Interview of the Week: Felix Magath

Are you often lost in translation? Well, Bill Murray found Scarlett Johansson when he was, but we can offer you something even better. Going forward, we will translate some of the best interviews published in the German media, so that you won’t lose out when it comes to articles you otherwise would have to rush through using various inadequate translators.

We will start with a translation of the Felix Magath interview from the great German football magazine 11 Freunde, published this month. So, without further ado, enjoy this excellent interview with Felix Magath conducted by Christoph Biermann and Tim Jürgens.

Do you really just spread fear, Felix Magath?

No Bundesliga coach is as polarizing as Felix Magath. But, how does the he himself like the image of the tough man, the criticism of his transfer policy and the war on Schalke?

11 Freunde: Felix Magath, you have to live with a number of clichés surrounding your personality. We would like to see if that image is at all rooted in reality.

Felix Magath: Aha, you are starting with the old ”Quälix” story. I have to tell you right away, I don’t have a problem with that nick name, I’ve always loved to read ”Asterix”.

11 Freunde: Excellent, then let’s handle the hardest accusations one by one. Is that all right with you?

Felix Magath: All right, let’s start.

Rafinha told Bild that he is qualified to be a general after the training sessions under Magath. Needless to say, the Brazilian didn't enjoy himself very much under Magath.

11 Freunde:”Quälix”, ”Saddam”, ”Dictator” – few Bundesliga coaches have gotten as many dubious nick names from the German media. Do you really just spread fear?

Felix Magath: It has always been said that I do spread fear, and put the players under enormous pressure, but I am the nicest guy in the entire world.(laughs)

11 Freunde: You don’t have to prove to us that the opposite is true. It is a fact that there are few others who get as moody after a defeat, making everybody else in the room think: ”Let me never be guilty when this man has lost a game.”

Felix Magath: I have always had issues with losing. I’ve never tried to hide that fact.

11 Freunde: But?

Felix Magath: I made the conscious decision early on that I’ll vent to the outside about losses and stupid mistake. Also considering my own health.

11 Freunde: Are you afraid of getting a heart attack?

Felix Magath: I’ve seen what happens if you keep everything to yourself with coaches like Branko Zebec and Ernst Happel. Those guys died early, and they always kept their anger to themselves. Why should I take such a risk? I’m sure that the public can live with me gesturing from the side line and loudly instructing my players on the pitch.

11 Freunde: Talking about authoritative rituals: You once called Lukas Podolski to your office, and you stirred your tea-pot for minutes without saying a word.

Felix Magath: I can’t remember that happening, but I will make sure to never talk to players whose minds seem elsewhere and who don’t pay attention to what I say. It can happen that I pause and think for two minutes, before I continue talking in order to get the person I’m talking with to understand where I’m coming from and what I want.

11 Freunde: When you started coaching Bayern in 2004, you asked Bastian Schweinsteiger in the first training session who he is. He had just become a national team player.

Felix Magath: Even though many people would not be able to imagine it, even I can make a joke. Unfortunately it seems that some professional footballers think about it more than I do. This story actually had a background. He came as a newcomer to the Euros, and he was a little off track. But he showed the right reaction. After two weeks with the amateurs (second team) he worked really hard in our training sessions.

11 Freunde: You can’t expect that every player understands irony.

Jan Åge Fjørtoft: Legendary for his 5-1 goal against Kaiserslautern that saved Eintracht Frankfurt from relegation, and able to understand Magath's sense of humor.

Felix Magath:Sometimes I have the feeling that the only player who could fully comprehend my philosophy was Jan Åge Fjørtoft.

11 Freunde: When you saved Eintracht Frankfurt from getting relegated in 2000 he said: ”I don’t know if Magath could have saved the Titanic from going under, but the survivors would have been very fit.”

Felix Magath: The boy has many good phrases in his repertoire.

11 Freunde: A young Wolfsburg player once said: ”I imagined it to be bad under Magath, but it was much worse.”

Felix Magath: Everybody knows that I emphasize fitness. You have to reach your limits if you want to perform to your potential. You shouldn’t take that comment too seriously. I think that the player was joking.

