::: Today we welcome a guestpost from Russell Berrisford, who you may remember from such gaily flickering difference engine lanterns as theVancouver Sun and Soccer Report Extra :::
Through the years many football managers have been known to put the fear of God into their players, but there has been only one who has terrified them by killing off God completely. I’m talking of course about the great European coach of the mid-1800s, Friedrich Nietzsche. The “God is dead” story is the stuff of legend but first let us take a look at the, sadly neglected, early career of arguably the first great European manager.
Nietzsche’s first job in football came when he was appointed coach of FC Basel, and it soon became clear that his approach would cause shock waves throughout the game.
“I had spent the previous two months watching Panathinaikos struggle in the Greek first division” he wrote in his autobiography “An Attempt at Self Criticism” and although they had been on a terrible run what struck me was the fact that the worse the results got, the more the fans seemed to get behind the team.
“I was desperate to create that kind of bond at Basel and so I urged the players to perform badly in the first few games as I wanted the supporters to stare into the abyss of suffering – only then could they truly follow the team.”
Sadly the FC Basel board were less than happy with this approach and his stay at the helm lasted just 6 games (all heavy losses). “I wanted to bring terror and ecstasy to this club.” he said in a press conference held shortly after his dismissal “not mid-table respectability.”
In retrospect it is perhaps surprising that he found another role so quickly, but he was approached by the chairman of a struggling Genoa side who were fighting to stave off relegation, and it was in Italy that he implemented his now legendary fitness regime.
Again the man himself takes up the story “The players were not match fit when I arrived” he wrote ” They were weak in both body and mind, so I decided to experiment with a new training plan that I had been considering for some time. I called it “Eternal Recurrence”.
Nietzsche’s new training scheme forced the players to repeat the weakest aspect of their game over and over again, often until they were no longer able to move. He reasoned that If they could survive this then they were more than ready for the full 90 minutes on Saturday.
This new kind of approach was hugely controversial at the time but today it is acknowledged as being the forerunner of the “muscle memory” training that is such a crucial part of any modern athletes preparations, and the effects were astonishing. Genoa went unbeaten for the rest of the season, often scoring goals late in games, and avoided relegation by a clear six points.
The following season began equally as well but, typically, Nietzsche wasn’t happy.
“The ground was rarely full and the muted atmosphere at the games still bothered me” he remembered “so I approached my good friend Richard Wagner to compose a short piece of music that would rouse the fans when the lads ran out.”
The first performance of the piece (before a 2-1 home win against Sampdoria) caused both exhilaration and confusion.
“Everybody was energised by what they heard” wrote Nietzsche “exactly as I had planned it. Yet the idiot of a groundsman kept running around the pitch in an effort to make it stop, shouting that the performers were damaging his turf!”
Nietzsche elects not to mention that this particular rendition featured over 100 musicians and 1,200 singers on the field at one time so maybe the much maligned groundsman had good reason to be upset and, to Nietzsche’s fury, the intro was never performed again (although Wagner later added sleigh bells and turned it into the hit Christmas single “The Ride of the Reindeers” )
“The Chairman called me into his office on Monday morning” Nietzsche explains “and told me that we would have to drop the music. I was furious, especially as the fool couldn’t give me any good reason except that he thought that it might be “a bit much”.
The relationship between manager and chairman quickly became untenable and two weeks later Nietzsche resigned his position and moved to a new job in charge of Deutscher Fußball Bund founder club, VfB Leipzig.
Many Nietzsche adherents would rather his time at Leipzig were removed from history since they argue that it is not representative of his true talent, pointing out that there were already signs that he was suffering from the day-to-day stress of football management. Ironically though it is his brief spell at the German club that fully established his legend for many football fans.
Certainly there were moments from his arrival that do raise questions about his mental state and his first meeting with the press makes Jose Mourinho’s “special one” comment seem positively humble by comparison.
“You look up when you wish to be exalted” he told the assembled reporters “and I look down because I am exalted.”
Yet perhaps the most surprising aspect of his period at Leipzig was his emphasis on the physical side of the game “The Will to Power” style of play as it was dubbed by the German media.
“Who can attain to anything great if he does not feel in himself the force and will to inflict great pain?” he told his players before a game against Eintracht Frankfurt.
His players took his words to heart and had three men sent off in the first fifteen minutes in what became known as “The Battle of Leipzig” but Nietzsche refused to waiver from his new-found belief and even upped the ante of the physical side of the game.
“During training I split the team into two groups.” he writes “My starting eleven wore bibs with “Masters” on the back, and my reserves wore the shirts of our next opponents with the word “Slaves” written on them. I wanted my team to feel totally dominant from the first whistle.”
Too dominant some would say and a further series of red cards and opposition injuries soon gave rise to opposition fans chanting “Dirty, dirty, Nietzsche!” whenever he appeared in the technical area which, predictably, sent him into fits of rage.
Results didn’t go well either, and by February Leipzig were staring at possible relegation (which would be a first for Nietzsche) and he finally snapped when his Mexican forward Hector began his familiar ritual of kneeling in prayer before a game. Nietzsche ran out onto the pitch and, grabbing him by the throat, shouted “God is dead you fool! God is dead! You all killed him when you made a mess of that set-piece against Werder Bremen!”
As security were attempting to drag him away Nietzsche broke free and clung desperately to the neck of a nearby police horse. It took three hours to prise him free and after the incident neither Nietzsche or the horse would ever appear in a football stadium again.
It is perhaps ironic that his most lasting legacy to the game he loved came after his death when his posthumously published book “Thus Spake Zonal Marking” introduced the innovative concept of “der letzte Mensch” (the last man) which led directly to the modern-day offside rule, but that somehow seems fitting for a man who was so far ahead of his time.
Football historians ignore him at their peril.