An Ode to a Forgotten Hero – Dieter Eilts

The former Werder player Dieter Eilts was amongst the best footballers of his time, but is often forgotten among the other stars from the 90s.

Dieter Eilts is an icon in Bremen these days. After 390 Bundesliga matches, two German championships, three DFB Pokal wins and one win in the European Cup-winners Cup Eilts decided to call it a day in 2002 at the age of 37, looking back on a career at Werder which lasted for 18 years. The sheer numbers suggest that Eilts was at least a very capable player, but that wasn’t the case: Eilts was simply magnificent!

Rehhagel’s model pupil

A 21-year-old Dieter Eilts arrived at Werder’s reserves in 1984. It took the defensive midfielder a couple of years to get into first team contention.  Eilts was never a player who displayed any great technical skills, but a defensive midfielder who put in one solid shift after another, running, tackling, and winning back the ball for his team. Eilts sober and uncomplicated playing style meant that he often times went under the radar when his team was doing well.

Werder Coach Otto Rehhagel’s knack of playing a good mixture of youngsters and more experienced players meant that Eilts was given his chance in the end. The native of East Frisia had a breakthrough season in 1989/90, when he managed to get on the team sheet in 31 Bundesliga matches.

That year Werder managed to pull off a sensational 3-2 away win against Napoli in European Cup-winners Cup that, and König Otto and his team needed to defend their lead to go through to the next round when facing the Italians at the Weserstadion. Both the German and Italian media were convinced that Napoli’s dire form at home had been a slip up, and that Werder should be eliminated from the tournament.

Maradona and Alemao were both international superstars at the time, however, Rehhagel thought that he had the perfect player at hand to tame the Italians and their superstars in the return leg.

Napoli have Alemao – I have the East Frisian Alemao!

The green and whites went onto win a sensational 5-1 win, with Eilts getting on score sheet with a long-range effort.

Eilts  from there on out was known by the nickname that Rehhagel had given him, beside his other nickname which was ”Iron Dieter”.

Time to shine – EURO 1996

Eilts was an integral part in the German national team’s last championship winning side. The Werder holding midfielder manage to shine throughout the entire tournament, putting in one effective shift after the other. His strong performances during the tournament prompted the German press to refer to the East-Frisian as ”Lord Eilts”, also due to the fact that Eilts could solve defensive problems in a rather elegant manner.

Even Dutch legend Ruud Gullit was impressed by the Werder legend’s performance, telling the BBC:

I have never seen such a phenomenal player. 100 tackles, won all of them, and it was done fairly.

Mehmet Scholl shared Gullit’s enthusiasm for Eilts, stating in an interview with Spiegel that Eilts ”… was simply the greatest player”. Franz Beckenbauer went even further when he wrote in the Bild Zeitung:

From a personal perspective I’d have to say that Dieter Eilts was the most important player of the tournament.

Eilts himself wasn’t too concerned about the praise he received, stating later on that he was ”… simply doing my job, like the rest of the team.” However, Eilts was concerned about the length of the banquet following the EURO’s final at Wembley. After having begged and pleaded for a few days, the cook of the national team finally agreed that he’d cook a burger and some frites for Eilts. Whilst the rest of the German national team was still waiting for their food, Eilts had the pleasure of digging into a proper meal.

Downward spiral at Werder

Eilts drifted slowly out of the national team after EURO’s, playing his 31st and last match for Die Mannschaft in a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on July 7th in 1997.  The situation at Werder deteriorated as well during that time. The green and whites had struggled to find the right coach after Otto Rehhagel had left the club in 1995.

Dutch coach Ad de Mos had tried to modernize Werder using four man at the back, whilst Dixie Dörner was quite the opposite letting his team play a far too old-fashioned brand of football. The East German Beckenbauer was fired after 18 months and replaced by his assistant Wolfgang Sidka. After a temporary high, which saw Werder qualifying for Europe for the first time since Rehhagel, the team once again descended into a downwards spiral, which eventually was made worse after Felix Magath had arrived to replace Wolfgang Sidka.

Eilts was amongst the leading figures at Werder who during those tumultuous times had to explain why the team was underperforming year after year. The cool, calm and collected midfielder was not always enthused by the questions he had to answer, sometimes giving the reporters a piece of his mind using his dry sense of humor. Eilts most legendary quote came after a reporter had asked him a question including many ifs and whens:

If my grandmother was a bus she could honk.

Iron Dieter’s gusto didn’t suffer from the river islanders poor performances. Former Werder left back Victor Skripnik, also known as the Ukrainian Beckham, remembers Eilts well from his days at Werder. The defender had just arrived at the club when he noticed how committed Eilts was, even during the training sessions.

”When I started out at Werder I arrived at frozen training ground wearing long trouser legs. Dieter Eilts arrived in shorts and the first thing he did was putting in a sliding a tackle on the frozen pitch. You are, of course, impressed when a European Champion slides towards you on a frozen pitch.”

Thomas Schaaf arrival at the club in 1999 started on a promising note, when the team won the DFB Pokal and lifted its first trophy since the 1993 season. Eilts significance didn’t vein in the following two seasons at Werder, playing a total of 59 Bundesliga matches during the first two seasons under Thomas Schaaf. Eilts’s last goal of his 7 goals for Werder came on match day 20 during the 1999/2000 season, during Werder’s 3-0 win over Hertha at the Weserstadion. It is probably one of the strangest goals ever to be scored in the Bundesliga.

The East-Frisian called it a day after the 2001/02 season, playing only four matches in his last Bundesliga season.  He lcoached the German U-21’s, beginning in 2004, and also had a stint on the sidelines at Hansa Rostock.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-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.

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