“A successful team is built of eleven servants” — Heiko Herrlich
When Jahn Regensburg‘s fans sang “Lions to the zoo!” on May 30, 2017, in the Allianz Arena in Munich, several historic moments culminated.
First, Munich‘s #2 club, tradition-laden TSV 1860 Munich – founded, as the name says, way back in the 19th century – had been relegated to 3rd league after playing 1st or 2nd league for 35 years. The “Munich Lions,” named after their crest, which sports the Bavarian lion, had heaped ridicule on themselves with an underwhelming display, resulting in a 0:2 defeat; fans were going to hitherto unknown excesses in throwing metal bars and seats on the pitch and SSV Jahn Regensburg, for the third time in its combined history of several clubs, managed promotion to 2nd Bundesliga.
When both team‘s coaches met with the press after a game that was nothing short of a humiliation for the blue-and-white Munich club, Regensburg‘s coach Heiko Herrlich asked his players, ready to give him the appropriate beer shower by way of celebration, to abstain from the ceremony and show the defeated lions some respect. A scene rarely witnessed in professional football nowadays.
But then again this is Heiko Herrlich, not one of your run-of-the-mill football coaches.
The man whose last name means “Glorious” in German began his career as a player at Leverkusen. In 1993, he went to Borussia Mönchengladbach before reaching the summit of his career at Borussia Dortmund between 1996 and 2005. When he retired, he had 258 Bundesliga-games to his name, 5 times he had played for Germany‘s first team and he had won almost everything you can win in German football. Herrlich can call himself twice a German Champion, twice a DFB Pokal winner, once a Champions League winner, a Club World Cup and Supercup winner, and the top scorer in 1995. Still, when journalists meet the lean, 6’1″ man with receding hair, their first question is likely to be: How do you feel now?
In 2000, Borussia Dortmund was the first professional football team in Germany to go public. Suddenly everything concerning the club and its players could have an effect on the stock market. This was one of the reasons why the club disclosed to the media when Herrlich was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the autumn of 2000.
In an interview with German football magazine 11 Freunde, he described the time following his diagnose as the hardest in his life, as he explained: “Football didn‘t play a part in my life then. It was all about surviving.”
While a line like this can be expected during the course of cancer treatment, the following words strike a different tune: “Nobody has managed to stay on earth for ever yet. Some day we all have to go, with or without a brain tumor. What happens to me lies in the hand of God.”
While playing for Leverkusen, Herrlich, merely 20 years old, had met Jorge José de Amorim Campos, called Jorginho. The Brazilian later moved onto FC Bayern Munich and became Champion, but even at Leverkusen he made no mystery of his real champion in life: Jesus Christ.
Rumours have it that Jorginho converted half the Bundesliga and still regrets that Lothar Matthäus never accepted his invitation to a bible study group. He set up Bible Study Groups, presented opposing teams‘s captains with a Bible before kick-off and – most important to young Heiko Herrlich – let his faith show in his every day actions. Herrlich explains: “When I saw how this guy treated everybody, literally everybody with the same friendliness and kindness, no matter if it was a cleaning lady or Reiner Calmund [Leverkusen‘s director], I was fascinated. I went to his Bible Study Group and discovered what a benefit an unshakeable belief can be in every situation.”
However, Herrlich’s cancer diagnosis posed a challenge to his faith and he took it in style. In the weeks between the first diagnosis and the beginning of treatment, he tried to speak to friends, family, and even strangers to get things straight or clear the air: “If you die in a car crash you have no chance to do that,” he said, “I had this chance and was grateful for it . […] I didn‘t want to go to heaven and be confronted by God ‚I gave you time enough, why didn‘t you use it?”
Although the tumor couldn‘t be operated upon, fortunately it was treatable. Herrlich endured radiotherapy, which proved successful but “completely disintegrated” him. On September 15 2001, roughly a year after his diagnosis, Herrlich came back on the pitch in BVB‘s game against local rival Schalke 04. He had three more years to play before he retired.
Fortunately for all of us football fans, Herrlich came back as coach. First at his last club, Borussia Dortmund, with whose U17s he won the Westfalen Cup in 2007, later Germany‘s U17s and U19s, Ruhrgebiet legendary club VfL Bochum, SpVgg Unterhaching and even the great Bayern Munich‘s U17s were coached by the Mannheim-born. In 2015, he followed Christian Brand as coach at Regensburg.
The club from the city on the banks of the Danube, in Bavaria, has been marching on since then. Promotion to the 3. Liga from the Regionalliga last year has now been topped by this year‘s promotion to the 2.Bundesliga, and who knows, clubs have been known to go up even higher, like Darmstadt 98 in 2015.
“The Jahn,” as the club is frequently called, seems to be another budding football fairy tale, often overshadowed by the likes of heavily money-backed Red Bull Leipzig, but they are the real beating heart of German football.
Some of the old virtues Herrlich remembers from his BVB days may still be alive here: “A successful team is built of eleven servants,” he said in an interview in 2014. “You can be very talented but if you think only of yourself, you have already lost in this sport.” And so the ex-international, Champions league winner and top scorer who finished third with DFB‘s U-17 in the World Cup in South Korea 2007, lends a hand to carry the goals off the pitch in training. To the spoiled teenagers looking at him askance he says: “Just take a break, I have no problem doing this.”
Serving the team and serving one another aren‘t empty words for the 46 year-old. “Trust me!” he told his team at Regensburg, “Be humble towards the club and towards one another.” Philipp Pentke, keeper and captain at Jahn Regensburg remembers it wasn‘t all that easy at first for the players: “We were fed up hearing that every day, but the result speaks for itself.”
Pentke turned into something of a hero at the relegation game against 1860 Munich when the game was suspended with 10 minutes to go because fans were throwing metal bars onto the pitch and the goal where Pentke was supposed to stand. When the referee finally decided to continue the game, Pentke picked up seats thrown on the pitch between saves: “It was a bit crazy,” he said afterwards.
This was when the song of “Heiko Herrlich, you are the best man” from the voices of more than 5000 Regensburg fans were still ringing through the Allianz Arena.
Though he still has to prove it in the rougher tide of 2nd league, in everything that really matters in life Herrlich has already shown that he is.
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