Qualität kommt von quälen: Felix Magath, a footballing enigma

At the end of October 2012, Felix Magath’s second spell at VfL Wolfsburg would come to a sad yet predictable end. In stark contrast to his first spell at the Volkswagen-Arena where he had taken the unheralded side from Lower Saxony to an astonishing first Bundesliga title, he would depart with the Wolves in complete disarray – and firmly rooted to the bottom of the table with only one win from eight matches.

Magath is one of those controversial coaches who since his emergence in the late 1990s has always divided opinion: for some he is a man who has always worked hard and encouraged his charges to meet his own high standards, while for others he is little more that a tyrant who has rightly earned the nickname “Quälix” – a crude yet effective construction of his Christian name and the verb quälen – the German for torture.

Ich weiß nicht, ob Magath die Titanic gerettet hätte, aber wenigstens wären alle Überlebenden sehr fit gewesen (“I do not know if Magath could have saved the Titanic, but at least all the survivors would have been very fit”)

Jan Åge Fjørtoft

The son of a Puerto Rican GI and a German mother, Wolfgang-Felix Magath was born in the Bavarian city of Aschaffenburg on 26th July 1953. Starting his footballing career and making the grade with local club Viktoria Aschaffenburg, he would head west at the age of twenty-one to 1. FC Saarbrücken, then in the 2. Bundesliga.

Two seasons with die Molschder would see the 5’7″ Magath develop into a cultured midfielder with a keen eye for goal – he would score an impressive twenty-nine goals in seventy-six appearances – and before long he would catch the attention of the bigger clubs. Among those watching would be Hamburger SV’s coach Kuno Klötzer, who would sign the twenty-three year old in 1976 – and from that point his career would blossom.

HSV and the Nationalmannschaft

Within a year his joining die Rothosen Magath would be selected for the Nationalmannschaft, and would make his debut against Yugoslavia in Belgrade in April 1977. In the same year he would help Klötzer’s side secure their first major European trophy, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 defeat of Belgian club RSC Anderlecht in the final of the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Magath would miss out on selection for Helmut Schön’s World Cup squad the following year, but would be part of an established cadre of players under Schön’s successor Jupp Derwall. 1980 would be a highly successful year for Magath for both club and country: Hamburg would reach the final of the European Cup final – losing 1-0 in a tight encounter with defending champions Nottingham Forest – and the following month he would part of the German national team that would claim a second European Championship title.

HSV would have what was arguably their best-ever team during the late 1970s and early 1980s – a squad that would feature the likes of Germany’s most famous import Kevin Keegan and Magath’s fellow German internationals Franz Beckenbauer, Horst Hrubesch, Manny Kaltz and Wolfgang Rolff. The side coached by Yugoslav Branislav “Branko” Zebec would win their first Bundesliga title in 1979, but the peak would really be reached under the guidance of Austrian legend Ernst Happel who would lead HSV to successive Bundesliga titles in 1982 and 1983 and the final of the UEFA Cup in 1982. By this time, Felix Magath would be the heartbeat of the side.

Die Rothosen would reach the final of the European Cup again 1983, and it would be Magath himself who would claim the glory with a truly unforgettable ninth-minute winner that would see his side triumph over Italian giants Juventus in Athens. Their first and so far only victory in Europe’s premier club competition would arguably the greatest moment in the history of Hamburger Sportverein, and right in the middle of it would be that man Magath – who of course had also got onto the score sheet in the final of HSV’s only other European triumph six years earlier.

Felix Magath’s spectacular thirty-yard strike in Athens was one that would have graced any showcase event, and would turn the talented midfielder into a legend at the Volksparkstadion.

For the German national team, the stylish midfielder would play a bit-part role in the 1982 World Cup and end up on the sidelines during the latter part of the Derwall era as the coach moved towards a more attritional style of play. After featuring in the famous World Cup semi-final in Seville against France Magath would be dropped from the squad, and his not being picked again by Derwall looked to have brought his international career to a premature end.

Magath would remain out of the national team setup for over two years, but the appointment of Franz Beckenbauer as Nationaltrainer in the autumn of 1984 would rekindle his career. The two men had been part of the same HSV side between 1980 and 1982, and Der Kaiser’s more creative approach would see the now thirty-one year old midfielder play a prominent role. Magath would play six of Germany’s seven matches during the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, and would sign off his international career in the final against Argentina in Mexico City.

