The force of Oliver Bierhoff: Germany legend, Serie A icon and fighter of stereotypes

The force of Oliver Bierhoff: Germany legend, Serie A icon and fighter of stereotypes

And with that, it was over. Just five minutes into the allotted 30 of extra time and Euro 96 had reached its dramatic conclusion: Germany were champions and the 73,000 at Wembley had just witnessed the competition’s first-ever golden goal.

The jubilant scenes of the German fans and players were contrasted not only by the Czechs – their opponents whose fans shed tears in the stands – but also the many English attendees, still sobered by the reality that football was not coming home, and now faced with the prospect of watching their oldest rivals celebrate in their own back yard. Just 25 minutes earlier, the image couldn’t have looked more different, Germany trailing 1-0 with 15 minutes of normal time remaining.

The hero of the night was Oliver Bierhoff. Rescuing his country with a trademark bullet of a header, the Udinese striker then achieved legend status when his deflected strike was insufficiently parried away by Petr Kouba, landing in the bottom left corner of the Czech goal. Though Germany’s storied history of improbable fightbacks gave the result a sense of inevitability, few at the start of the tournament would have backed Bierhoff – a controversial inclusion who earned his first international cap a mere four months prior – to be the man who provided the heroics on that summers night in London.

While now Bierhoff enjoys statesmen like-status in his homeland, a revered symbol of efficiency and leadership who saved his country on various occasions, such notions would have seemed fanciful or even outright laughable earlier in his career, when the young forward was hounded out of the Bundesliga on a wave of derision and ridicule. 

Born in the south-western city of Karlsruhe in 1968, Bierhoff’s privileged upbringing was worlds apart from the rags to riches narrative associated with many of the game’s iconic figures. With his father Rolf the CEO of a large German energy firm, the youngster was afforded a first-class education and abundant opportunities to pursue any career path of his choosing. 

Looking back, it would have been easy for Bierhoff’s comfortable lifestyle to rob him of the bloody-minded drive required to make it as a top-level footballer. These potential pitfalls weren’t lost on Bierhoff senior, and the businessman went to great lengths to instil in his son the dogged work ethic that would become notorious as his career progressed. 

A classic example of his father’s meticulous approach occurred early in Bierhoff’s youth career. Observing his son as he returned home from training, Rolf was alarmed by the fact that the young striker’s kit always seemed to be spotless. Worried that the immaculate jersey represented a lack application, the eccentric executive took matters into his own hands, pouring water over a patch of grass in the yard and forcing his son to practice diving headers on the turf after ice had formed. Unfortunately, the image of Bierhoff as an ice diving workhorse wasn’t one that initially washed with the German public who, in the main, scorned him as the rich kid with the stainless shirt.

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Having spent most of his youth career at Schwarz-Weiß Essen, Bierhoff completed his apprenticeship at Bayer Uerdingen, before making his professional debut in 1986 aged 17. The club – now known as KFC Uerdingen – were in the midst of their golden age, with a third-place Bundesliga finish in 1985/86 following a historic DFB-Pokal Cup Final victory over Bayern Munich the previous season. The success of the previous campaign granted Bierhoff the opportunity to ply his trade in European competition as well as mixing it with the cream of domestic football.

Standing at six foot three inches, the fledgeling forward was blessed with an imposing physique and a level of strength far beyond the reaches of a normal academy graduate.  These traits, coupled with his immense aerial ability and developing hold up play, marked Bierhoff out as a potential focal point for Uerdingen’s direct style of play – and the young striker would hit the ground running in a dream debut. 

Making his professional bow in the DFB-Pokal, Bierhoff faced a Stuttgart side powered by the force of Jürgen Klinsmann, entering the game as a second-half substitute with his side trailing 3-0. In what was effectively a no-lose situation, the rookie forward put in a headline-grabbing performance, scoring two goals as Uerdingen fought back to win a crazy tie 6-4.

Any hopes that Bierhoff would be able to fly under the radar and hone his craft away from the glare of the media spotlight were killed by that brace against Stuttgart. The following day, many in the German press were comparing him to a young Horst Hrubesch – fellow target-man and Germany’s hero in the Euro 1980 final – with others going as far touting him as a future strike partner for Klinsmann with die Mannschaft.