11 Freunde: But your aren’t the players mate.

Felix Magath: One thing I’ve learned from my coaches as a player is that you have to keep your distance in order to be successful. As a coach I have to be able to make decisions without having emotions impacting my choices. That helps the players, who want to be judged objectively and want to be put to work like that. And I don’t keep in touch with any of the players from former clubs.

11 Freunde: But excuse us, Felix Magath, football is a team sport. To have a bit of a social bond might not actually be that hurtful.

Felix Magath: I try to be honest about the football business. When I was 17 and played for a team in the ”B-Klasse” (amateur football), it was never about money. But these days there aren’t any teams in the Bundesliga where 11 friends play football just to have fun. Some players change to a team already having their mind-set on leaving that club two years later. They only want to be in that team to use it as a platform to get to an even better team. Nothing more. These days club identification rarely exists. So I expect my players to identify with their sporting goals. If a player can’t do that, I don’t need him.

Troublemaker Albert Streit got on Magath's bad side.

11 Freunde: And the players who don’t, they get tossed out. Just like Albert Streit st Schalke?

Felix Magath: There are of course players who don’t want to be part of the way I do things. There are always professionals who see things differently, and therefore they say bad things about their coach.

11 Freunde: Truth time: Do you think that today’s professionals are too weak?

Felix Magath: The way people are brought up, and how they interact with each other has changed dramatically over the years in our society. I do believe that the ability to be critical has gone down, all the while hard work is avoided. That is not just my impression, but also the impression of managers who work in other industries.

11 Freunde: And how to you approach these realities?

Felix Magath: I think that there is a difference between somebody who makes 12 euros an hour and a young man who makes a seven digit sum of money every year. A footballer with such high demands should be able to deliver a good performance for that amount of money. Before every transfer I therefore want to know what demands this person asks of himself. I don’t get people here under false pretences. Everybody who comes does that voluntarily, and I have to be convinced that my expectations are met. That is also why I like to be in charge of the entire sporting section.

Patrick Helmes future at Wolfsburg is uncertain.

11 Freunde: Patrick Helmes is currently out in the wilderness. Is he a player who isn’t able to satisfy your demands?

Felix Magath: Nobody is out in the wilderness. Patrick Helmes is a player who is only a finisher, who never has learned to work in defense and who isn’t able to work in order to create chances on goal himself. Roy Makaay was like that as well. If such a player has a run, he scores in every game. But, if he isn’t on a hot streak, the entire team suffers because of it. Especially when the team is in poor form to begin with. If that happens, a negative dynamism is created.

11 Freunde: So you have no need for Helmes?

Felix Magath: Such a player makes sense only if the whole team is constantly attacking. At the moment we try to create a constructive attacking game at Wolfsburg.

11 Freunde: Before you went to Bayern Munich in 2004, you had the reputation of saving teams from relegation. Back then you said that you would never take a job at a club that is fighting against relegation again. Why did you do that with Wolfsburg?

Felix Magath: Well, you might think so, but I didn’t take that job to battle against relegation.

11 Freunde: But you saved Wolfsburg from relegation last season.

Felix Magath: That’s right, but I took this job because I felt a debt towards Wolfsburg and especially Professor Winterkorn. Leaving the club weighed on my conscience and that is why I was really happy about being given that chance by the people in charge here in Wolfsburg. I was brought here to once again make this club successful.

11 Freunde: Really hard to imagine that it weighed on your conscience like that.

Felix Magath: I would have tought that you’d be able to figure that out. Of course, I do feel that I’m carring a bit responsibility for what happened after I had left.

11 Freunde: You are talking about the quick demise?

Felix Magath: Please, not so drastically. I left the team in 2009 with all contracts at least running for another year. There were enough possibilities to build something here. But, I still had a bad conscience because many of the players had come to the club because of me.

11 Freunde: But it is said that you shouldn’t rekindle old love, because that goes wrong most of the times.

Felix Magath: That is a difficult subject. But in the last days that I spent at Schalke and things were going badly, Dr. Sanz (Fransico Garcia Sanz, VW executive and CEO of the VfL Wolfsburg) called me and asked me to come to Wolfsburg. That really showed me that they are putting their trust in me. He told me that I could start after the season had ended, but given the dire position in the standings, I felt compelled to start right away. I would have preferred to go on a holiday to be honest.

