Hitzfeld: I turned down United job because of language barrier
Switzerland's German coach, who retires after World Cup 2014, says succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002 would have been too daunting without the command of English
Swiss manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has revealed he turned down the managerial role at Old Trafford in 2002 because of his lack of English.
At 65, the German claims “the time has come to stop” after 30 years in football and, despite Galatasaray’s efforts to persuade him to reconsider his plans by tabling a lucrative offer to replace Roberto Mancini as manager in Istanbul, Hitzfeld remains undeterred.
Hitzfeld is a man who knows his own mind. After all, he rejected the opportunity to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager in 2002 because the challenge at Old Trafford, he believed, would have been too daunting without a command of English.
“I don’t want to go into too many details because it was between myself and Manchester United,” Hitzfeld said. “But I decided to stay in Germany because, when I am coaching I prefer to express myself in German because this is my mother tongue.
“I did not think I would be able to do myself justice if I had to speak to the players in English. I would not be able to get my emotions and feelings across. The players in the Swiss dressing room speak a variety of languages, including Italian, French and English, but when they come to work, I coach them in German.
“All the players understand it. If there are some special expressions required then one of my coaches might use a bit of Italian or French, but I coach them only in German and it is better that way.
“As long as you are successful and winning matches the language is no problem at all. But when the results are insufficient, the difficulties begin. At this time, a coach needs to go into more detail with his instructions and that’s where the problems can lie.”
Ferguson’s decision to abandon his retirement plans in 2002 ensured that United were able to shrug off Hitzfeld’s rejection, but working in England may have added lustre to his already glittering CV, which features Champions League wins with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich and seven Bundesliga titles.
Two Swiss titles with Grasshopper and three Swiss cups also bolster a track record which has been further embellished during his six-year reign as Switzerland coach. His side face France in Salvador on Friday having climbed to sixth in the Fifa world rankings under Hitzfeld, with a dramatic victory over Ecuador in Brasilia ensuring they go into the clash with their neighbours vying for top spot in Group E.
“When you see how this team has developed with Hitzfeld’s coaching, you don’t need many words,” goalkeeper Diego Benaglio said. “What makes him special is how he speaks with his teams, something we could see during half-time against Ecuador. At that point, he made smart substitutions and that’s because of his big experience.
“That’s what the coach is like. And because of that, he is one of the most decorated coaches. Against Ecuador, thank God, everything went well.”
With a multicultural team reflecting Switzerland’s large immigrant community – the squad consists of several players with Balkan and Turkish heritage – Hitzfeld has moulded a team who have been without the internal tensions that have dogged previous Swiss squads.
As a result, expectations are high in Switzerland that the team can reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time since they played host to the tournament in 1954.
“Maybe we can write history,” Hitzfeld said. “It is always a great experience taking a team to a World Cup, and the way we qualified this time was a highlight for me. Now we want to be successful in Brazil, and for me that would be the quarter-finals. Getting that far would be history for Switzerland. That is my aim.”
Once it is over for the Swiss, however, it will be the end of the road for Hitzfeld, who will be replaced by the Bosnia-born former Lazio coach Vladimir Petkovic. But unlike his good friend Ferguson, whose initial retirement was abandoned more than a decade before he finally vacated centre-stage, Hitzfeld insists Brazil will be the end.
“I can live without football,” Hitzfeld said. “There are more important things in life.”