“If I stay, I’ll die”: Giovanni Trapattoni and the mad Bayern Munich years

“If I stay, I’ll die”: Giovanni Trapattoni and the mad Bayern Munich years

A club and its head coach can be one of football’s most troubled relationships. Sometimes things just click – coach meets club, sparks fly, and the perfect storm is created. Others aren’t so lucky. Try as they might, the romance engine simply can’t get going. There’s internal friction, the fans intervene, and the whole thing goes up in flames.

Giovanni Trapattoni was one of the game’s great composers. Even he, though, couldn’t get a consistent tune out of an off-key Bayern Munich.

Bayern’s squad was entering its angsty teenage years when Trapattoni first arrived on the scene. The dressing room played host to a motley crew of egos and became a melting pot of drama. But it was at boardroom level where things first started to go awry.

Club executive and former player Uli Hoeness was under mounting pressure to loosen the purse strings. The boardroom’s newest members, Franz Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, led the charge, with the latter stating: “All the millions in the bank are of no use if you don’t have any points.”

It was 1994 and the Bavarians had just won the Bundesliga with Beckenbauer at the helm. The club legend had stepped in as interim manager and led Bayern to domestic glory. After resuming his vice-presidential duties, Der Kaiser didn’t mince his words, voicing how crucial he believed further investment to be in the club’s bid to stay on top.

Hoeness, aware of Beckenbauer’s intentions to step away from the dugout, had already sounded out his replacement: a young French manager by the name of Arsène Wenger. Monaco, however, put up a strong fight, refusing to let their prodigy break his contract. That led Hoeness to Plan B: Trapattoni.

 

The First Act

 

On closer inspection, the Italian appeared to be the perfect candidate. At the time, German football was lagging behind the rest of Europe – with a number of clubs still fielding two man-marking centre-backs and a sweeper – while the man known as Il Trap was heralded as a tactical visionary.

Trap was schooled in the art of catenaccio during his playing days in Milan by one of the philosophy’s forefathers, Nero Rocco. After marking greats such as Eusébio, Pelé and Johan Cruyff out of games, it soon became clear Trapattoni was a devout student of the game, one who worshipped the so-called dark arts as much as he did beautiful passing sequences.

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Evolving into a wildly successful coach, Trapattoni was a pioneer of zona mista in the late-70s and 80s, building on Rocco’s style by introducing an element of zonal marking. He enjoyed success at both Milan clubs, and even more with Juventus, before Bayern prised him away.

Initially, the Italian had been on the cusp of signing for Roma, but after the deal’s collapse, he was persuaded to venture abroad and put pen to paper on a contract in Munich. This was in no small part thanks to Lothar Matthäus. The player had blossomed under Trapattoni’s tutelage while the pair were at Inter together, and was keen to work alongside his former boss once more. “I was constantly in contact with Trapattoni,” Matthäus told German newspaper Bild. “He desperately wanted to sign me, but when his move to Roma foundered, he advised me to extend my contract in Munich.” 

It wasn’t all roses, though. For starters, Trapattoni couldn’t speak a word of German. Initially he brushed this off, claiming that he’d communicate in English via his assistant, Klaus Augenthaler, who’d then relay his message to the players in a thick, Bavarian accent.

Secondly, Trapattoni’s wife was hesitant about the move; not least because their son was in the final year of his studies in Milan. They came to the agreement that the family would stay put while he moved, penning a one-year deal as something of a trial period.

If Hoeness had hoped Trapattoni was the man to lead Bayern into a new era, then the coach’s first competitive match provided a sharp reality check. Bayern were embarrassed, knocked out of the DFB-Pokal in the first round at the hands of fourth-tier minnows, TSV Vestenbergsgreuth. “We have to live with the humiliation,” Matthäus sheepishly remarked afterwards.

Things failed to improve thereafter. Trapattoni tried his best, signing two stars in the form of young goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and French striker Jean-Pierre Papin, while simultaneously revolutionising the club’s training regimes. Nothing, however, seemed to work. He then shut the press out from sessions altogether at the Säbener Strasse – this was commonplace in Italy but seldom seen in German football at the time.

The media didn’t help, heaping pressure and expectation onto Bayern’s shoulders by labelling them the “Dream Team”. The phrase was first coined in 1992, by the US Olympic basketball team, but it was sports magazine Kicker that adopted its use for football and bestowed it upon Bayern. Given Trapattoni’s standing in the game – combined with a star-studded squad – nothing but excellence would be considered acceptable.

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Bayern immediately cracked, slumping to a sixth-placed finish without a trophy in sight. Despite being offered an extension, Trapattoni had weathered enough. The cultural barriers and media scrutiny clearly took their toll. “If I can’t be 100 percent Trapattoni, we should stop it here,” he confessed to regional outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung.

While Trapattoni headed back to Italy, taking the reins at Cagliari, Hoeness and co. remained hellbent on spending their way to dominance. This led the club to the doorstep of Werder Bremen coach, Otto Rehhagel.

 

The Rehhagel Interval

 

Rehhagel had overseen the most successful spell in Werder’s history, winning two Bundesliga titles and DFB-Pokals, as well as a Cup Winners’ Cup. However, as soon as the Breman fans got wind of Rehhagel’s pre-agreement with Bayern, he was systematically hounded for the remainder of the season.

Bayern’s new head coach was an autocratic disciplinarian. He ruled supreme in Bremen but was entering a lions’ den in Munich, where he’d have to contend with the equally opinionated and obstinate trio of Hoeness, Beckenbauer and Rummenigge. As if navigating this alpha battle wasn’t enough, Bayern’s squad had broken out into civil war.