11 Freunde: But dissolving your contract at Schalke was also a move to avoid a lenghty war? Schalke boss Clemens Tönnies said publicly that you didn’t stick to arrangements that were made beforehand and contracted new players.

Felix Magath: On Sunday there was a meeting at my lawyer’s office. The club told me that they were going to fire me. But, they didn’t do so on Monday or Tuesday. I wasn’t surprised about that, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Then I was told that I had been removed from the board, and I dissolved my contract. In the end we parted ways on amicable terms. I wouldn’t have done that without the offer from the VfL and their difficult position in the table. Then we would have resolved this issue in court.

Clemens Tönnies and Felix Magath saw things differently in the end.

11 Freunde: Was Clemens Tönnies trying to damage your reputation?

Felix Magath: I would like to know that myself. Maybe you should ask him yourself.

11 Freunde: One accusation that was leveled against you was that you did transactions for more than 300.000 euros without the approval of the board.

Felix Magath: That was part of the club’s statutes, which haven’t been changed for decades. With those kinds of sums you don’t reach far in today’s professional world. It was agreed upon in the beginning that I would have same responsibilities as in Wolfsburg, and that the board should okay all my decisions when it came to transfers, given that I didn’t overstep the financial framework set by them. I’m a man of my word, and stick to that.

11 Freunde: You lawyer said that ”one shouldn’t believe that a football club is run differently than a meat parting company: When one wants to get rid of an employee, one finds a formality this employee has broken, and fires him.” Was Schalke 04 the biggest disappointment of your coaching career?

Felix Magath: I was very successful at Schalke, both economically and in terms of result on the pitch. In my time at the club Schalke made a lot of money because of the success on the pitch. I have earned the club more money than I spent for sure. Before I arrived it was even said that club couldn’t pay its bills. That isn’t the case anymore.

11 Freunde: How bad were things in Gelsenkirchen when you took over the club?

Felix Magath: The 08/09 season had left big holes in the club’s finances because they tried to reach the Champions League at all costs. At the beginning it was said that the deficit was in the lower two digit million figures, but as it turned out it was twice that amount. Nobody could imagine that. Schalke 04 is a big club but also difficult to oversee.(smiles) I never complained about that and I went to the state government and the banks and showed them the perspective in which they should see the financial situation.

11 Freunde: But, at the end of the day you are a coach. Aren’t you unnerved by the responsibilities you have off the pitch?

Felix Magath: Back then I considered if this was really what I wanted to do.

11 Freunde: Another typical Magath cliché: You want to have three functions, coach, manager and business manager, in order to control everything.

Felix Magath: It has happened to me that I told the manager which players he shouldn’t buy, and when I came back those players had been bought. When Wolfsburg made me an offer in 2007 I went from Bayern Munich, the German champions, to a relegation candidate. Because of that situation I insisted upon being put in charge of the transfer policy. Upon that VW said: ”If you want to carry that much responsibility, you have to be part of the administration as well.” I did that as well then. But, I’m not in charge of finances and marketing, there are two other persons taking care of that at the VfL Wolfsburg.

11 Freunde: You made political mistakes at Schalke. For instance, you didn’t take up the invitation for a round trip of the city that the mayor had extended to you. This very man had just helped you to secure a 20 million euro deal with the city’s electricity provider.

Felix Magath: What, this was a mistake?  This wasn’t meant to offend the mayor personally. But, I simply didn’t have the time to keep in touch with the mayor. I had taken over a team that was in the ninth place in the Bundesliga. We had no money at all, and I had to fill up the team with players from the second team.

11 Freunde: Should you have delegated more of the responsibilities you had at Schalke?

Felix Magath: That is possible. I hired Ronny Gersch and later Horst Heldt to support me. My main job is still on the pitch. Maybe I didn’t explain enough. Generally speaking I do value the input of my employees very much. I can live with the fact that people disagree with my opinions.

11 Freunde: Every human being has the need to live in harmony with his or her surroundings?

Felix Magath: I do believe that my imagine does depend on the clubs I coach. In Munich there were so many others who the media could work on, that my training methods didn’t become such a big issue.

