Theatre of dreams and the absurd

The Rudi Voller Interview: German coach's bizarre entrance has led to a shift in fortunes as England await
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Young, inexperienced, unassuming, greying, a great player in his time, a manager adored by the fans yet questioned by the media. Were it not for the moustache you could be forgiven for thinking the description fits the England coach, Kevin Keegan, and not his German counterpart, Rudi Völler.

Young, inexperienced, unassuming, greying, a great player in his time, a manager adored by the fans yet questioned by the media. Were it not for the moustache you could be forgiven for thinking the description fits the England coach, Kevin Keegan, and not his German counterpart, Rudi Völler.

France use an 18th-century château for their squad announcements, Italy prefer a picturesque mansion, while England opt for a countryside hotel. Germany, though, chose to name their players to face England at Wembley on Saturday in a disused warehouse. But the setting was apposite. Tall, imposing, strong and made of iron, this tower, which supplied fuel to the factories of the industrial town of Oberhausen until it was shut down in 1989 and turned into an exhibition hall, is a monument to Teutonism.

Völler, though, is no stereotype. He has a certain enigmatic qualityabout him and, like Gianluca Vialli or Arsÿne Wenger, he is well travelled and cosmopolitan. On Thursday, as we discussed his bizarre appointment and astonishing success, he chose to speak through an interpreter, even though he is known to speak at least four languages. Völler, however, is no fool. He understands the particular significance of Saturday's England-Germany match and is anxious not to be misquoted. "Hello, gents," came the teasing greeting. "I can understand all the things," Völler explained in perfect English, "but I want to talk in German."

In the short time he has been in charge of the Mannschaft, Völler has proved he speaks the same language as his players. "As soon as I took over," he said, "I made it my priority to sit down with all the guys and talk to them. Good communication is a huge part of building a successful team. I wanted to restore those values to the German squad."

The circumstances of Völler's appointment are nothing short of extraordinary. On 2 July, he was sent to the German football federation headquarters by his employers Bayer Leverkusen, where he was sporting director, to inform them that the club's current coach, Christoph Daum, would not be released from his contract to replace Eric Ribbeck at the helm of thenational team. Shocked and confused at the rebuttal, the German powers that be did not know where to turn. The media were gathered outside waiting for Daum's appointment to be confirmed but the federation, under enormous pressure to make the right decision this time, had no alternatives.

What followed was pure Monty Python. "Will you do it?" asked the vice-president of the federation. "Who? Me?" replied Völler, convinced the old man was looking at him but talking to someone else. "Yes, you," came the confirmation. "But make your mind up quickly, we have to give the media a name." A few minutes and a quick phone call to his wife Sabrina later, and Völler was the new head coach of the German national team. He will be in charge until April 2001, when Daum will be allowed to leave Bayer Leverkusen to take over the reins.

When Völler started, he was faced with a Herculean task. In much the same way as England, Germany were still picking up the pieces after their desperately poor European Championship. Having been knocked out at the group stage, the 1996 winners were at rock bottom. Morale within the squad was at an all-time low and criticism was at an all-time high. Worse still, nobody could see light at the end of the darkest of tunnels.

"Everyone knew after Euro 2000 that our team was capable of playing a lot better than they did," Völler said. "It was the same for England. But we had problems of attitude. The atmosphere in the camp was very tense and the players had lost faith in the basic principles of the game. My main aim has been to recreate a team rather than 11 individual players. In 1996, we had a real group. Last summer, we didn't."

Völler added, rather modestly: "I haven't done much really. I've kept the same players and simply made a couple of adjustments. One important change was to encourage the team to act rather than react. I want us to play more attacking football and move away from the old libero system. I think things are changing a little since I took over. That's encouraging."

As a striker who scored 47 goals in 90 matches for his country, Völler was always going to encourage his team to go forward more. Germany's 4-1 victory over Spain in a friendly, and their subsequent 2-0 win against Greece in a World Cup qualifier are testament to the instant impact the former Werder Bremen, Roma, Marseille and Bayer Leverkusen player has had. "I am surprised by the impression I have made in the two games," Völler said.

"But it's always the same thing in football: if you get the results there is a change in the whole atmosphere. We were at the bottom but now we have won two matches and there is a different feel about the team."

Having restored pride and confidence, Völler now has to turn his attentions to persuading his players that they are good enough to avenge their defeat by England in the Low Countries and, thereby, ruin the Wembley finale. "I don't think the match in Charleroi is of any consequence," Völler argued. "Both countries have had good results since and both will be far more positive. England got an impressive draw against France in Paris and that will give them a lot of confidence.

"They know now that they arecapable of matching the world and European champions. Michael Owen, in particular, is an outstanding player. I watched him when he scored a hat-trick, for Liverpool against Aston Villa, and he was very dangerous. The thing about him is that he is so difficult to control. He's not only very fast but also a very confident player. He scores goals and he creates problems for defences."

Völler added: "England's strength is that they are not just a one-man team. They also have players like David Beckham and Paul Scholes who can turn a match and make the difference. That's why I'm convinced the Wembley game will be really attractive to watch. Charleroi was very poor from both sides. That won't happen again."

Despite Völler's assertion, the fact remains that EnglandGermany matches are always tense; rarely brilliant. Furthermore, the feeling is that the Euro 2000 result could have an influence on the players, particularly the English. Before the summer, England had not defeated their rivals since the 4-2 World Cup final win in 1966. Since then, there have been memorable confrontations, most notably the World Cup quarter-final in 1970, the World Cup semi-final in 1990 and the European Championship semi-final in 1996.

All, however, ended in triumph for Germany. Having ended the 34-year sequence thanks to Alan Shearer's second-half header in Charleroi, Keegan's men will be anxious to extend their winning run.

"We often speak about the 1966 final because it was such a great match with so many great players," said Völler, who remembers watching the game on the television, as a six-year old. "But that's history, that's over. We had the wrong result that afternoon, but we got the right one several times after that. It's the way it goes on the day. You can never predict the outcome."

Völler, who played 70 minutes of the Italia 90 semi-final against England in Torino, added: "Whatever the result on Saturday, it will be very close. Our last two victories over England were on penalties. Those are not comprehensive defeats. In those situations, it comes down to who can hold their nerve better. To be perfectly honest, at that stage, it's all about luck."

Völler's only previous encounter with Keegan was some 20 years ago in the German Cup. At the time, Keegan was European Player of the year and his club Hamburg were one of the best sides in the world. By contrast, Völler was a 19-year-old emerging striker, trying to make a name for himself with third division Kicker Offenbach. On that occasion - "one of my fondest memories," Völler said - youth and inexperience won the day against the odds, as Kicker Offenbach triumphed 2-0. What price young Rudi to repeat that feat on Saturday? "I would quite happily take a draw," Völler said. "But I realise this is going to be a very special occasion and England will be anxious not to lose.

"Wembley is a terrific stadium, full of incredible memories. I'm sad I never got the chance to play there, but we are very excited at the prospect of being part of the farewell celebrations. That said, this is not a friendly. We could do with the three points as much as England and I can tell you we'll be looking for the win. The last ever win at Wembley."