Andreas Herzog: the silky Austrian perfectionist

Andreas Herzog: the silky Austrian perfectionist

WITH CREATIVE ATTACKING FOOTBALLERS there tends to be stand-out, pivotal moments in their careers; wonderful flashes of genius or spectacular goals that are fondly recalled after they retire.

There are countless examples. For Roberto Baggio, the supremely gifted Italian, the magic moment came at the 1990 World Cup when he delicately weaved past several Czech defenders before crashing a shot past goalkeeper Jan Stejskal. The terrific Frenchman Zinedine Zidane can look back at any number of fine feats from a glorious playing career, but perhaps none more so than the brace of headers that brought Brazil to its knees in the 1998 World Cup final and went some way to sealing the tournament for his country. There was, of course, the fantastic volleyed goal that he scored in helping Real Madrid defeat Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final. 

When you think about Diego Maradona’s career, you instantly remember him dancing past English defenders on the way to scoring a mesmeric goal in the World Cup quarter-finals in 1986. Forget the controversy that followed him around, for that goal in a 2-1 win against the Three Lions was the stuff of dreams. For Pe, still rated by many as the greatest ever player, his monumental header against Italy in the 1970 World Cup decider, which crowned yet another incisive Brazil attack, ranks as one of the best goals of all-time.

These are only some of a myriad of examples out there, and if you go through all the other great players to grace the game, you could write a book about genuinely pivotal, career-defining goals. Instead, though, I’d like to focus on one of the most talented players of his generation, but one who struggled for widespread acclaim outside his homeland Austria and neighbouring Germany, where he spent most his professional career.

Andreas Herzog is the man in question, a player whose wand of a left foot enabled him to achieve many great moments in an 18-year career, including his own pivotal moment, the nadir of his professional life, in a crucial World Cup qualifier in 1997. 

Playing for his homeland against a tough Sweden side boasting the bulk of the squad that famously, and surprisingly, reached the semi-finals at the 1994 World Cup, Herzog and his Austria teammates, including the great Toni Polster, knew that a gruelling examination of their qualifying credentials was in store. The group, which also contained a good Scottish side harbouring its own hopes of reaching the tournament, was finely poised with games quickly running out. 

For Austria, the game against Sweden was close to a must-win encounter, with Herbert Prohaska’s side sitting third in the table, behind leaders Scotland and Sweden. Both Austria and Sweden had three group matches to play – including their own meeting in Vienna – while the Tartan Army had one less game to complete. A defeat for Austria would’ve been hugely detrimental to their cause while Sweden knew that a draw in Vienna would keep them in pole position to battle it out with Scotland for the one automatic berth at the finals. 

And so, on a terribly wet and windy night in the Austrian capital, the stakes were high. And you could certainly tell, as the match was fiercely fought and saw three players, including Austrian duo Anton Pfeffer and Michael Konsel, sent off. Sweden’s Roland Nilsson, then of Coventry City, was also dismissed. 

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Despite the tempestuous, passionate nature of the game, it remained deadlocked with just under 15 minutes to play. Then up stepped Herzog to firmly rubber-stamp his status as a genuine national icon, a position of loftiness rightly earned along the way to becoming Austria’s most capped international of all-time with 103 appearances.

With neither side seeming capable of asserting full control of possession – the slippery conditions underfoot doing little to aid the cause – the ball eventually bobbled its way into Toni Polster’s path just inside the Austrian half. Using all the elegance and intelligence garnered in an impressive club career in Italy, Spain and Germany, Polster decided to simply, but cleverly, push the ball a few yards to Herzog, who had come in his eye-line just inside the Swedish half.

At that point, Herzog had an awful long way to travel to cause major trouble for the opposing defence. But as the Swedes began to drop and back away from ‘Andi’, an entirely different and more promising situation opened up to Herzog, whose innate ability to glide across the pitch with the ball stuck to his boot quickly allowed him to at least consider going all the way. 

He had a couple of alternative options with two teammates to his left scampering upfield in support. But as soon as Herzog got within 30 yards of goal, you suspected that one of his trademark left-foot rockets, so often central to the success of Werder Bremen, where Herzog spent the majority of his club career, was in the offing. And it certainly was.

Once within 25 yards of the target, with the nearest defender, Joachim Björklund, continuing to retreat, Herzog decided the time was right to pull the trigger. A blistering effort ensued, firing across the despairing dive of Thomas Ravelli to nestle perfectly in the far corner of the net. Cue complete and utter delirium inside the Ernst Happel Stadion; the significance of the goal not lost on any of the near 50,000 in attendance, including a vocal Swedish contingent who became sick of the sight of Herzog, after he also got the only goal of the game when the side’s met in Stockholm earlier in the group. 

“That goal against Sweden, in Vienna, was sensational,” Johnny Ertl, a seven-time Austrian international, told me. “I was watching at home and when he scored everyone in my house stood up, amazed, in front of the television. It was such a great moment in the history of Austrian football. But Herzog, as well as showing leadership qualities for the Austrian team for many years, really had a fantastic left foot and it was so important in that match,” added Ertl, who played in England for Crystal Palace, Portsmouth and Sheffield United. 