In truth, Bierhoff was not even 100 percent sure he wanted a football career at all, let alone to lead the line for his country. Reminiscing on the hype surrounding his debut, he said: ” I tried not to focus on it. Even though I was a youth national player, at the time I did not have the conviction to start a great professional career, I just wanted to try it.”

It soon became apparent that the teenage target-man wasn’t yet ready for the scrutiny of the Bundesliga. Although a promising debut season brought nine goals in all competitions, alongside international caps at under-18 and under-21 level, the following year would derail Bierhoff’s momentum and mark the beginning of a nomadic five-year journey that would leave him contemplating his future in the game.

An injury-affected second campaign saw Bierhoff net just once in 12 league appearances and the frustrated forward transferred to Hamburg the following season. Initially, the move seemed to have reignited his stalling career, but a poor start to his second year resulted in Bierhoff being sold to Borussia Mönchengladbach midway through the campaign. Sadly, the transfer did little to breathe life into a doomed charge which ended without Bierhoff having scored a single goal for either of his clubs. 

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By this point, the early fanfare surrounding Bierhoff had been consigned to the dustbin. Although his athleticism and aerial ability couldn’t be denied, there were questions as to whether the striker had the aggression or the dedication to make the most of these traits, with others bemoaning his perceived lack of skill with the ball at his feet. Reflecting on this era, Bierhoff said: “Maybe I was not yet ready, but it is also true that I never found a coach willing to give me confidence, to work on me.”

There is no doubt that the negative sentiment surrounding Bierhoff – who later claimed he was “jeered out of the Bundesliga” – was amplified by his less than humble roots. With young forward still only 21, one would have expected there to be a sense of perspective when evaluating his performances, but instead Bierhoff faced contemptuous crowds, many of whom scornfully questioned whether he would’ve been granted an opportunity in the game at all were it not for his father’s influence.

With his self-belief shattered, Bierhoff gave serious consideration to the notion of quitting football altogether and returning to his studies. Although he would earn an economics degree later in life, for now the striker would resist the urge to return to academia in favour of resurrecting his floundering career in Austria.

Signing with Austria Salzburg at the beginning of the 1990/’91 season proved an inspired move, with Bierhoff thriving away from the media glare of his home country. In his first truly prolific season, the German showed genuine flashes of the great goalscorer he would later become, netting 23 times as his side finished fifth. Although he was now plying his trade in the city of Mozart, his style was less symphonic beauty and more blood and guts efficiency, roughhousing defences before finishing from close range.

Having rediscovered both his confidence and his scoring touch with die Mozartstädter, Bierhoff once again set his sights on proving himself in one of Europe’s top leagues. When Inter came with a bid of £400,000 it looked as though he would finally have the opportunity to prove himself at the highest level of club football. Sadly, the move proved to be a false dawn and the German’s first year in Italy would provide a character test of such magnitude it made his time in the Bundesliga look like a period of halcyon bliss. 

Soon after signing for the Nerazzurri, it became apparent that Bierhoff didn’t feature in coach Corrado Orico’s immediate plans and the striker was shipped to newly-promoted Ascoli for the 1991/’92 season. The campaign was a disaster with the club immediately relegated back to Serie B, Bierhoff managing just two goals for the entire season.

By the end of the campaign, Ascoli fans had assigned the misfiring marksman to the role of scapegoat, with the antipathy reaching its apex when he was labelled a coward for missing fixtures due to injury. With his career at rock bottom, a shaken Bierhoff sought counsel from teammates Paolo Benetti and Luca Marcato, who inspired him to persevere.

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Nevertheless, the Ascoli fans seemed determined to oust the striker from their club with Bierhoff recalling: “When I arrived at the training camp the fans whistled me from the first to the last minute, I really thought it was over. At that moment the closeness of the comrades, of Marcato and Benetti in particular, was important.”

