Football: German machine splutters to a halt

Berti Vogts' resignation has left one of the world's football superpowers in crisis.
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The Independent Online
VISITORS TO Germany might have been excused for thinking that a grave natural catastrophe had befallen the country on Monday night. As television stations dumped their peak-time programmes, dark-suited men filled the screens, addressing the nation in sombre tones.

The sense of crisis is palpable. After the sudden - if not entirely unexpected - resignation of Berti Vogts, the national football team is rudderless. The first qualifier in the European Championship is only a month away, and the only candidate available and deemed good enough yesterday turned down the job. The captain, Oliver Bierhoff, is already fretting about "chaos".

His concern, and the anguish of his countrymen, is understandable. Other countries may hire and fire their national team managers on a whim, but Germany prefers stability and continuity. Promotion here tends to be on the strict "dead man's shoes" principle and the incumbent, as was the case with Vogts, enjoys a "lifetime contract".

Hence, the event Germans are witnessing is rare indeed. There have been fewer German national coaches this century than chancellors. Vogts was only the sixth since 1923 and only the second to fall on his sword. And worst of all: his demise leaves no obvious successor in place.

Vogts' assistant, Rainer Bonhof, has had a lower profile than the grass at Borussia Dortmund's pitch. He announced he was applying yesterday, but clearly did not think he was in with much of a chance. "You cannot expect that the tradition, whereby the the assistant on previous occasions became the coach, will be followed," he said.

The youth coaches - the other possibilities - are widely blamed for bringing German football to its current predicament: the Old Boys' team had to represent the country in France because the youngsters were not good enough. Youth trainer Uli Stielike has also conceded that he has not worked for the national outfit long enough to enter the reckoning.

Other potential bosses were busy yesterday talking themselves out of the job. Franz Beckenbauer, Vogts' predecessor, said he was totally uninterested, and no longer had "the feel for the bench". Ottmar Hitzfeld, Christoph Daum and Otto Rehagel declared themselves handcuffed to their present clubs - Bayern Munich, Leverkusen and Kaiserslautern respectively. No other Bundesliga coach is deemed fit for the task.

Unfortunately for German football, the one unemployed, world-class coach who might have filled the gap ruled himself out yesterday evening. Jupp Heynckes, sacked by Real Madrid at the end of last season for winning nothing but the Champions' League for the Spanish club, had come highly recommended, but decided to turn down the offer because his wife had just been taken to hospital. "She needs another operation," Heynckes explained, when asked if he was interested in coaching Germany. "I have other concerns at the moment."

Egidius Braun, the 73-year-old president of the Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB), spent a nervous day on the telephone canvassing suitable candidates. It would not look good if the five other men on the board deciding the appointment had to give it to the first comer, but that might be the outcome.

The reason nobody is in a hurry to take up Vogts' place on the bench can be found in the parting words of the outgoing coach. He had to leave, Vogts said, in order to preserve his "human dignity". It was a reference to the hounding he had been subjected to by the press, particularly by Bild Zeitung, the country's leading tabloid.

For that and other reasons, the mission ahead seems all but impossible. After last week's miserable performances against Malta - a hard-earned 2-1 win - and Romania, a lucky 1-1 draw - the team is clearly heading for disaster on its first competitive outing in Turkey. A coach must be found soon, and so acute is their need that officials have not excluded the possibility of hiring a foreigner. They have promised to make a decision by the weekend.

Whoever is picked, change is in the wind. The DFB's well-oiled machinery has been spluttering, the organisation is in disarray, and the kids are not coming through. By exacting German standards, one trophy in eight years - Euro 96 - the DFB has failed to deliver the goods.

"After Vogts' resignation, the DFB must seize the opportunity and introduce professional structures," urged Willi Lemke, Werder Bremen's manager. The most important priority, many coaches are saying, is to discover the Klinsmanns of tomorrow, if not today.

There are some people who already claim to have found them, in an environment where few have been prepared to look. Germans have been deeply impressed by the spectacle of a motley collection of Africans, South Americans and Polynesians running amok at the World Cup in the colours of France and the Netherlands. There are more than 7 million non-Germans living in Germany, their children pack the village teams all over the country, and some of them grow up to become valued Bundesliga players. Why is it, people ask, that the likes of Bayern's Mehmet Scholl cannot get into the national team? Is there, by any chance, a racial barrier operating in German football?

To some extent, Berti Vogts has himself given an answer to that sensitive question. His last-throw squad assembled for his farewell friendlies featured not one but three Germans of foreign origin. The most promising of the newcomers is Mustafa Dogan, the son of Turkish immigrants, who is plying his trade with Fenerbahce of Istanbul.

Dogan is a thoroughly German-style defender, aged 22, who is already hailed as a worthy successor to the great Jurgen Kohler. Why he has never been capped is inexplicable.

He may now get his chance in that crucial match against the country of his parents on 10 October, a match that is set to herald a new beginning for German football, and not just in respect of the manager.