Even though Austria played the last seven minutes of that crucial game with nine men, it was Herzog’s glorious strike that decided its outcome. Austria won their remaining two group matches to top the section and reach the World Cup. Sweden, meanwhile, missed out on second place to Scotland. 

Qualification, it seemed, would provide a worldwide platform for Herzog to show everyone outside Austria and Germany just how good he was. Unluckily, though, he sustained a nagging toe injury in the build-up to the tournament in France, and for a while it looked like he wouldn’t even make the squad because of his fitness issue. In the end, manager Prohaska might’ve allowed an element of sentiment to decide whether Herzog went or not, and even though he ultimately made the journey to France, it was obvious from the outset that a lack of full fitness would limit his impact in Austria’s three group games.

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Although Austria managed to perform respectably, drawing against Cameroon and Chile before a narrow 2-1 defeat against Italy, they failed to do enough to reach the knockout stages. Herzog did register a goal at the tournament – a penalty against Italy – but he was replaced in the opening fixture against Cameroon and started the other matches on the bench. 

Markus Geisler, the football correspondent for monthly Austrian magazine Sportmagazin, believes it a great pity that Herzog’s injured toe hampered his chance to show his quality to a much wider audience: “Herzog always found solutions, also in difficult situations, and never lost his coolness and could play the perfect pass. And he had a great shot, hard and almost always on target, explaining why he scored so many goals for a midfielder,” he said.

“The 1998 World Cup should have been his tournament – he was the perfect age. But unfortunately he had an injury, so couldn’t perform in the way everybody expected, including himself. Prohaska often said that it was a mistake to take him to France. He didn’t have the chance to show his abilities on the highest international level with Austria, for he was also too young to make an impact at the 1990 World Cup, and this could be a reason why he doesn’t have a big following in Europe, something he would definitely deserve,” added Geisler. 

In saying all of that, Herzog still enjoyed an extremely productive international career, surpassing former teammate Toni Polster as the country’s most capped player in 2002. He scored 26 goals for Das Team in 103 outings, the last of which occurred in a 2003 friendly match against Scotland, some 15 years after his international bow against Greece. 

According to former Austrian midfielder Markus Kiesenebner – capped 12 times between 2004 and 2007 – Herzog sits proudly among the genuine greats of the Austrian game: “Andreas is a major legend in Austrian football and an unforgettable player,” he said. “Our country had some fantastic players in the past, like Herbert Prohaska, Hans Krankl and Toni Polster, and nowadays David Alaba. They have all been very important players for the national team but Andreas’ quality is even more obvious because of the huge number of international caps he achieved.

“That was a remarkable achievement and will probably be the Austrian appearance record for some time. But look, it was no surprise to see Andreas play so often, and so well, for the team because he was a complete footballer. He was a leader and was technically perfect, and had the right eye for the game and its different situations. Of course, everyone talks about his fantastic left foot, but he had also an amazing quality that not everyone has; complete passion for playing the game and maybe this was one of his greatest assets,” added Kiesenebner.

He had the chance to work closely with Herzog, one of his idols, as Kiesenebner – then of Austria Vienna – was selected for Herzog’s first Austrian squad after the former midfield maestro (along with Slavko Kovačić and Willibald Ruttensteiner) took temporary charge of the national set-up on the dismissal of Hans Krankl, in 2005. For Kiesenebner, the experience of playing under Herzog was special, and yet the aforementioned coaching team would only remain in-situ for three months and two matches, before the permanent appointment of the previously nomadic Josef Hickersberger. 

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“For sure, I remember the great feeling of playing for Andreas because in Austria, every young player respects and looks up to him,” said Kiesenebner. “I had played against him in the early noughties when I was a young player for Austria Vienna and Andi returned to Rapid after many great years German football. Then, it was a great experience to go up against such a talented player, and I can say it was likewise to later play for Andi in his period as part of the Austrian senior side’s management. I learned a lot in that short period of time and he was always able to give the Austrian team a lot of good spirit, both as a player and then in the management structure.”

Although Herzog’s coaching career has since taken him to the United States – his playing days ended in 2004 after a stint with LA Galaxy – for spells alongside Jürgen Klinsmann in the US senior set-up and as under-23 manager, it’s in the north-west German city of Bremen where Herzog’s silken gifts remain most truly admired and revered. 

For eight brilliant seasons, either side of a UEFA Cup-winning season with Bayern Munich in 1995-96, that’s where Herzog’s most captivating and productive work was carried out, having initially burst on the domestic Austrian circuit by helping Rapid Vienna win back-to-back league titles in the late-80s. But his career changed forever when Otto Rehhagel, the future European Championship-winning manager with Greece, brought him in to join the Werder Bremen revolution in 1992. 

Back then, Werder had just won the Cup Winners’ Cup and been domestic league champions in 1987/88, which capped a remarkable ascent under Rehhagel, who took over after Bremen experienced their only ever relegation from the Bundesliga in the 1979/80 season, and immediately restored the Green and Whites to the top-flight. In the ensuing six seasons, Bremen would finish no lower than fifth in the Bundesliga and were runners-up on three occasions before finally landing the league crown in 1988. 