While the prospect of Bierhoff ever being mentioned amongst Europe’s elite strikers looked about as likely as Tony Pulis training his players in the art of Joga Bonito, the trajectory of his career was about to change. Serie A, perhaps more than any other, has a penchant for Cinderella Men and the striker would finally start reaping the rewards his persistence deserved.

Although the next three seasons were spent in Serie B, Bierhoff’s transformation from scapegoat to saviour with Ascoli fans was rapid, with the German’s goals proving instrumental in propping up their underperforming side. While his impressive tally of 38 strikes across two seasons kept Il Picchio in the promotion hunt, the striker was powerless to prevent Ascoli from succumbing to relegation to Serie C1 in 1995. This time, however, the sentiment couldn’t have been more different, with relegation deemed to have happened in spite of Bierhoff’s performances rather than because of them. 

Bierhoff’s contribution to the troubled team caught the attention of Udinese manager Alberto Zaccheroni. With the club heading in the opposite direction to Ascoli following promotion to Serie A, Zaccheroni signed the German in a £1m deal. Few would have predicted the transformative impact the young coach would have on the striker’s career.

Clearly a confidence player, the lowest points in Bierhoff’s career had always coincided with times he felt either undervalued by a coach or unloved by the fans. In Zaccheroni, the striker had a manager with an unshakable belief in his ability, and he would quickly repay the Italian’s faith with the best performances of his career to date. 

Immediately it was clear that Bierhoff was a different player to the awkward forward who’d last graced Serie A, with the German’s improved positional sense complimenting his athleticism to create a clinical number nine. His impressive tally of 17 league goals included a famous close-range winner against Marcello Lippi’s iconic Juventus – and it wouldn’t be long before his country came calling.

With Euro 96 approaching, Germany manager Berti Vogts was still unsure of his preferred strike-partner for Klinsmann, and so the former World Cup-winning defender called up Bierhoff for a series of pre-tournament friendlies. A brace against Demark in his second appearance did his quest for a place on the flight to England no harm at all and, after much deliberation, Votgs would include Bierhoff in his 23-man squad.

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After coming on as a late substitute in Germany’s opening game victory over the Czech Republic, the 27-year-old would get his chance to lead the line in the following fixture against Russia. Despite Germany’s comfortable 3-0 win, Bierhoff failed to impress and many thought the fixture would be the last time he featured in the tournament, with Klinsmann, Stefan Kuntz and Freddie Bobic all seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order.

Bierhoff watched from the sidelines for the next three games as a functional side, elevated by the cultured defending of libero Matthias Sammer and the power of Klinsmann, hustled their way to the tournament final. In a rematch of their opening fixture, Germany were pitted against the Czech’s, with Bierhoff once again waiting in the shadows as his country – downed by a second-half Patrik Berger penalty – looked set for heartbreak.

With Germany running out of ideas, Vogts turned to Bierhoff to replace Mehmet Scholl in the 69th minute. Nothing in football has the capacity to make or break a legacy quite like the final of a major international tournament, and within half an hour, Oliver Bierhoff’s transformation from unheralded squad player to national icon would be complete.

The equaliser came within four minutes of his introduction, Christian Ziege’s free-kick finding Bierhoff whose powerful downward header bounced off the turf and past Kouba in the Czech goal. With momentum firmly in Germany’s favour, it felt like fate that the unheralded sub would complete the turnaround, and he duly obliged with the tie deciding goal five minutes into extra time. The moment couldn’t have been sweeter for Bierhoff who was wrestled the ground by his teammates as he celebrated in front of the German fans. The man who’d been almost ridiculed into early retirement was now the king.

While his goals at Wembley were undoubtedly the highlight of his career, Bierhoff’s unusual trajectory meant that Euro 96 was just the start of his peak, with his best years for both club and country occurring directly after the competition. Determined not to be a one-tournament-wonder, Bierhoff made the most of his public mandate, becoming a vital player in what proved to be leaner years for his country. 

