COMMENT: The coach deserves to be remembered along with the very best that Europe has produced after a remarkable career
When Angel Di Maria latched onto Lionel Messi’s pass after nearly two hours of intense action to ensure Argentina’s progression to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it was the action the brought the curtain down not only on Switzerland’s campaign, but also the career of storied coach Ottmar Hitzfeld.
His has been a career that ranks in the very top echelons of European bosses. Alongside two Champions League crowns sit seven Bundesliga titles and two Swiss Super Leagues, while his achievement of lifting unfashionable Switzerland into the top 10 of the Fifa Ranking is also a notable accomplishment, even if it is overshadowed by his array of titles.
"I'm proud of my career," he reflected after the loss on Tuesday afternoon. "I've had some marvellous teams. It's been a great honour and I have a heart full of emotion."
|OTTMAR HITZFELD: THE CV
Swiss Super League
Swiss Super Cup
DFB Super Cup
1998-99, 99-00, 00-01, 02-03, 07-08
1999-00, 02-03, 07-08
1998, 99, 00, 07
As in his playing days, the 65-year-old began in Switzerland before moving back to his home country. Where he had been a player with Stuttgart, he was to become a coach with Dortmund, and it was with BVB he ended a near 15-year drought of German European champions by beating the mighty Juventus in 1997. For this achievement, he was named World Coach of the Year.
Greater heights would be scaled with Bayern, where he enjoyed two spells totalling over seven years. Most memorably, he would become only the second coach in the 50-year history of the European Cup to win it with two different clubs, following in the footsteps of the legendary Ernst Happel by beating Valencia on penalties in 2001.
The two European crowns lifted by Hitzfeld’s sides were the only ones the German top flight would muster in two decades until Bayern Munich regained the title in 2013.
Hitzfeld was educated in the same coaching school as many of the modern greats, amongst them Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Jupp Heynckes, though his achievements have been cast unjustly into the shadows.
Like Ferguson, Capello and Heynckes, Hitzfeld, named Bayern’s greatest ever coach in 2005, should be considered a European giant.
Indeed, had he replaced the Scot at Manchester United in 2002, as he turned down the opportunity to do before Ferguson’s retirement U-turn, his story may now be cast in a more favourable light, as the Bundesliga was not the draw in Hitzfeld’s hayday as it is now.
The coach, who was born in south Germany close to the Swiss border, has never been one for fashion, though. When he led Dortmund to their greatest moment, they were by no means considered one of Europe’s elite sides, yet they overcame opponents studded with diamonds such as Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps.
Indeed, it was only during his time with Bayern can he really claim to have spent significant time with a genuinely great outfit.
It was fitting, therefore, that his time has come to a close with Switzerland, a country with little meaningful footballing pedigree, yet one that is now well placed to reap the benefits of Hitzfeld’s wisdom in the years to come and the cosmopolitan Vladimir Petkovic.
The legacy the German has left is ultimately one of unity, having drawn a group of players from varying backgrounds together to become one of the best 16 teams in the world, running a potent Argentina team very close in the meantime.
The coach described the occasion as "the highlight of his career" to the media, and had it not been for the dancing feet of Messi and Di Maria’s crisp late finish, he may have enjoyed an even greater stage from which to bow out on, though only the final would have provided one fitting for a great of the modern game.