Rehhagel’s transformation of Bremen had been utterly spectacular, and yet, despite the club also landing the DFB-Pokal in 1991, they slumped to a ninth-placed finish in the following league season. Although the euphoria of winning the Cup Winners’ Cup somewhat softened the blow of deteriorating domestic form, it was widely felt that Rehhagel needed to add something extra, maybe a little more invention and attacking guile, in order to assist chief goalscorer, Wynton Rufer

Defensively, Rehhagel’s teams had always been relatively sound. In fact, they conceded just 45 goals in their ninth-placed finish in 1991/92 – fewer than three teams who finished above them, including second-placed Borussia Dortmund. A few years previously, as Bremen won the 1987/88 season, they conceded a paltry 22 league goals, an all-time Bundesliga record until beaten by Bayern Munich by a single goal)in the 2007/08 season. In that regard, Bremen didn’t have much to worry about, with defensively-minded midfielders Dieter Eilts and Miroslav Votava always on-hand to offer massive protection to the defence.

But they did require an injection of class going forward, and Herzog was seen as the perfect choice for the role. Within 12 months, Bremen, with Herzog delightfully pulling the strings from midfield, had been crowned league champions, with the Austrian architect netting 10 vital league goals along the way to pipping Bayern Munich to the trophy by a single point; a fate ensured on the final day of the season as Bremen won at Stuttgart and Bayern could only draw at Schalke.

On a personal level, Herzog scored three times in the last three league games, proving that his artistry and invention were not just for show. This boy could do it when the pressure was really on, as evidenced some years later when delivering the winning goal for Austria in that key World Cup qualifier against Sweden. 

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To further illustrate his contribution in making Werder a more polished attacking side, the team scored 18 more times than it managed in the previous season, as Herzog perfectly knitted the team together whether playing wide on the left or his more natural central position. Crucially, too, the side tightened up even further at the back, making Bremen a formidable outfit.

Die Werderaner went on to win the DFB-Pokal in the 1993/94 season, with Herzog scoring twice in the Cup run, including a crucial second goal in the 3-1 victory against Rot-Weiss Essen. They then achieved a second-placed league finish in the 1994/95 season, but the iconic Rehhagel brought the curtain down on his illustrious 14-year stay as the Bremen manager, leaving to join Bayern Munich, who had finished the 1994/95 campaign in a disappointing sixth. 

With such vast experience and success to his name, Rehhagel was naturally expected to repeat his magic in Bavaria, and to help his cause, returned to Bremen to sign Herzog. However, it seemed like Rehhagel tried changing too much too soon at the Olympiastadion, seemingly falling out with many players, including new signing Klinsmann, in what turned out to be a turbulent and short stay as the manager. He survived in the role until late April 1996, only a few days before the UEFA Cup final first leg against Bordeaux.

Rehhagel never won over the Bayern support and, it seemed, the club’s hierarchy, though it must be said that a squad boasting players like Markus Babbel, Oliver KahnLothar Matthäus, Jean-Pierre Papin and Mehmet Scholl, Klinsmann and Herzog should have been obliterating their opponents domestically. But they never really clicked that season and lost out on the league title to Dortmund.

Even though Herzog played almost 30 league games in his sole season for Bayern, he only netted twice and couldn’t quite reach the same scintillating levels achieved in Bremen. Indeed, despite scoring twice in the UEFA Cup winning run, including against Benfica at the last 16 stage, he wasn’t picked to feature in either leg of the final. 

By then, the writing was on the wall for his career in Munich, and he gladly returned to Werder, winning the DFB-Pokal in 1999. But Werder had struggled in the post-Rehhagel era, and a succession of low-key, mid-table finishes came their way before Herzog, a club legend, returned to Austrian football at Rapid Vienna, his first club, in 2002. 

Just last year, he was linked with taking the vacant manager’s position back at Werder Bremen, and though the move never transpired, the speculation reminded people of the esteem in which he is still held at in Bremen. That great affection for Andi stretches back home too, where many football people, including former international Johnny Ertl, remain grateful of what Herzog achieved in Germany.

“It is my opinion that Andreas really paved the way for Austrian footballers to go to the German Bundesliga and to succeed,” said Ertl. “I have no doubt that his success at Bremen has been important in helping future generations of Austrian players succeed there, too,” Ertl added. 

Presently, Werder Bremen, the club that Herzog ignited for most of the 1990s, has two Austrian players on its books, including last season’s vice-captain Zlatko Junuzović. Whether Junuzović can eventually make a similar impact to Herzog at Bremen is open to debate, but highly unlikely considering the club has only once finished in the top half of the Bundesliga since he joined the club in 2012. 

In fairness, Junuzović is a quite capable midfield player and can, like Herzog, strike a superb dead-ball. But comparing him in any real way to the legendary Herzog is more than a tad unfair, for Herzog set the bar extremely high for Austrian players in the Bundesliga in the 1990s, and might never be surpassed, especially in the eyes and memories of Bremen supporters, as the greatest Austrian to grace German playing fields. Just don’t tell David Alaba.

By Kevin O’Neill  @Kevoneillwriter

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