October 23, 2017

A Journey Through History – An In Depth Interview with Uli Hesse Part II

When we last left off we found out about Uli’s fondness for 80’s hardcore punk music, the allure of American baseball and his thought process as a writer.  In Part II Uli delves into the very subject that he is so renowned for and we have all come to appreciate.

The second installment of this interview will focus on German football.  In particular, Uli sheds a light on the erratic nature of the Bundesliga, the fantastic season of his favorite side Dortmund and the impact Klopp had on the team as well as the prospects of the National Team and that of German football outside its’ own orders.

Finally, Uli treats us to some of his favorite players and teams, past and present.

Bundesliga Fanatic: It has been another crazy year in German football.  The Bundesliga always offers plenty of thrills and excitement, what do you make of this season so far?

Uli Hesse: Let me use Louis van Gaal’s favorite expression: unbelievable.  Just the other day, Hannover’s coach Mirko Slomka said that his side is “the surprise team of the season, together with Freiburg and Mainz”.  He’s right, but he should have added a few other clubs to that list.  Dortmund, for instance, have been topping the table for so long now that people just accept that this is the best team – but you would have been labeled a lunatic if you had predicted this back in August or September.

Or take Wolfsburg – champions only two years ago and now mired deep in the relegation zone.  Schalke – rubbish in the Bundesliga, stellar in the Champions League!  So that’ is six clubs, one-third of the league, that aren’t where they thought they would be, which is the definition of a surprise.  Add Bremen and Stuttgart and you have even more proof that, despite Bayern’s exalted position, this is the most unpredictable league of them all.

This season provided an extremely high turnover of coaches; do you believe this trend is healthy for the league and German football as a whole?

I don’t think it is necessarily a trend.  It is more a corollary of what we have just been talking about, namely how stunning so much about this season has been.  Many clubs panicked because nothing seemed to be going according to plan.  The only thing that was really unusual and had better not catch on was this strange Felix Magath saga.  On March 12, Magath coaches Schalke against Frankfurt, and only 28 days later he coaches Wolfsburg against Schalke.  Many clubs pride themselves on being run like businesses these days, but in the normal business world there are rules that prevent such scenarios involving leading executives.

As a long time Dortmund supporter yourself, what do you make of Jürgen Klopp’s work and what do you think of the long-term outlook and potential of this young team?

Uli shares in the praise attributed to Klopp.

There is no one connected with the club in any way who denies that Klopp is the number one reason Dortmund are where they are right now.  He has built or rebuilt the team according to his ideas and he has also changed the whole atmosphere around the club.  There are people, and I am not making this up, who have been following Dortmund for forty years and say that this is the best team they have ever seen.

Then there are also people who have been following this club for decades who say that there has never been a team that was so well-liked.  Either statement is very rare and to hear them both in the same year about the same team is akin to a miracle.  It is almost as if the fans are aware that despite the outlook, which is good, and the potential, which is great, it will never be like this again, because it can never be so perfect again.

Dortmund have certainly set a nice standard for other clubs to follow this season in more ways than one.  Is the team building strategy of investment in youth and optimizing minimal resources a viable model to follow in the long-term aspirations of modern football clubs?

I doubt this very much, because you cannot compare countries and leagues, not even clubs.  Even within Germany, Dortmund’s situation is unique, because the club was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2005 and no one has forgotten this trauma.  That is why there was hardly any pressure on Klopp and why nobody complained when he did not sign any star players.

Germany's squad at the World Cup last year was one of the youngest in decades, a result of the decade long restructuring by the German FA.

Then again, it is indeed astonishing how many young players are starting at any given league ground on any given weekend, even for a club with huge aspirations like Bayern.  This current deluge of talent in Germany is certainly a result of the restructuring of the youth set-up, which happened about ten years ago and was instigated by the German FA.  In other words: if you want to copy Dortmund you have to set league-wide changes in motion and then wait a decade.  Not an enticing prospect for many clubs, I think.

Finally, it has been my impression that there is still a different mindset at work in other countries, particularly in England, where the idea of the star system is still very much alive, though not necessarily well.  But I guess if you have just paid 185 million Euros for a Premier League club, you are not going to sit back and say: “Okay, now let us sign a couple of cheap kids and have some patience with them.”

Schalke’s great run in the Champions League aside, what in your opinion contributed to the overall poor performance of German clubs in Europe this season?

