The joy of Johan Micoud at Werder Bremen

The joy of Johan Micoud at Werder Bremen

Werder Bremen supporter Sebastian is not impressed. “You don’t know Johan Micoud? He’s one of the greatest French avant-garde directors of all time. He directed and acted in all of our favourite movies, each and every one. Honestly, you don’t know Johan Micoud? Barbarian!”

If you are guilty of such a knowledge gap, let me give you a brief background. An attacking midfielder, Johan Micoud was born on 24 July 1973 and came through the renowned academy of hometown club AS Cannes.

Having replaced Zinedine Zidane in the senior team after his departure to Bordeaux, in 1996 Micoud was once again sought to replace Zizou. During his four-year stint at Stade du Parc Lescure, as it was then known, Bordeaux won both Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue. In 2000 Micoud transferred to Parma, winning the Coppa Italia in 2002, however that summer the club’s financial plight forced him to move on.

Werder general manager Klaus Allofs was well connected in France after playing for both Bordeaux and Marseille. When he became aware of the availability of Micoud, he flew to Nice to discuss a deal. It took some convincing, with Micoud’s wife particularly concerned with how much it snowed. Nevertheless, Allofs managed to convince the Frenchman to travel to northern Germany. Not long after meeting coach Thomas Schaaf, the deal was completed – and Bremen would never be the same again.

Micoud’s new club were undergoing a turbulent period, as fan Arne explains: “When Schaaf took over in May 1999, we were on the verge of relegation, but the new coach turned things around. Werder finished 13th in the league, and then actually won the 1999 cup final against Bayern Munich. A small miracle for the tortured soul of the Werder fans.

“In the years that followed, Werder played in the Intertoto and UEFA Cups. Every year a small increase [in the Bundesliga], but the team couldn’t build on the successes of the 1990s. We had a solid team, good management and a great coach, but that was not enough for an attack on the top of the league.”

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Micoud changed that. In four seasons in the Bundesliga he would make the team of the season on three occasions. Had it not been for Zidane, we would be talking about a player with a lot more than 17 caps for France. In the great’s shadow, what Micoud needed was a stage. At Werder he got it.

Musical references are something the man himself is fond of. He once philosophised: “Hand a guitar over to a guitar player and he will do something good with it. It’s the same when it comes to football players, there are certain basics you need to know. Beyond that you can let your artistic imagination run free. It’s this freedom of mind that fascinates me.”

If Micoud was a guitarist, the 2003/04 campaign would be his greatest hits. His goal against Wolfsburg in the second round of the DFB-Pokal was his number one single. In extra-time, Angelos Charisteas brings down a long ball, which falls to Micoud. Knocking the ball over a defender, as it drops over his shoulder, the Frenchman swivels to fire a stunning volley into the top corner.

Micoud would eventually win that year’s Pokal, scoring in every round apart from the final. Not that it mattered, as Werder still triumphed 3-2 over Alemannia Aachen. To go with this trophy was the Meisterschale.

Werder had finished 23 points behind Bayern the season before, but in 2003/04 led from December all the way to the finish. With Micoud as chief creator, Aílton scored a remarkable 28 goals, whilst his strike partner Ivan Klasnić also hit double figures.

Werder won the title at Bayern, of all places, racing into a 3-0 lead with just 35 minutes played at the Olympiastadion. That day Micoud got the second, latching onto Fabian Ernst’s through ball to knock over an advancing Oliver Kahn. A second half effort from Roy Makaay proved nothing but a mere consolation for the hosts, who had to watch Werder lift their first Bundesliga title in 11 years.

On their return to Bremen Airport, Schaaf famously emerged from the plane’s cockpit waving a giant Werder flag. Alongside those celebrations, the title also brought Champions League football to Weserstadion. Zidane may have prevented Micoud even getting into France’s squad for Euro 2004, but now he finally had a stage befitting of his talent. He recorded a hat-trick of assists in a 5-1 group stage demolition of Anderlecht, although Werder’s campaign is best remembered for their 10-2 aggregate loss to Lyon in the round of 16.

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Not that such heavy defeat downplays Micoud’s legacy. He is the childhood hero of Toni Kroos, whose first shirt supposedly had his name and number 10 emblazoned on the back. Speaking in 2015, the Real Madrid man said: “Johan Micoud is my favourite player. He was playing in Bremen at the time, I thought he was excellent. He served as a role model to me.”

Micoud represented the birth of a line of talented attacking midfielders to grace the Weserstadion. However, in terms of sheer legacy, neither of his successors, Diego or Mesut Özil, can hold a candle to the man they call Le Chef (The Chief). As Paul Heide tells me: “For my generation and younger, there’s only two options for the playmaker in an all-time best Bremen squad, Micoud or Diego. For me – and I think most people over the age of 30 – the clear winner is Micoud. A legend, no doubt about it, he is still admired in Bremen like few others.”

Micoud’s importance to those in Bremen is best illustrated by an incident during the 2004/05 winter break. Werder were at a warm-weather fitness camp in Turkey, when the Frenchman headbutted teammate Ernst after a disagreement in training. Two years before he had slapped a Bild journalist, but neither brought disciplinary action.

As Allofs later explained to the Phrasenmäher podcast: “It’s important to have rules in football, however, sometimes you have to bend those rules. Such an action by a player with no worth or use for the team would not have been acceptable. But the team knew that Micoud was so immensely important. They also knew his personality and that he would always do the best for the team.”

It must be stressed Micoud was not a violent man. Rather, he just wanted to win. Werder failed to defend their title against a rampant Bayern in 2004/05 but did finish third. Then 31, like a fine vintage leaving his former employers in the Gironde estuary, Micoud was simply getting better with age, ending the season with 11 goals and 16 assists.

Despite the lack of tangible honours, statistically the following campaign was Micoud’s best. He scored 14 times, whilst helping others, such as Miroslav Klose, to do so on 22 occasions. Once more, Werder finished runners-up in their Champions League group to reach the round of 16.

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As always, it was impossible to overlook the influence of Micoud. In a must-win game against Udinese in November 2005, Werder had thrown away a three-goal lead to be left facing elimination. That was until Micoud turned home a Torsten Frings free-kick with 20 minutes remaining to claim all three points.

Into round of 16 he would score another winner, this time in injury time in the first leg against Juventus. Heading to Turin with a 3-2 advantage, unfortunately Émerson would capitalise on a mistake from goalkeeper Tim Wiese to put the Germans out on away goals with just two minutes left.

Werder would finish five points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga, and that summer Micoud returned to Bordeaux. In Bremen they were disappointed, with Werder fan Christian Parlee telling me: “It felt like a serious relationship that ended too soon.”

Micoud would spend two seasons at his old club, retiring in 2008, before becoming president back at Cannes. For both these clubs he is an icon; nevertheless, it is Germany where his legacy is strongest. To this day the Beatles’ Hey Jude is played at Weserstadion, with Werder fans replacing the chorus with the surname of one of their best ever. Miiii-couuuuud, as the track renames him, has stated he gets goosebumps any time he hears the original.

Throughout the world, Werder fans now place stickers proclaiming their fondness for the Frenchman. The practice is so popular it even has its own hashtag. Circumstances may have meant Micoud did not get the broader acclaim his talent deserved, but the adulation of those in Bremen more than makes up for it.

Sebastian, from fan page @vertblanc, summarises circumstances perfectly: “Every time we meet normal people, and our eyes meet, we smile at each, knowingly. Because we understand. Because they understand. Because everybody in the city of Bremen knows that Le Chef was the most pristine artist our club has ever had. We’re still loving Micoud – and this is a love supreme.”

By James Kelly @jkell403

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