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My Favorite Soccer Coach

May 3rd, 2013 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Football, Pro League, soccer, Sports Journalism, World Cup

I tend to like coaches of team sports. Of any of the team sports.

They push you towards the goals you would set for yourself if you were not a lazy corner-cutter. They foment teamwork. They have a plan. They have expertise. They have their own perhaps selfish motives, of course. Power, money, ego. But the end justifies most of the means — a group of athletes brought to a cutting edge and turned loose on the field of endeavor, perhaps to experience the sublime satisfaction of collective victory or the often even more rewarding sense of having given everything in striving defeat.

And I really like coaches who speak to me … to us journalists. Who don’t carry around the control-freak thing that affects a few of the fraternity (hello, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Jose Mourinho), the guys who shut things down and leave you to guess at their motives.

Josef Hickersberger is a coach I like. He has put together some very good soccer teams in a variety of countries, winning league championships in four, and he has seen about everything there is to see in the game — including a World Cup qualifying loss at the Faroe Islands, while coaching Austria. And he will speak of it.

This is a guy who gives reporters his phone number, and answers when you call.

I was very pleased, then, when the Al Wahda club of Abu Dhabi hired Hickersberger for the third time, to try to help them salvage one trophy from an otherwise dismal season.  And I availed myself of the opportunity to get some straight talk from a friendly and knowledgeable guy, perhaps for the last time.

I wanted to do this story on Hickersberger — the big weekend feature we call the Saturday Extra — for a couple of reasons.

I knew he would be accessible and frank.

But I also knew he was headed into a situation unusual even by the standards of the Gulf, where “coaches/unrealistic expectations” is a particularly dire problem, and I wanted him to talk about it.

He was going to be given control of a struggling team a week before a huge match, and will not be paid a salary. He is coaching for bonuses, only, from victories. That, and two business-class plane tickets (the other for his goalkeeper coach) and free lodging at the big hotel near the club.

That is a pretty random set-up, certainly. Even here.

Al Wahda, one of the country’s seven “big” clubs, the 2010 Pro League champions under Hickersberger, has not done much this year. Middle of a 14-team league, out of the Etisalat Cup, nothing going on to aspire to — except a semi-final berth in the President’s Cup, a knockout competition involving every team in the country. Something like England’s FA Cup. The second-most-important competition in the country.

Wahda stunned Abu Dhabi rival Al Jazira, a month ago, to get to the semis, and the club was looking forward to the match … when the team went off the rails. Wahda lost three straight league matches under their former coach, the Croatian Branko Ivankovic, and the third was a fairly embarrassing 4-3 home loss to Ajman, a team with very limited resources.

Within hours after that game Wahda officials were calling Hickersberger in Vienna, asking him to come down and see what he could do with the team in, oh, one week.

And Hickersberger, who is 65 and was waiting for a call (though he doubted it would be from Wahda), was up for it.

So, we talked for more than an hour in the lobby of the hotel where he is being put up for four weeks. About what a soccer coach can hope to accomplish with a team in such a short period of time.

He knows a batch of the players, having coached the team for three-and-a-half seasons, through the 2011-12 campaign, so there’s that. He can change a few of the pieces on the playing board, but whatever system the team has … he can’t throw that out in the seven days he had ahead of the semifinal match. And he doesn’t know any of the four expats on the team, and those are always key guys.

What he hopes to bring, he said, what he believes he brings to Wahda, is a presence that can bring some confidence to a shaken side. As he put it, many of the players remember having success under him, and they can look around and see many of the same teammates they had that success with … and perhaps that sense of defeatism will be overcome. At least until something bad happens.

So, we had a nice chat. He talked about wanting to coach another 10 years, “inshallah.” About growing up in Austria when it was occupied, after World War II, and how his part of the country was administered by the Russians, and how he saw Soviet soldiers every day when he walked to school.

(His father had been on the Eastern Front in World War II, and somehow survived to get back to Austria, after a few years in a POW camp.)

Hickersberger also is one of the fairly small fraternity of men who have both played for their national team in a World Cup (Argentina, 1978), and coached it in one (Italy, 1990), as well. (The official Dubai mascot, Diego Maradona, is on the list.)

Neither of us remembers anything of this, but we were in the same rooms a couple of times at that 1990 World Cup. Austria was involved in the opening  match of the tournament, in Rome, and I traveled down from Florence (near where the U.S. team was based) to see Italy win, albeit narrowly, 1-0, on a goal by some unknown Sicilian named Toto Schillaci. And at the end of the round, his team beat the U.S. team of Paul Caligiuri and Eric Wynalda, 2-1, another game I covered.

I’m glad we had a chance to chat. I learned a bit more how the mind of a coach and a former athlete operates. I wish him and Wahda well in the semifinals, even though I have nothing against their opponents, Al Shabab, perhaps the best-run team in the UAE.

Sports needs more coaches like Josef Hickersberger — accessible and honest. I suppose I’m surprised and glad we still have as many as we do.


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