One of his greatest moments with the national team came during a World Cup 98 qualification match at Windsor Park. With Germany trailing 1-0 to Northern Ireland, Bierhoff and midfielder Thomas Hassler came off the bench to spare their nation’s blushes. The changes proved to be a masterstroke as Bierhoff bulldozed his way to an improbable six-minute hat-trick, with all goals having been assisted by Hassler. He would go on to score 37 international goals in 70 appearances, representing Germany at two World Cups and becoming captain following Klinsmann’s retirement – not bad for a player who’d failed to earn a single cap by the age of 27.

In Serie A, Udinese went from strength to strength as Zaccheroni’s expansive 3-4-3 system allowed Bierhoff to front a devastating attacking triumvirate consisting of himself, Paolo Poggi and Márcio Amoroso. The trio complemented each other perfectly, with the pace, creativity and all-round brilliance of Amoroso accentuated by the industry of Poggi and the predatory threat of Bierhoff.  The trio would lead the line for Il Friulani for the next two seasons, embarrassing some of the sports finest defenders and scoring 80 goals between them as Udinese followed a fifth-place finish with a Champions League-qualifying third. 

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By 1997/98, Bierhoff was a world-class target man, a brutish juggernaut reminiscent of the type of forward England used to produce so well. You know the kind: tough, with exquisite positional sense and an atomic bomb of a header, usually capped off with an unfathomably glamourous first name like Alan, Les or Jim. Despite lacking the technical sophistication of certain calcio forwards, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bierhoff was now the world’s best striker in the air, and his 27 Serie A goals would see him beat the likes of Ronaldo, Inzaghi and Del Piero to that season’s Capocannoniere.

The heroics of the previous campaign suggested that both Zaccheroni and Bierhoff had outgrown the Stadio Friuli, and when the coach was offered the chance to manage AC Milan, he duly signed the German marksman in an £11m deal. Seven years after the non-start with Inter, Bierhoff would take to the San Siro in the red and black of their biggest rivals. Despite his success on the peninsula, many Milan fans were sceptical of signing Bierhoff – a player who’s no-nonsense style was worlds apart from the elegant flair of Marco van Basten – but it wouldn’t be long before they were chanting his name.

After two disastrous seasons, little was expected of Milan in terms of silverware, and the task laid out to Zaccheroni by Rossoneri supremo Silvio Berlusconi was to secure Champions League qualification for the club. At this point in their careers, however, Zaccheroni and Bierhoff were masters in the art or overachieving, and the German’s 19 league goals – including an astonishing 15 headers – were instrumental in keeping Milan in the title race.

In the penultimate game of the season, Bierhoff scored a hat-trick against Empoli which saw Milan leapfrog Lazio into top spot. In perhaps the greatest moment of his club career, Bierhoff’s final-day header against Perugia sealed the game and the Scudetto, cementing the striker’s place as a Rossoneri legend.

Although Bierhoff would spend two more years in Milan, his debut season would prove to the peak of his time at the San Siro as the emergence of Andriy Shevchenko, coupled with the Germans advancing years, saw his influence slowly begin to wane. A year in France with Monaco would follow before Bierhoff returned to Serie A, calling time on his career after one solitary season with Chievo. 

His last game would be against Juventus – and the Old Lady were given a final reminder of the forward’s predatory brilliance. In what was supposed to be a victory lap for the recently crowned champions, the retiring legend did everything in his power to spoil the Bianconeri party. Like an ageing rock-star playing the hits for a final time, Bierhoff provided a masterclass in attacking efficiency, rolling back the years with a hat-trick of vintage close-range classics. Although Juventus would eventually win 4-3, the moment belonged to Bierhoff, who provided a fitting finale to his wonderful career.

Despite his privileged upbringing, the story of Bierhoff is one of triumph over adversity. With his career in a perilous position, he turned around an impossible situation to become a hero to his people and a legend in Serie A. Lacking the flair of forbearers such as Gerd Müller or Rudi Voller, Bierhoff’s intelligence and mental fortitude allowed him to overcome his limitations and his efficient, industrious style can be seen in many of his successors, from Miroslav Klose to Mario Gómez.

While the game may be littered with strikers more gifted or more glamorous, there are precious few who can claim they were as prolific, as persistent or as loved as Oliver Bierhoff.

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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