Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 18 News List

German coaches walk dizzying tightrope

REUTERS , BERLIN

You want a safe job? Stay away from the Bundesliga. Coaching a football team is like swimming in a pool infested with sharks anywhere in the world but it is particularly dangerous these days in Germany, where two controversial cases have prompted a heated debate.

In all four Bundesliga coaches have lost their jobs this season -- Cologne's Friedhelm Funkel completing the unhappy quartet on Thursday -- and no doubt more will follow shortly.

Having a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads and hearing fans insult them from the stands whenever their team fail to shine is part of the daily routine for those who have chosen the notoriously precarious trade.

But things can get more perverse than that, as Hertha Berlin's Huub Stevens and Hamburg SV's Kurt Jara have just found out. Stevens is hanging on to his job by his fingertips -- Jara is one of the four already despatched.

Stevens was told by his bosses that he had to win his next two games, both against Hansa Rostock, to avoid being sacked.

The Dutchman, not usually a man to show his emotions, broke down in tears and went to hug his players one by one after Hertha won the first game 1-0 in the Bundesliga on Saturday.

His fate was on the line again three days later, this time in the German Cup, and the scenario could not have been more dramatic, his team equalizing in the final minute of extra time before winning on penalties.

There were more tears from Stevens, and a clenched fist. For the moment he survives.

Jara felt his job was safe when HSV president Bernd Hoffmann said last week that he trusted him and he would definitely be sitting on the bench for the team's next league game.

But three days later, and before the match Jara was warming up for, Hoffmann sacked the Austrian and appointed Klaus Toppmoeller.

"We didn't break our promise, we just changed our minds," Hoffmann told German television on Saturday.

Hertha Berlin executive manager Dieter Hoeness was sitting next to Hoffmnan that day, discussing the art of sacking coaches on a popular sports program.

Hoeness was asked whether it had not been a bit harsh to publicly tell the embattled Stevens that he would be fired if his team failed to win their next two games.

"We didn't present him with an ultimatum," Hoeness said. "We gave him a chance."

Several German coaches feel things have gone too far and have asked for more respect from the men upstairs.

"It's either win or lose, white or black, and there's nothing in between," said Schalke 04's Jupp Heynckes, who knows how ungrateful clubs can be since being given the boot by Real Madrid after winning the Champions League for them in 1998.

German Coach of the Year Felix Magath, a popular figure at the moment with his VfB Stuttgart team shining on all fronts, also offered sympathy to Jara and company.

"The clubs have come to think that whenever something goes wrong, the simplest thing to do is to get rid of the coach," Magath told the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

"That may be true, but only for the chairman who removes himself from the line of fire by doing so."

A popular option with clubs in trouble, sacking the coach is not only cruel. As any coach will tell you and as a recent German study confirmed, it does not help.

Researchers from the University of Muenster have analysed the effects of 206 coach changes in 35 years of the Bundesliga, from 1963 to 1998, and their conclusions are quite clear.

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