The showpiece final in Mexico City would be Magath’s final appearance for the Nationalelf; he would suffer a serious knee injury, and at the relatively young age of thirty-three he would also call time on his club career. He had played for Germany on forty-three occasions with three goals; for HSV, he would finish with a career record of forty-six goals in 306 appearances over ten seasons.

As disciplined on the pitch as he would be off it as a coach, Magath would not receive a single red card; in the Nationaltrikot, his disciplinary record would be completely unblemished.

From player to coach

Following his premature retirement as a player in 1986 Felix Magath would disappear from the game for the best part of a decade, returning as coach of HSV in 1995 after cutting his teeth in the amateur leagues. A fifth-place finish in 1995/96 would be followed by a disappointing seventeenth place the following season, and Magath would move to II. Bundesliga side 1. FC Nürnberg, where he would take a side that had failed to secure a point in its first six matches into the top three and promotion to the 1. Bundesliga.

Magath would not have the opportunity to coach Nürnberg in the top division the following year however, as ongoing differences of opinion between him and the club’s hierarchy would take a turn for the worse.

Having taken Der Club from the depths of the 2. Bundesliga back into the top flight, Magath had demanded a bigger transfer budget as well as a wage rise and at least a two-year contract – something that the frugal club president Michael A. Roth would not be willing to provide. There had been little love lost between the demanding coach and the equally intransigent Roth, and this would be the final straw. A proposed one-year deal would be rejected by Magath who would simply resign there and then, leaving the club with task of finding a replacement just four weeks before the start of the new season.

Having acquired a reputation as something of a firefighter, Magath’s next appointment would see him take the helm at struggling Werder Bremen following the dismissal of Wolfgang Sidka in October 1998. Magath would do little wrong, but for a club that had become accustomed to domestic success floating in the nether reaches of the league was never going to be a recipe for future success. Following a 2-1 home defeat by fellow strugglers Eintracht Frankfurt Bremen would be teetering on the brink, and Magath would be sent on his way and replaced by Thomas Schaaf.

In what would be a clear exercise in footballing irony, Magath’s next salvation mission would be in Frankfurt, the club that had precipitated his dismissal at Bremen. If that was not ironic enough, Die Adler would remain in the top flight by the skin of their teeth on the very last day of the season, pipping Nürnberg by virtue of a higher number of goals scored. His first season in charge at the Waldstadion would see Eintracht finish in fourteenth place, but with expectations not being massively high he would at least be guaranteed a further season in charge. Sadly for Magath the following season would see no real improvement, and with his side dropping into the relegation zone after a 5-1 hiding at home by 1. FC Köln he would be on the move again.

Undeterred, Magath would immediately jump into the next challenge by taking charge of VfB Stuttgart, another team used to winning trophies that had found itself scrapping for survival. When Magath accepted the post in February 2001, the Swabians would already be in the mire and second from bottom; as the season rolled to its conclusion they would never really escape from the relegation struggle, but Magath would finally get a lucky break as he just about managed to keep the ship afloat as VfB finished three points above relegated SpVgg Unterhaching.

A couple of bad results could well have signalled Magath’s departure, but his keeping Stuttgart in the top flight would signal a massive turnaround in his fortunes as a coach – and, indeed, his growing reputation. The following season would see Stuttgart achieve a far more respectable eighth spot, and the improvement would continue in 2002/03 as Die Schwaben found themselves in second place – albeit a distant second place – behind champions FC Bayern München.

Having overseen three seasons of continuous improvement at the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion Magath would soon be praised for his ability to work with his squad effectively and get results. At the same time however he would start to acquire his reputation as a particularly harsh taskmaster, a coach of the old school who would eschew touchy-feely pre-match bonding sessions and group hugs with military-style drills, medicine balls and early morning runs up steep hillsides. Magath’s disciplined approach and somewhat abrasive coaching style would owe much to two of his former coaches during his playing days in Hamburg – Branko Zebec and Ernst Happel.

While there would be than more a few raised eyebrows over Magath’s coaching methods, there would be no complaints from fans of VfB, who were once again able to see their team competing with the best at the right end of the league table. The second place finish of 2002/03 would be followed by a not too shabby fourth place the following season, and Magath would find himself being rated as one of the best coaches in the Bundesliga. By now, he had combined the roles of coach and general manager – inadvertently adding to his reputation as something of a Generalissimo.

