Max Merkel – One of the Bundesliga’s first coaching greats moves to Spain

Max Merkel faced difficult and painful times after he was born in Vienna in 1918. Not only due to the political and economic struggles at the time, but also because of the fact that he just turned pro when the second World War broke out. This did not only change the lives of almost every European citizen, it also seemed to put the young Austrian’s career to an end. Shortly after the war, however the defender managed to win the league title with Rapid Vienna four times in eight years. The one time capped Austrian national team player ended his career in 1954 and started an impressive career as a Coach.

He started as the national team coach of the Netherlandes and went on to coach Rapid Vienna, Borussia Dortmund and then won the Championship with both, TSV 1860 München and 1. FC Nürnberg. During that time Merkel became a legend of the newly established Bundesliga for his dry wit and his authoritative coaching methods.

After his successful time in the Bundesliga the Austrian moved on to Spain, carrying almost 15 years of coaching experience in his luggage. Sevilla had recently been promoted in the 1968/1969 season after being relegated the season before for the first time in 31 years. The Andalusian side hired Merkel, who quickly got the nickname ‘Mr. Whip’ for his extraordinary training methods. According to the man himself, he had always had a whip in one hand and sugar cubes in the other. Back in those days, coaches were more like father figures who allowed their star players a lot of creative freedom (both on and off the pitch), but Merkel always demanded a lot from his players during his training sessions. Those measures paid off during Merkel’s first season at the club. Sevilla finished third in the 69/70 season, even managing to beat the almost invincible Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. At the time, Los Blancos were right in the middle of their incredible spell that lasted from 1961 to 1980, which saw them winning the league 14 times.

After differences with a board member he was fired and joined Atlético Madrid in 1971. The team was not in a great state at the time. Merkel took over in November that year and promised that his team would be fully functional and back on track by February. He kept his promise. At the end of the season Atlético Madrid had won the Copa Generalisimo (today it is called the Copa del Rey). His hard training measures, e.g. constantly running up and down the stairs of the stadium, proved to be the right solution for the team.

Adelardo Rodríguez, who is one of the most capped players in Atlético Madrid’s history, likes to think back to the time of the ‘great Zampano’. He said that he had never played in a stronger Atlético Madrid in his 17 years at the club, as the one coached by Max Merkel. During the second season with the Austrian Coach, ‘los Colchoneros’ had won the Championship, with the well known Luis Aragonés as their star striker. The wise man from Madrid had picked up a lot from his coach which came in handy a couple of years later, when he himself became a coach.

After the season, Merkel was fired for one of his now legendary remarks. He told German newspaper BILD that “Spain would be so beautiful, if it wasn’t for all the Spaniards”. His sarcasm was well known at that time and was later on rewarded with a position as a columnist for Germany’s biggest tabloid, but the Spanish club wasn’t amused by it at all at the time and fired the successful coach. Following the termination of his employment a lawsuit about his compensation fee was filed and won by Merkel in the end. He returned to and continued his career in Germany.

During the next ten years the Austrian coached TSV 1860 München, followed by stints at FC Schalke 04, FC Augsburg and Karlsruher SC, before he finally ended his coaching career with FC Zürich in 1983. Afterwards Merkel started the already mentioned career as a cynical columnist for the BILD-newspaper. Most of Merkel’s columns were brilliantly layered insults, mostly discussing the mating and drinking habits of the players in the Bundesliga. He also wrote several books about football and died in 2006 at the age of 88 years.

Needless to say that Felix Magath was one of his biggest admirers. The former Bayern München and Wolfsburg coach said shortly after Merkel had passed away: “He was during his time the best coach in Germany. German football mourns the loss of an outstanding personality.”

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