11 Freunde: Another accusation is that you installed a state within a state at Schalke.

Felix Magath: You aren’t serious about that. Who did I bring with me to Schalke? My co-coaches Seppo Eikhorn and Bernd Hollerbach, rehab coach Markus Zetlmeisel, press officer Rolf Dittrich – but only because that position wasn’t filled. The goalkeeping coach Bernd Dreher I hired because Manuel Neuer asked for it. Late I hired Horst Heldt and my assistent in the administration Ronny Gersch. If a club with 200 people workers talk about establishing another state after 7 hirings that goes a bit far, right? This is not even taking into account that the club is controlled by the person in charge of the finances.

11 Freunde: That would be your special friend Clemens Tönnies.

Felix Magath: How else would you explain that he has been in charge of that club for so many years. The buck stops with him, like with VW in Wolfsburg.

Horst Heldt and Felix Magath were on different sides of the argument that occurred at Schalke during the end of Magath's tenure.

11 Freunde: What went wrong with Horst Heldt, who once upon a time was your mate?

Felix Magath: Again, I don’t have any mates amongst my former players. I trained him at Frankfurt, and then I got him to VfB Stuttgart after he sat in the stands back in his days at Sturm Graz. We got on very well back in the day, but when we worked together at Schalke things were difficult…

11 Freunde: Dot… Dot… Dot…

Felix Magath: Well, I’m in the comfortable situation that I have most of my coaching career behind me. That gives me the liberty to be naive and to do things my way. If it works out, everybody is happy, if not, I’ll quit. Others are younger and approach coaching differently.

11 Freunde: That sounds like the bond of trust between you and Heldt was broken. Do you have people you trust in football at all?

Felix Magath: Bernd Hollerbach is amongst the people I trust. Even back in his playing days I was always convinced about his good attitude. My fitness coach Werner Leuthard is also amongst those who I trust. There are more people on that list.

11 Freunde: Do you think that your image has suffered because of your time at Schalke?

Felix Magath: That is my impression. What hurts me is that those who had set out to destroy my image have succeeded in uniting the fans against me. That has never happened before. The fans thinking that I’m a nomad who, as players often times do, leave before the contract is up, hurt me.

11 Freunde: Why did things go wrong in the end at Schalke seen from your persepective?

Felix Magath: Difficult to say. Maybe it started just before 10/11 season. A man like Clemens Tönnies doesn’t seem to be used to not being listened to in every aspect.

11 Freunde: Could you tell us where you opposed him?

Felix Magath: After we surprisingly came in second in the Bundesliga, I had to read a comment Clemens Tönnies made while I was on holiday in the USA: ”Felix Magath is only allowed to use the money he has made of his sales when it comes to signing new players.” But we had agreed upon that part of the money we got from achieving a Champions League finish was to be used on signing new players because we wanted to do well in international competitions.

11 Freunde: Speaking of transfer policy. The media have for a long time doubted your transfer policy. Since you took over Wolfsburg in 2007 you have signed a staggering 66 players.

Felix Magath: I find it shocking how my transfer policy is judged since that period is randomly chosen. I was never critised for my transfer policy at Stuttgart or Munich. But at those places the situation was entirely different from the one at Schalke or Wolfsburg. At those clubs I was hired to build something from the ground up. I haven’t counted the amount of transfers I’ve done since 2007 but I’ve reached the Uefa Cup and won the championship with Wolfsburg and I reached the second spot with Schalke. Additionally Schalke won the cup and reached the semi final in the Champions League. Schalke is doing very well in the Bundesliga at the moment, even without Manuel Neuer, but with the players I bought. My policy doesn’t seem to be too unsuccessful.

11 Freunde: At the moment you have 33 players at your disposal at Wolfsburg. How can you create a team spirit in such a large group?

Felix Magath: First of all, there aren’t 33 players but at most 26 who participate in the training sessions. It is my philosophy that all amateurs from the second team do posses a license that allows them to play in the Bundesliga so that both teams can use them. With that way of thinking I managed to take a handful of young players and got them into the Bundesliga.

Chris has been hired by Magath to bring some stability to Wolfsburg's defense.

11 Freunde: You have bought some older players like Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Chris and the media interprets that as sign of you losing oversight.

Felix Magath: Well, it is absurd to think that eleven 19-year-olds can make up a Bundesliga team and carry the load of competing at that level. Therefore I bought Sotirios and Chris and added them to my two younger central defenders. The two of them are mentors for the two young central defenders. If hadn’t done that, the team would be under enormous pressure.