Of course, such accolades could only result in one thing – and what was Stuttgart’s loss would be Bayern München’s gain. The coach would part ways with the Swabians at the end of 2003/04 to take up the prestigious role in Munich, where his reputation as a hard taskmaster would be well and truly cemented.

Qualität kommt von quälen

As far as results were concerned, Magath would continue in Munich where he had left off in Stuttgart, but with far more powerful resources at his disposal he would go one better than his second-place best at VfB in taking Die Roten to yet another Bundesliga title – a success that would be capped off with a 2-1 win over Schalke 04 in the Pokalfinale to secure a domestic double. This success would be repeated the following season, and apart from winning the Champions League the man known as “Quälix” would give the club and its supporters everything they demanded.

Off the field however things would start to take a darker turn. Stories had begun to emerge about Magath’s coaching methods, which for some crossed the very fine line between an old school regime and organised brutality. Many younger players in the Bayern squad – particularly those used to Nationaltrainer Jürgen Klinsmann’s more holistic, new-age approach, would begin to make their feelings known. For some, the nickname “Quälix” would not be enough – he would be gifted with even more unsavoury monickers such as “Saddam”, and former Eintracht striker Bachirou Salou would described Magath as der letzte Diktator in Europa – “the last dictator in Europe”.

Magath would never say it himself, but a phrase often used to describe his methods would be Qualität kommt von quälen (“Quality comes from torture”).

Behind the scenes, the wheels would start to come off in Munich. While the team were winning the players would put up with the harsh training methods, but as soon as things started to run the other way what was already a strained relationship would start to unravel and ultimately break down. Bayern had already surrendered the DFB Pokal with a third round defeat at the hands of second division Alemannia Aachen, and would be sitting in third place at the winter break – six points behind leaders Werder Bremen. News had been floating about ongoing developments at the Säbenerstraße, but Magath would appear with the team when the season resumed at the Allianz-Arena against strugglers VfL Bochum; immediately after a disappointing goalless draw, Magath’s head would well and truly be on the block.

Magath would have nowhere to turn. The fans had jeered the side off the field, and both the players and the board had lost confidence in the coach. Even his record of back to back doubles would not be enough, with this solid domestic form being tempered with less than stellar performances in European competition. The writing would be on the wall the day after, and within hours of Magath’s dismissal the tabloid Bild would be running the story of his sudden but not wholly unexpected demise.

Magath’s methods would later be cited as one of the many reasons for the eventual breakdown of his relationship with the players at Bayern; in the summer 2007 he would take the players to the lakeside holiday resort of Rottach-Egern, and while other tourists would be taking gentle hikes or paddling in the lake he and his assistants Seppo Eichkorn and former Bundeswehr officer Werner Leuthard would be organising a relentless drill of skipping, cross-country runs, weight-training, squat thrusts and star jumps. In his biography Philipp Lahm – who had also worked with Magath at Stuttgart – would criticise the coach for his “outdated” training methods.

The greatest coach in Germany

The start of the 2007/08 season would see Magath move to VfL Wolfsburg, a growing club with big ambitions. Given the coach’s reputation and the club’s equally demanding appetite for success, it would be a marriage made in heaven. Magath would continue to bring his own brand of training style into the mix, and as before nobody would be too concerned while he was guaranteeing results. He would guide Die Wölfe to a creditable fifth place during his first season in charge, but what would happen the following year would be nothing short of astonishing as he landed the club from Lower Saxony a first Bundesliga title.

With a team containing few well known names, Magath would somehow put together a campaign that would send his team charging to the title, destroying everything in their path. They would clinch the title with a 5-1 thrashing of Werder Bremen, and would inflict the same score on FC Bayern, a game that would ultimately determine the destination of the Meisterschale. Magath had achieved back to back domestic doubles with Bayern, but his taking unheralded and unfashionable Wolfsburg to the title would clearly be his biggest coaching achievement – flavoured no doubt with a piquant dash of revenge.

Magath’s training methods would continue to be as harsh as ever – in one notable incident on a training exercise in Switzerland he would have his squad run more than two and a half kilometres up a mountain and reduce some players to tears – but this would be hidden under the blanket of success. In the eyes of the adoring media, he was no longer Quälix the dictator but Felix, the greatest coach in Germany.