I don’t think it was that poor a performance. Bremen had problems, yes, but Schalke did well and Bayern were just careless – they had Inter eliminated and just threw it away . In the Europa League, Leverkusen and Stuttgart won their group, while Dortmund played really well but were ultimately a bit unlucky and too inexperienced to survive a very strong group.

Well, Stuttgart and Leverkusen then went out against sides that would make the semis, so you would have to say this can happen. Plus, take a look at the semis in the Champions League and the Europea League and then show me a league that did well, save for the Spanish and … the Portuguese?!

A lot has been said about the revolution of the youth academies in the last decade in Germany and we have definitely seen the fruits of that labor in recent years.  Do you think this can or will translate into titles at the highest stage, be it the Champions League or International tournaments?

 

It should, yes, one day.  The national team has come close at three tournaments in a row, though 2008 was not that brilliant, while Bayern were in the Champions League final last season and Schalke are among the last four now.  We’re gaining ground on the trophies.

 

Who do you consider some of the better German footballers at the moment, the proverbial torchbearers to past greats like Beckenbauer, Müller, Netzer, etc.?

 

Uli too was very impressed with the talented young Götze. The future of German football?

I guess you won’t like the first part of this answer because it is too obvious, but watching Mario Götze here at Dortmund this season has really been a revelation.  I first saw him in a pre-season friendly against Manchester City, which Dortmund won rather comfortably, 3-1.  Götze and another new signing, Shinji Kagawa, were outstanding on that day and really ran rings around those high-priced Man City stars.

Back then, I thought, well, this is just a friendly, but I clearly remember how amazed I was not so much by Götze’s fantastic technique but by his poise and calmness.  He is really mature way beyond his tender age and to imagine him playing alongside a Mesut Özil on top of his game and then someone like Thomas Müller, who adds exactly the right element of rowdiness to Özil’s delicacy and vision along with Götze’s ability to ghost in and out of positions and find gaps where there aren’t any … well, that could be the core of a midfield as good as any as we have ever had.

 

Our website’s aim is to spread German football to the English-speaking world.  What do you think the prospects are of the Bundesliga becoming a more household name, not only in Europe but world-wide and particularly in the United States where Latin and English football dominate.

Well, you tell me, as you are in the United States while I am in Germany. I think the Premier League and the Primera División will always have an advantage, simply because so many people in the United States speak English and/or Spanish or come from those backgrounds.  Also, the glamour of the star system I mentioned above certainly plays a role, as it has been my experience that people from abroad do not really follow the Premier League or La Liga, they follow United or Liverpool and Real or Barcelona.

I mean, I doubt there are too many Stoke City fans in Brooklyn or people in Chicago who get up real early to watch Hercules Alicante.  Finally, if you allow me that, I’m not sure I want the Bundesliga to become really popular in the Americas or Asia, at least not if that entails moving the kick-off times to noon or whatever else would attract more overseas viewers.

And we wrap up the interview with some quick-fire questions:

Uli (r) with one of his favorite players, the legendary Manfred Burgsmüller (l).

1. Who is your favorite football player of all time?

In Germany, Manfred Burgsmüller.  Internationally, Enzo Francescoli.

2. Who is your favorite current active player?

You know what?  I’ve never thought about that until this moment.  Well, but it has to be Mats Hummels.  I’m sure you’ll understand this choice when I tell you that he is the only footballer I have ever met who said: “I know your name. I have one of your books.

3. What team (other than Dortmund or in the Bundesliga) do you like to watch?

Believe it or not … Nottingham Forest.

4. Most overrated Bundesliga player?

He’s not as overrated as he used to be, but I still pick Marko Marin.

5. Most underrated Bundesliga player?

He’s not as underrated as he used to be, but I still pick Arturo Vidal.

The Bundesliga Fanatic would again like to thank Uli for the time he took out for this interview.  Anyone who has not read Mr. Hesse’s work is encouraged to do so with the utmost urgency and recommendation.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

3 Comments

  1. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it Jason.

    I must say that I was very impressed with Kagawa when I first saw him, against Stuttgart if I remember correctly. He was fantastic.

    I was even more impressed with Götze simply because I could not believe he just 17. Never seen anything like it.

  2. Excellent part II Cris–loved reading Uli talking about the state of the German game. I remember that City friendly he’s talking about and I recall thinking: who’s that little Japanese player darting about? He’s pretty decent.

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