11 Freunde: The Schalke fans didn’t understand why you bought Ali Karimi and Angelos Charisteas.

Felix Magath: All things considered, I can’t take the fans feeling into account when it comes to these things. I’m stubborn when it comes to these things. I held the fans opinions in high regard and I gladly work for them. But I can’t let their feeling influence my decisions.

11 Freunde: Well, could you explain those two decisions.

Felix Magath: Both of them were insurances. It was never planned that the two of them would play every game in the second part of the season but only get on the pitch when needed. The background for that was Jermaine Jones being loaned to Blackburn. My predecessor on the board had given him a good contract with a seven digit annual income until 2014. Because of me loaning out that player we saved a lot of money.  Then I decided that it was in the interest of the club to sell Ivan Rakitic. I had tried for a half a year to get him to sign a new deal but his demands were high. The Champions League spots were far, far away, and we got a seven digit transfer fee for him and we saved his wages. Then Christoph Moritz got injured. Suddenly we had lost three midfielders, with the exception of Peer Kluge and José Manuel Jurado we only had youth players. So, I allowed myself to buy two experienced players for a low six digit figure wages for half a year. Both of them came on a free transfer fee, and we didn’t have to pay a provision for their agents.

11 Freunde: Would you say that you didn’t know how much power the fans at Schalke have?

Felix Magath: Even if it doesn’t seem so, I don’t take every little detail into account. I took the job at Schalke, because my gut feeling told me that I could win a European title with Schalke. My deal with Clemens Tönnies was to make this club successful again and putting everything to the test. For many fans that decision might have come too fast.

11 Freunde: With your consequent attitude towards the fans you aren’t making it easy for yourself.

Felix Magath: Of course, I knew that getting a job at such an emotional club had risks.

11 Freunde: You are turning 60 in two years time. Will your hunger for success ever be satisfied?

Felix Magath: So far I’ve had a lot fun in my profession. I’m still convinced that football hasn’t changed so much but the things around football have changed a lot. My philosophy can still move something.

11 Freunde: Could you imagine what burnout is like?

Felix Magath: Of course.

11 Freunde: Could Felix Magath burnout?

Felix Magath: Of course I could. The pressure I felt last season was intense. I believe that I’m used to lot of pressure because I used to be involved in the battle against relegation all the time after I had just started out as a coach. The time in Gelsenkirchen was stressful but it wasn’t as stressful as being involved in the battle against relegation.

11 Freunde: What can make you happy from a footballing perspective?

Felix Magath: If things we’ve worked on on the training pitch work out in a competitive match.

11 Freunde: Your career as a Bundesliga coach started in 1995 at Hamburg where you had played for a long time yourself. Is there still some unfinished business?

Felix Magath: No. There has been contact every now and then but nothing more.

11 Freunde: So, winning the championship as a coach with Hamburg isn’t a life long dream?

Felix Magath: No, and my current job puts all this out-of-the-way. I do believe that my job at Wolfsburg is going to be the last job I’ll have in the Bundesliga.

11 Freunde: Are there any goals you want to achieve as a coach?

Felix Magath: I’ve talked about this with my wife, and we’ve agreed upon that my job still has priority over my private life. But after four years apart from my family I do see that I might want something different soon. But I wouldn’t say that a job abroad wouldn’t tempt me.

11 Freunde: Also as a national coach?

Felix Magath: I believe that I wouldn’t fit. I’ve been at clubs my entire life, I’ve grown too used to the day-to-day business of club football.

11 Freunde: How does a perfect day in the life Felix Magath look?

Felix Magath: Right now Wolfsburg is going through a difficult time and I can’t remove my feelings from what is happening on the pitch. Being happy is difficult for me when things don’t go my way on the pitch.

11 Freunde: But you seem so calm.

Felix Magath: I’m trying and I do hope that I manage to be calm.

Images courtesy of Spox, Merkur Online and bundesliga.de.

You can visit the 11 Freunde homepage if you want to get your Bundesliga fix.

Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball and on the @AufstiegPod.

3 Comments

  1. I have been enjoying the 2009 flavour of some of the most recent articles. Takes me back.

    In addition, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. That must be the best interview I’ve ever read, though admittedly there is little competition on that front…

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