His legendary status assured at the Volkswagen Arena, Magath would now move onto his next challenge – that temperamental Ruhrgebiet beast known as Schalke 04. Not known as a club for having much patience with coaches, Magath knew that he would have to hit the ground running – and would get off to a solid enough start with a second place finish in the league and the semi-final of the Pokal. On both occasions Die Königsblauen would be undone by the team that Magath would always be doubly determined to beat: FC Bayern.

The wheels come off again

What had been a successful 2009/10 season at the Veltins Arena would be followed by a not-so-successful 2010/11, and with team languishing in mid-table they and Magath would part ways. As had been the case elsewhere the lack of success would allow the surface to be scratched away: Magath was once again no longer good old Felix, but the insensitive, intransigent and overbearing Quälix who had an uncanny aptitude for alienating himself from his players and creating a toxic mix of confusion and consternation.

Magath’s treatment of winger Jefferson Farfán in particular would make the headlines. There would be little love lost between the two, and the volatile Peruvian would continue to criticise Magath long after the two had parted ways. Magath would be accused of bringing nothing to the club, employing “military” methods that were often inhumane, and destroying the team dynamic by targeting some – including Farfán – while being lenient with his “favourites”. On one occasion, the Peruvian would be fined €100,000 for arriving late for training after the winter break.

What would become a familiar training ground scene at Schalke. Magath berates Jefferson Farfán
What would become a familiar training ground scene at Schalke. Magath berates Jefferson Farfán (Memorino / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition to Quälix the overbearing coach there would also be Quälix the heavy-handed manager, who would only succeed in creating a mixture of bemusement and consternation with his haphazard transfer policies. Players would be shipped in and out en masse while others would be inexplicably dropped only to reappear again in an unfamiliar position, creating a sense of chaos that would be exacerbated by the poor results and a sense of uncertainty in the dressing room. On the other hand, Magath would open the door to younger players such as Joel Matip and Julian Draxler, and would bring a number of influential players to Gelsenkirchen including Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Spanish legend Raúl.

While the two-year spell at Wolfsburg would see the best of Felix Magath, his time in charge at Schalke would see the worst. Any number of reasons could have been found to justify his removal, but in the end “transfer irregularities” would be reason presented by the board – a decision that would be somewhat ironic given the club’s past history with “irregularity”.

It was hard to see where Magath could turn after what would be a rather acrimonious departure from Gelsenkirchen, but former club Wolfsburg – where he had been lionised as a hero – would be more than willing to have their old coach back after their disastrous engagement with former England boss Steve McClaren. He would be out of a job for just two days.

Once again, the situation would be set up perfectly for Felix the Firefighter: the former champions were now a shadow of the side that had stormed to the title, and had found themselves languishing in the drop zone with only six wins from twenty six matches. It needed some of that famous Magath steel to turn them around, and this he would provide. At the end of what would be a traumatic season the Wolves would be guaranteed another season in top flight football.

As he had done elsewhere, Magath – employed in his chosen joint role as both coach and general manager – would turn what was essentially rabble into a working football team, and 2011/12 would see a return to stability for Wolfsburg with an eighth-placed finish. Once again, Wolfsburg’s favourite adopted son had worked miracles, and everybody would be looking to yet more improvement the following season and with it the possibility of chasing a place in Europe’s elite.

It was not to be. The team would get off to the worst possible start, and once more Magath would don the mask of Quälix. With the team starting to struggle and confidence being sapped with every game, the coach’s training methods would once more hit the headlines. This would go even beyond medicine balls and military calisthenics: there would be stories of players having their water bottles emptied, financial penalties for playing unnecessary back passes or arriving late at team meetings, and if the training ground stories are to believed Magath would “allow” Hasan Salihamidžić – injured with a broken arm – to do his push-ups one-handed.

As far as Magath’s management was concerned it would much the same story as it had been at Schalke. He would continue to employ a transfer policy that was at best curious, and his treatment of important players such as Patrick Helmes and the temperamental Diego would backfire completely. In Magath’s coaching world-view, it was simply not his business to be friendly or to cultivate relationships with his charges, but to merely extract the best out of them.

Felix Magath, looking like Shawshank governor Samuel Norton (Robsen 86 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Felix Magath, looking like Shawshank governor Samuel Norton (Robsen 86 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A 1-0 win in Stuttgart in the season’s opening match would be the highlight of Magath’s final season at Wolfsburg; the following seven games would produce just two points, and by the final week of October the club would find itself rooted to the foot of the table and with the dressing room in complete disarray.