Matthäus swiftly found himself at loggerheads with the club’s new signing, Jürgen Klinsmann, after suffering a serious injury. Not only did Matthäus lose his place in the national team to Dortmund’s Matthias Sammer, he was also stripped of the captaincy, which was instead bestowed upon his new teammate, Klinsmann.

Matthäus, a larger-than-life, often controversial character himself, was incensed; he remained convinced Klinsmann was leading a two-faced campaign to smear his name. What ensued was an embittered and ugly public spat.

With the squad divided, and regularly appearing on the front of papers as much as the back of them, Rehhagel lost the dressing room. What was once proclaimed the “Dream Team” now went by another name, largely due to the club’s ongoing soap opera: “FC Hollywood”.

Rehhagel was dismissed with four games to spare, robbing him of the chance to lift the UEFA Cup, in which he’d led Bayern to the final. It left an incredibly bitter taste in the coach’s mouth, so much so that following his dismissal, he didn’t even return to collect his belongings.

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Once again, Beckenbauer stepped in to guide Bayern over the line. The Bavarians dispatched a gifted Bordeaux side – boasting the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu, who would sign for Bayern that summer – 5-1 over a two-legged final. Ironically, Beckenbauer had landed the trophy he once described as “the loser’s cup”.

 

The Second Act

 

With the dust still settling after an explosive season both on and off the pitch, Trapattoni was reinstated on the Bayern touchline. The coach vowed to “take an intensive language course during the next two months”, and while still not perfectly fluent, his improved communication skills paid dividends.

Bayern returned to the apex of German football, winning the 1996/97 Bundesliga title by two points over Bayer Leverkusen. Unfortunately for Trapattoni, the victory was far from people’s minds. With the Klinsmann-Matthäus feud still raging on, the striker also found a bone to pick with his new head coach. The pair clashed in regard to their footballing ideologies; Klinsmann naturally favoured a more offensive, free-flowing game, whereas the conservative Trapattoni preferred his tried and tested philosophy.

The Italian would regularly sacrifice Klinsmann when Bayern went ahead, subbing the forward in place of an extra midfielder or defender, much to Klinsmann’s dismay. The situation reached its nadir in May 1997 when Bayern found themselves in a goalless stalemate with bottom of the league Freiburg. 

Klinsmann, having missed a hatful of chances already, was substituted. On his way off the pitch, he verbally abused Trapattoni before putting his foot through an advertising pillar. The game finished 0-0 and the incident became known as Tonnentritt (Pillar Kick).

Shortly after, Klinsmann handed in a transfer request and agreed terms with Sampdoria. Upon teaming up with revered Argentine coach César Luis Menotti, the player’s parting shot came in the press as he spoke of his relief at finally being playing for an “attack-minded” coach.

The following season saw Bayern self-implode. For all the headlines and headaches he’d given Trapattoni, Klinsmann’s goals were indeed crucial in the Bundesliga triumph, and proved to be sorely missed. The infighting continued too, the players increasingly starting to rebel, namely by frequenting Munich’s vibrant nightlife scene and causing mayhem.

Hoesness eventually snapped. With the situation spiralling out of control, he hired private investigators to keep an eye on his stars’ after-hours activities – information which of course found its way into the press. “Oh no, FC Hollywood! What was supposed to be an April Fool’s Day hoax turns out to be true,” read Berliner Kurier’s headline.  

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In truth, much like Trapattoni’s first stint in charge, the writing was on the wall from the first game of the season. Hosts Bayern were defeated 1-0 by newly-promoted Kaiserslautern, a result which sent the travelling fans into raptures. Sprinting across the pitch to join in the celebrations was Kaiserslautern’s head coach – none other than Otto Rehhegal.

Kaiserslautern would go on to achieve the unthinkable, winning the Bundesliga at the first time of asking, with Bayern trailing them in second. Rehhegal’s new employers may have only finished two points clear but, psychologically, the battle had been won as early as March.

Following a defeat to Schalke, Trapattoni was slaughtered by the press for leaving Mehmet Scholl and Mario Basler out of the line-up. Livid with both his players and the media, the coach announced there would be no training until Tuesday.

As recalled by author Uli Hesse in his book Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub, the Italian drove back to Milan that evening, crafted a speech in poorly constructed German, and travelled back to Säbener Strasse to address the press. After asking journalists “if they were ready”, Trapattoni launched into an explosive tirade against his own players.

The longer it went on, the angrier he became, spewing venom as he slurred his German pronunciation. Now-iconic quotes, such as describing his players as “weak like an empty bottle”, adorned the newspapers as the watching world sat, jaws agape, at the meltdown of a man previously known for his gentlemanly conduct. 

It was three-and-a-half minutes of high-octane drama and rage. The sort of fiasco that now leaves 90s football fans scoffing at younger generations for suggesting nothing’s more manic than a Mourinho presser. It’s crystallised in history as the most heated and infamous press conference in German football history.

Nine days later, Trapattoni marched into Hoeness’s office and asked for his contract to be terminated at the end of the season. There were two years remaining on his current deal but he already knew he’d well and truly lost the dressing room. And he didn’t care one bit. “If I stay in Munich, I’ll die,” he exclaimed.

What first appeared a match made in heaven quickly disintegrated into the most toxic and volatile relationships. The coach moved on to sunnier climes, but in a script aptly suited to the screens of Hollywood, those wild, Oscar-worthy four years will surely stay with him forever.

By Charlie Charmichael @CharlieJC93

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