Typically when a dictatorship falls, its trappings are targeted amid the hysteria of liberation. Statues are pulled down, portraits are stamped on and burned. Ruled with an iron fist for so long, the people simply can’t wait to wipe out all memory of years of repression.
It’s a wonder then how the Wolfsburg players reacted last Thursday to the news that Felix Magath had stepped down.
Freed from the regime of a coach who has been nicknamed ‘Saddam’, one suspects that the medicine balls synonymous with his hard training sessions were among the first objects of their emancipatory frenzy. It’d be a surprise if any at all escaped a slash or at least a playful puncture. Auf wiedersehen, Quälix. Good riddance!
Never again—unless of course he comes back for a third spell in charge—would the players have to go through the kind of sadism that they had to endure in late September when, on their return from a exhausting long run through the Wolfsburg woods, they discovered to their horror that most of the contents of their water bottles had been poured away.
This, it seems, was the beginning of the end for Magath. The players, as you might expect, had had enough. A 2-0 defeat to Freiburg the Saturday before last was Wolfsburg’s fourth in a row. It was their seventh match without a win and left the club bottom of the table, a far cry from when they won the Bundesliga at the end of Magath’s first stint at the Volkswagen Arena back in 2009.
To some, of course, this wasn’t a surprise. His former employer, the Bayern Munich president, plane crash survivor and sausage-maker extraordinaire Uli Hoeneß recalled the circumstances that had led him to sack Magath five years ago. “If you do the double-double [a feat none one other than him has achieved in German football in 2005 and 2006] and still manage to turn 80% of the players against you, something is wrong. That seems to be the problem at Wolfsburg… When the players run so little, they’re either broken by the training or playing against the coach.”
Magath, living in denial, dismissed the claim even though there was evidence to suggest Hoeneß had a point. The level of antipathy he inspires was clear when Wolfsburg visited his former club Schalke at the beginning of October. Treated to chants of “never again, Felix Magath, never again,” Jefferson Farfán later dashed over to the visitor’s bench after scoring and mouthed ‘hijo de puta’ in his previous coach’s direction after scoring the opener.
The Wolfsburg players presumably took no pleasure whatsoever in the 3-0 beat-down they received in Gelsenkirchen, but perhaps a few envied Farfán a little for telling Magath what he really thought of him to his face. Instead, they apparently went behind his back. The Hamburger Abenblatt claimed as many as six members of the Wolfsburg squad had held discussions at board level with a view to getting rid of Magath. Only one was supposedly in favour of him staying.
The report was denied yet it was clear, even to Magath, that his position had become untenable. A club statement revealed: “Felix Magath took the first step in explaining to the board of directors that the club has a predominant place in his heart. He therefore offered to be relieved of his duties since he did not want the club to suffer.”
The sadist had put Wolfsburg out of their misery. His settlement, reportedly €4m, paid up the contract he’d extended only in the summer until 2015. It was a small price to pay considering Magath, in his capacity as both coach and director of football, had splurged €70m on new signings in the last 18 months without delivering on the promise of a return on the investment.
Irrespective of his insistence that there’s a strategy behind it, Magath’s wheeler-dealing has brought scrutiny. Since 2007 he has bought 113 players, sold 83 and spent €165m. It was thought to have contributed to his dismissal at Schalke. “Results on the pitch were not decisive for our decision,” said the chairman of the club’s supervisory board Clemens Tönnies. Make of that what you will.
Of course, one explanation for Magath’s revolving door policy is that his methods leave players so jaded, weary and resentful that there’s a constant need to refresh the squad with new players.
In the meantime, Wolfsburg have promoted Lorenz-Günther Köstner as their caretaker boss. “I was in the sauna and about to head to lunch then watch a match between Hannover II and Bremen II,” he explained. “I switched on my mobile and I had [Wolfsburg chairman] Francisco Garcia-Sanz asking to call back. I did that and they told me Magath was no longer the coach and asked if I wanted to take over. It is my duty to help, and I think, Magath agrees with that.”
Köstner has overseen an instant turnaround. Wolfsburg recorded their first win since late August at the weekend, hammering Fortuna Düsseldorf 4-1 away from home and scoring their first goals in 458 minutes of Bundesliga action. “We played football again,” Wolfsburg playmaker Diego said. “The players were relieved of a burden. The attitude was different and we weren’t afraid of making mistakes. Our new coach is very intelligent and clever. You could realise that even when he first addressed the team. He respects the players and gives them confidence.”
Now in his second stint as interim boss, Köstner claims he doesn’t want the job on a permanent basis and there are reports that he is merely keeping the bench warm for either Bernd Schuster or Bert van Marwijk, while Christian Nerlinger is expected to become the club’s new sporting director. Even so, by leading Wolfsburg to a second straight victory last night, vanquishing FSV Frankfurt in the DFB-Pokal 2-0, he appears to have lifted the crisis.
As for Magath, it’s unclear what future awaits him. He has said that Wolfsburg would be his last club in the Bundesliga, which indicates that he will try his hand abroad. Come what may, he remains one of German football’s most successful coaches. It’s enough to recall the trophies he won at Bayern, the miracle he worked at Eintracht Frankfurt, saving them when they were eight points adrift at the bottom of the table at Christmas and how he improbably guided Wolfsburg to their first and only Bundesliga title.
“I don’t know if Magath could have saved the Titanic from going under, but the survivors would have been very fit,” quipped his former striker Jan Åge Fjørtoft. That’s certainly true.
For now, Magath has resurfaced on Facebook. “Hello friends and fans, I’ll stay in touch with you,” he posted. “There are enough exciting subjects to get into and life and football are certainly going to provide them. Look after yourselves and have a nice time.”