To many outside observers, Magath had gone the way of Nicolae Ceaușescu – a man drunk with power who had finally stepped over the boundary into that dark land called insanity. For all his hero status and past glories at the VW-Arena it would be just too much for club president Francisco Garcia-Sanz and the board: fearing a player revolt, Magath would choose to walk before being shown the door.

No cashmere sweater

So what next for Felix Magath? On the one hand, he is the Felix the coach, a man who has performed miracles with ordinary teams and has won league and cup titles. On the other, he is Quälix the dictator who strives to push his players to levels that only he can truly appreciate. There will never be a clear verdict, and both his reputation and methods will always prove divisive.

Of course, there is more to Felix Magath than the constructed media image. There is the background story of his meeting his long lost father in Puerto Rico which presents an obviously human side to the hard-working disciplinarian, and he has also supported a number of worthy causes for a number of years, among them the childrens’ charity Phytokids-Stiftung. He will never be universally loved by the media, but behind the harsh exterior Magath is yet another one of football’s good guys.

To many commentators, Magath will always be Quälix: the old school overload, a relic, a dinosaur. To others, he is a rare and welcome antidote to the cosseted, pampered world many professional footballers now live in. Magath may well have had his players run up a mountainside, but it is also a fact he was right there behind them. He would dish it out, but at the same time would be prepared to collapse in an exhausted heap with the rest of them. Perhaps the real problem lies with the thought of young athletes breaking down in tears unable to get away from a man twice their age who was somehow able to keep up while barking orders at the same time.

For what it’s worth, I have always come down on the side of Magath. I have never sat on the fence in the many discussions I have had with fellow writers, punters and analysts: I am a fan. Granted, he could have loosened the valve a little, but it was players like Magath who would make a very ordinary team into a championship-winning one, and it is these same principles that he has applied as a coach. Of course, one would need to separate his credentials as a trainer from his aspirations as a general manager, which would often leave a lot to be desired.

Might Magath be the perfect candidate for the post of Nationaltrainer? After the recent debacle at Wolfsburg perhaps not, but the idea would not have been so outrageous even a couple of seasons ago. He may sport a selection of fashionable spectacles – which make him look like anything from a mild-mannered university lecturer to a spitting image of the evil Governor Samuel Norton from The Shawshank Redemption – but you wouldn’t see him prowling the touchline in a tight fitted shirt or blue cashmere sweater. Many would argue that he would only turn fragile waifs into gibbering wrecks, but he just as equally might also be capable of turning them into world-beaters that sing the Nationalhymne with an Italian operatic passion.

I guess we will never know.

Since being shown the door at Wolfsburg Magath has remained on the sidelines, and has been happy to share his footballing opinions on his excellent Facebook page. It can only be only be a matter of time until a team that finds itself struggling will go calling for that much-needed survival formula… Or will they? While some will he hoping that the football-watching world might have finally seen the back of big bad Herr Quälix, I’m hoping that we won’t have to wait too long.

Career Summary

Born: Aschaffenburg, Bayern, 26th July 1953

International Appearances: 43
International Goals: 3
International Debut: v Yugoslavia, 30th April 1977, Beograd
Final Match: v Argentina, 29th June 1986, Mexico City
International Honours: European Champion 1980, World Cup Runner-up 1982, 1986

Domestic Appearances: 382 (1. Bundesliga 306 / 2. Bundesliga 76)
Domestic Goals: 75 (29 / 46)
Clubs played for: Viktoria Aschaffenburg (1972-74), 1. FC Saarbrücken (1974-76), Hamburger SV (1976-1986)
Domestic Honours: European Champions’ Cup (1983), European Cup Winners’ Cup (1977), 1. Bundesliga (1979, 1982, 1983)

Clubs Coached: Hamburger SV (1995-97), 1. FC Nürnberg (1997–98), SV Werder Bremen (1998–99), Eintracht Frankfurt (1999–2000), VfB Stuttgart (2001–2004), FC Bayern München (2004–07), VfL Wolfsburg (2007–09, 2011-12), FC Schalke 04 (2009–11)
Coaching Honours: 1. Bundesliga (2005, 2006, 2009), German Cup (2005, 2006), Ligapokal (2004), UEFA Intertoto Cup (2002)

Qualität kommt von quälen: Felix Magath, a footballing enigma
Tagged on:                                                                                 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.