It was not until 30 minutes after the final whistle sounded at the Arena de Sao Paulo that the door to Switzerland’s dressing room opened and Ottmar Hitzfeld came out. He blew out his cheeks and stared fixedly ahead, the magnitude of the occasion clearly weighing him down. And while he dutifully fielded questions from television crews and journalists, Hitzfeld had tears in his eyes and visibly had difficulty speaking, pausing at regular intervals to swallow hard. It was perhaps unsurprising, as the preceding days had been emotionally charged for one of the greatest coaches the game has ever produced.
Angel di Maria’s 118th-minute strike for Argentina not only spelled the end of the line for Switzerland at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, it also brought the curtain down on Hitzfeld’s coaching career. As if that was not enough to stir up a tide of emotions in its own right, the 65-year-old also had to deal with the news that his brother, to whom he had a very close relationship, passed away back home the night before the game.
Yet Hitzfeld refused to let the grief that was etched on his face get the better of him in Sao Paulo and sent out a side that very nearly knocked Argentina and four-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi out of the competition.
The encounter itself was a memorable meeting that provided a fitting swansong for Hitzfeld, who followed proceedings almost exclusively from the front left corner of his coaching zone, only uncrossing his arms to urge his side on with encouraging gestures. At the break during extra time he could be seen chatting to his players and it almost seemed as if he was divulging the secrets for breaking down the opposition. It would have been no surprise if he had, as the Lorrach native is famed for his meticulous preparation and tactical expertise.
“He’s a true perfectionist,” said Michel Pont, Hitzfeld’s assistant with the Swiss national team for the last six years, in an interview with FIFA.com. “He’s such a big personality. He’s got a fantastic philosophy on life and respect is the most important aspect in that. He gives his players so much and they always say they’ve never experienced anything quite like it.”
The players themselves concur. “He’s a wonderful person and we all respect him a great deal,” Haris Seferovic told FIFA.com. “Even when he names me as a substitute, I always remind myself that he knows what he’s doing. We owe him so much. He brought about a big change and built the team around us younger players.”
Indeed, any footballer to have played under ‘Gottmar’ (God-mar), as he has been dubbed in the media, only has positive things to say about him. “My coaching days are now over and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved,” Hitzfeld said in his post-match press conference.
A glance at his CV reveals he has plenty of reason to be. He began coaching immediately after hanging up his boots as a player in 1983 and after spells at Zug, Aarau and Grasshoppers Zurich he went on to train Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and, from 2008 onwards, Switzerland. His bulging trophy cabinet houses, among others, two Swiss championships, seven Bundesliga titles, two UEFA Champions League winner’s medals as well as a pair of Intercontinental Cup triumphs. Hitzfeld has made a positive impression wherever he has been stationed and his name is still regularly chanted in the stands at Bayern Munich.
“He put together a really good team that will last for many years to come,” Granit Xhaka told FIFA.com, before Josip Drmic added: “He’s done a great job.” Hitzfeld took the reins of the national side in 2008 and fashioned a new-look squad after big names such as Alexander Frei stood down. The fact that Switzerland were even in the Round of 16 at all says much about the quality of Hitzfeld’s work.
Success was not the only trademark of his career, however: he is just as well known for the full-length trench coat he would wear almost without fail on the touchline. Pont has plenty of other fond memories of his time working alongside the General, as he is affectionately called: “There are so many special moments when I think back, but the thing that stands out the most is that he would always write everything down. He never worked with a lot of technology. He always had his little pen and pad of paper on him and that’s where he would note everything down and analyse it.”
Yet after downing his tools for the last time and concluding countless post-match interviews, Hitzfeld slowly made his way back to the changing room with tears welling in his eyes. That parting image was symbolic of his departure from the game. Despite the various setbacks he suffered in recent days, he left with his head held high.
Goodbye, Ottmar. All the best and take care.