Barcelona to that list, as Michels had coached the Catalans twice and was certainly a major reason why Johan Cruyff went there in 1973, which ultimately laid the foundation for the footballing philosophy Guardiola now represents. "There is no one I learnt from more than Rinus Michels," Cruyff said upon his mentor's death in 2005. "I often tried to imitate him and that's the greatest compliment one could give."

In 1980, Cologne wanted this legendary coach and Michels - who'd just coached the Los Angeles Aztecs for two years he liked to call "paid vacation" - was looking for the proverbial new challenge. The only problem was this coaching badge. But not for nothing do Cologners have a reputation for finding, er, inventive solutions. Both Herings and the club's business manager Hennes Löhr owned the necessary diploma. So Cologne asked the DFB if Michels could run the team as Technical Director (Löhr actually used the term "Head of the Professional Football Department") as long as a qualified coach, namely Herings, was assisting him. The DFB gave the green light, albeit reluctantly, and one of the most famous coaches in the world signed with Cologne.

Compared to today, the hubbub was low-key. Of course there was no special presentation of the new coach, let alone live coverage on television. But that's because football was a much less glamorous affair back then, anyway. Only 9,000 fans came out to see Michels's first game in charge, a 4-0 win over Karlsruhe, yet that wasn't unusual in 1980. On the same matchday, Bayern Munich drew even less people - 8,000 against Bochum - and just a shade over 10,000 came out to see Mönchengladbach play Nuremberg.

So it's the little things that tell you how momentous the occasion was. For the post-match press conference, Cologne's press room was literally packed - and not just with journalists. Many normal fans and other curious onlookers had somehow found their way into the room. When Michels appeared to face the press, he was greeted with loud applause and cheers - a reception not even Guardiola got last week.

Many in the audience expected a stern, taciturn, humourless man - the Dutch had a reason for calling Michels "the Bulldog" - but instead he came across as funny, talkative and open. "It's been a long time since I last was this nervous," Michels admitted and joked that the opposition had gifted his team "two pretty penalties" to help him get a good start.

It was some start indeed. In only his second game, Michels met Barcelona, of all teams, in the UEFA Cup and lost 1-0 at home. But the return game in early November produced one of the biggest results in club history, as Michels's men won 4-0 at the Camp Nou.

In the end, though, Michels's time in Cologne left mixed feelings. He finished in second place in his second season and won the German FA Cup in his third, but the longer he stayed the more he reverted to type. Michels grew uncommunicative, remote and harsh. In August 1983, he realised he had no friend left in the team, let alone the media, and asked the club to be let out of his contract.

By that time, though, Michels was no longer the only famous foreign coach in the Bundesliga. Netzer had closely watched how Cologne handled the matter of the coaching badge and only six months after Michels had come to Germany, in April 1981, Hamburg finally signed Ernst Happel and put one of those Yugoslav coaches with the right qualifications, Aleksandar Ristić, next to him on the bench.

At the time, Franz Beckenbauer was playing for Hamburg, and so a journalist asked Happel if he would get along with the Kaiser. "Herr Beckenbauer is a star player," Happel slowly replied in his trademark mumble. Then he added: "And I am a star coach."

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