The view from Germany

Quo vadis, Werder?

May 4, 2013
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

I wasn't there, but I'm sure I would have seen plenty of smug smiles and heard a lot of backslapping at the headquarters of the DFL, the German Football League, in June, when the Bundesliga fixture list was created.

Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski
GettyImagesThe meeting between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund means little with the Bundesliga title already decided

"That's a beauty," somebody would have said and pointed at matchday 32. "Early May. Nice weather, not too hot, not too chilly." Another DFL employee probably added: "Two days after Labour Day. Many people will have a long weekend." A third must have chimed in: "We can even make it an evening game."

"That's a beauty," the first man surely repeated. "Dortmund versus Bayern. The deciding game with two days left. Well done, lads. That's what I call a fixture list!"

Since any larger group of people includes at least one party-pooping smart-aleck type, someone must have said (presumably in a squeaky voice): "Well, and what if Dortmund collapse this season and are out of the title race by March?"

At which point one of the others will have triumphantly said: "Don't worry, we have got a few secret weapons." I can see him gently placing an index finger on the list of games and adding: "Here's a Europa League decider: Hamburg versus Wolfsburg. And here are not one, but two dramatic relegation dogfights: Augsburg at Freiburg and Frankfurt against Düsseldorf. Winner stays up, loser goes down. See? Lots of action." Pause. Clearing of throat. "Okay, there's also Bremen against Hoffenheim, but you can't have a matchday that far into the season without a dud."

Well, 11 months on and the dud turns out to be the most explosive game of the weekend.

It wasn't that long ago that the entire relegation fight appeared to come down to the simple question of whether Augsburg would reach the relegation play-off spot and Hoffenheim suffer the drop - or vice versa. But while Augsburg are playing like men possessed since the end of the winter break and Hoffenheim seem positively rejuvenated under Markus Gisdol, their third coach of the season, both Düsseldorf and Bremen are struggling heavily and have now been drawn into the relegation quagmire.

If Werder fail to win against Hoffenheim on Saturday, relegation will become a distinct possibility for a club that has been playing in the Bundesliga since 1981 and won the league and cup double only nine years ago. Which is why "Can you imagine a Bundesliga without Bremen?" has become an often-heard catchphrase since last weekend, when Werder suffered yet another unlucky defeat, this time at Leverkusen.

The line you hear almost as often is: "Can you imagine Bremen without Thomas Schaaf?" Many among the Werder faithful apparently can't. After the final whistle had sounded in Leverkusen, Bremen's travelling support demanded to see the coach and, when Schaaf slowly strolled over to the away stand, clad in his trademark hooded Werder sweater, the fans began to chant his name and sing his praises as if he'd just led them to a title.

Few people in this business are - or at least try this hard to come over - as pragmatic, unsentimental and composed as the 52-year-old Schaaf, but as he was standing there, applauding Werder's most loyal fans with a look that betrayed gratitude and even affection, quite a few observers detected a tear or two in his eyes.

I'm not sure if that's true, in fact I doubt it, but you could've forgiven Schaaf for being, for once, overcome with emotion. He's been with Werder for so long that many people are convinced he was born in Bremen. He wasn't. He's from Mannheim, Sepp Herberger's hometown, but moved to Bremen as a small boy and joined Werder when he was 11 - back in 1972.

He's an Otto Rehhagel disciple, they say, having played under Werder's most legendary coach for an amazing 14 years. And pretty soon he will break Rehhagel's record of having coached the team for 5,202 days. Or will he?

That, indeed, is the big question. Schaaf is the longest-serving manager in the league (a whopping eight years and seven months ahead of Norbert Meier, who's been coaching Fortuna Düsseldorf since January 2008), partly because he's too much of a no-nonsense type to crave employment at some posher place and partly because Werder are too much of a no-nonsense club to fire people at the drop of a hat. Loyalty, patience and trust, they have learned in Bremen, will eventually pay off.

Schaaf has already weathered one serious storm, in early 2011, but the problem is that the team doesn't really seem to be going anywhere. At the beginning of the season, things looked very promising upfront and the word on the street, and in the papers, was that this was a team for the future and that Schaaf's team-building skills would shape an exciting side.

Only it hasn't happened. If anything, the team seems to be regressing instead of improving. And Schaaf's reputation as an excellent man-manager has come into doubt, too. Werder used to pride themselves on being able to handle difficult characters such as Johan Micoud, Diego and Ailton by making them feel at home. But in the past few years, Carlos Alberto proved immune to this approach, then Marko Arnautovic turned out to be too volatile to handle and Eljero Elia has made abundantly clear that the only thing that's reliable about him is that he won't live up to his potential. (Carlos Alberto, the most expensive signing in Werder's history, has long since returned to Brazil, while the latter two have been suspended until the end of the season.)

Thomas Schaaf passes the Bremen fans after the defeat to Leverkusen
GettyImagesThomas Schaaf passes the Bremen fans after the defeat to Leverkusen

So, quo vadis, Werder? If Saturday's game ends in defeat, will the club at long last feel forced to sack one of the most unpretentious and likeable men in all of football? And if yes, will it change anything? After all, quite apart from the fact that no really fitting candidate seems to be available, whoever would come in has only two games left to turn things around (against Frankfurt and Nuremberg). Which is why I guess that Bremen are determined to ride this out.

But what about Schaaf himself? I can't see him stepping down before the season is over. His sense of responsibility is so strong that he wouldn't want to desert his team with two potentially crucial games left. However, I don't rule out the possibility that he will want to have a word with the board during the summer. Maybe in June. Of course I won't be there when it happens, but here's a conversation I can imagine.

Schaaf: "Well, gentlemen, all things must come to an end, as I'm sure you will know."
Gentlemen: "But, Thomas, you're one of the most unpretentious and likeable men in all of football!"
Schaaf: "I'm a football coach, that's all."
Gentlemen: "What about the record? You need only 60 more days or so to break Otto Rehhagel's club record!"
Schaaf: "You know what? None of us would be here without him, so I quite like the fact that Otto gets to keep his record."