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UEFA Champions League

Cor baby that's really free

Hello and welcome to the latest dispatch from LOW (Land of the Winterbreak).

Not much has been going on, apart from a little burlesque at second-division Karlsruhe. The club fired the coach a few days before Christmas and proudly presented Reinhold Fanz as their new gaffer during the following week.

At the end of the day, I never stood a chance. As for the rest, ask my lawyer.
Reinhold Fanz

That, however, was a trifle rash, as the board had failed to realise that the man they had just signed was the favourite enemy of their main sponsor's chairman. Karlsruhe, it should be noted, are some 7m euros in the red, which helps explain why they got itchy when this sponsor, energy company EnBW, promptly threatened to severe all ties with the club.

And so Fanz got the axe a mere seven days after putting his name on the dotted line and less than a day before he was to set off for the training camp with the squad. Ten minutes after announcing this decision, Karlsruhe's board of directors stepped down en bloc.

'At the end of the day, I never stood a chance,' Fanz meanwhile told the press. 'As for the rest, ask my lawyer.' This lawyer has now filed an injunction suit against EnBW, demanding an apology for 'stigmatising' his client.

Thus, at the time of writing, Karlsruhe don't have a coach and don't have a board, but since they still have a sponsor, I guess everything's dandy.

Yet, like I said, that was as interesting as it got. By New Year's Day I was so desperate for some football I even slumped down in front of the TV to watch live coverage from the Premiership: The German subscription channel Premiere offered a conference of all eight afternoon games, meaning they took you from ground to ground, depending on what happened where.

The snag was that nothing much was happening at all, apart from a stampede at White Hart Lane. Which I took as validation of Phil Ball's recent observation that England's top flight might be a tad overhyped. But of course I could be wrong.

In any case, I decided to make the best out of the winter doldrums by attempting to overcome the Rotterdam phobia I had acquired on the day of the UEFA Cup Final 2002.

In other words, we went to Holland again and combined our stay by the sea with a day trip to the city of Feyenoord (and Sparta).

To my surprise, nobody yelled insults at us, nobody threw stuff at our car, nobody made unmistakable gestures. I wasn't even molested when I paid for the used book I got at De Slegte with money from a purse the design of which gave me away as a German football fan. Guess the Dutch grow comatose during the winter break as well.

Said book was This is Pop by Ed Jones, which very slowly - no reason to hurry, it's the off-season, remember? - leads us to the topic of this column. (If indeed it has one.) The subtitle of the book is The Life and Times of a Failed Rock Star, which means it's part of the triumvirate made complete by John Otway's Cor Baby, That's Really Me and Giles Smith's Lost in Music.

Lars Ricken: Yep, Uli's finally going to mention him soon. (JohnWalton/Empics)
They are all accounts of either coming very close to making it in the world of pop music and then losing out on the glittering prizes, or of actually making it - but only for an agonisingly brief moment.

Reading Jones's book, and recalling Otway's and Smith's, made me think of Lars Ricken.

Of course his chosen career path isn't music, though he sang background vocals for the German indie band Phantoms of Future, put out a compilation of his favourite bands and once said his biggest aim in life was to meet Metallica. I'm also willing to admit he made it further than, say, John Otway.

Heck, he won his team the Champions League with a wonder goal before he was 21 years old! But that, you see, is part of the dilemma, as he hasn't done much since.

In October, I was sitting in the press stand, watching Dortmund play Hamburg, with a publisher who supports Dortmund and my friend Christoph, a Bochum fan who's written a few football books.

Deep into the second half, Ricken was brought on. He ran this way and that in the strangely strained trot of his until a cross from the left found him ten yards in front of goal. Or almost found him.

Because Ricken missed the ball trying to backheel it and fell flat on his nose. 'Well, he almost got a touch of the ball there,' I tonelessly said, while the publisher at the exact same moment asked: 'Has Ricken touched the ball a single time since he came on?'

Christoph stared at both of us with mock indignation and wanted to know: 'What's the problem with you Dortmund guys and Lars Ricken?'

Yeah, what is the problem?

For three glorious years, Ricken was Dortmund's local hero and Germany's brightest young hope. In March of 1994, during a time when Dortmund were beginning to fear a flirt with the relegation zone, he scored a crucial goal - at age 17 and in the very first game he started.

Nine months later, his 120th-minute strike against La Coruna sent Dotmund into the quarter-finals of the UEFA-Cup against all odds.

In the following season, he scored the goal at Auxerre that got his team into the semis of the Champions League, scored the goal at Old Trafford that secured a place in the final, scored the goal in the final that won the pot of gold.

Four months on, he played for his country. Then he did a stylish Nike TV ad during which he bemoaned that 'people in pinstripes' had taken over the game. He was 21 years old - and his fairy-tale had, by and large, ended.

Why this is the case is difficult to say. Some claim he lacked the fire and commitment to stay at the top once he'd reached it. There may be some truth to this, considering he's just vetoed challenging moves to Man City and Rangers, saying he wants to 'win through' at his hometown club. Where he's now under the third coach in a row who doesn't consider him a regular. (In the past year, he's played more games for Dortmund's amateurs in the third division than in the top flight.)

Downhill from here: Lars Ricken celebrates that goal in the 1997 Champions League Final. (Photography/Empics)
Others point to a match at Bielefeld in October of 1997, when a ruthless tackle put him out for over two months. (It was also Matthias Sammer's last-ever game of football.) After the comeback, Ricken was substituted twelve out of sixteen times and just hasn't been the same player since.

But whatever the reasons, he seems destined to go down into history as a three-season-wonder.

Try reaching his homepage, for instance, and you'll get the message: 'The operation timed out when attempting to contact'

You can't put it any better than that. I wonder if he'll write a book about his travails in fifteen years' time or so.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.