It was all set up for the perfect denouement at the Volkswagen Arena last Sunday, with the house of cards that is Felix Magath’s difficult second spell at Wolfsburg set to be blown down by his most recent former club, Schalke. The divisive head coach had received a vote of confidence in the week leading up to the match from club chairman Francisco Garcia Sanz, but even given the huge credit stacked up from his previous tenure, which included a maiden Bundesliga win in 2009, the extent of the pressure on Magath was unmistakable.
Yet the 58-year-old loves to defy convention, and after Raúl gave the Royal Blues an early lead, a brace from Mario Mandzukic – a rare example of a Wolfsburg player even partly fulfilling his potential in this calendar year – secured a win and gave Magath a bit of breathing space. Three successive defeats, and in particular away-day humblings at Borussia Mönchengladbach and Freiburg, had put an alarming end to the fresh optimism fostered by the opening day victory at Köln.
This week, it wasn’t just Wolfsburg’s poor results that had critics scenting blood, but German tabloid Bild’s leaking of Magath’s extraordinary fine system implemented this season. Some rules were standard old-school discipline (€100 docked for every minute of a player’s lateness to training, €250 for wearing headphones on the team bus) but others were simply beyond the pale; it would cost a defender €500 if he let the ball bounce in front of him before clearing, and €1000 would be deducted from a player for every “unnecessary” backpass. In addition to this, Mandzukic and Patrick Helmes were both reportedly hit with whopping €10,000 penalties for failing to follow tactical instructions in the defeat at Freiburg.
Discipline and motivation is one thing, but having a set of players live in a climate of fear is something else entirely. Wads of cash do not make them superhuman, and people rarely produce their best work under threat of reprisal. In his blog the deputy head of Eurosport 2, Andreas Evagora, wondered whether Magath’s “continued mental assault on his players” has any place in a new, understanding Bundesliga environment, following Sebastian Diesler’s premature retirement in 2007 after being treated for depression, and the tragic suicide of Robert Enke in 2009.
The sad thing is this story now overshadows the grace and circumspection with which Magath dealt with his most challenging problem since his return, something that has not gone unnoticed in the boardroom at the Volkswagen Arena. His conduct in dealing with the incredibly tricky Diego situation was exemplary, after the Brazilian playmaker and club record signing’s effective mutiny on the final day of last season. When Magath announced the team for the must-win game at Hoffenheim, with the Wolves still threatened with relegation, Diego wasn’t in it – he refused to go to the stadium with the team, and promptly walked out of the team hotel.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my career,” Magath commented to Sky at the time. “I did not try to reason with him.” Diego is charming, erudite and approachable on a personal level and little short of a magician with the ball at his feet, but he has a flagrant disregard for authority – or, in his eyes, a strong sense of knowing what’s best. His penalty miss at Hannover, as explained right here on the Football Ramble blog back in February, had been pivotal in Steve McClaren’s fall, an act of extraordinary insolence that drove the mild-mannered and amiable Englishman to the very depths of exasperation.
“Initially, we wanted to build a new team around him next season,” said Magath, “but after what has happened, we’ll see.” To his immense credit, Magath met Diego for summer talks to try and rectify the outstanding issues, but made him available for transfer after being unsatisfied with his responses. Diego joined Atlético Madrid on loan on transfer deadline day.
Perhaps the current situation shows a human side to Magath that we had hitherto unsuspected. Having been burned by being approachable to Diego, he has reasoned with himself that he won’t make that mistake again. If this is indeed the case, then it is a very sad state of affairs.
Perhaps Magath’s expectations of player conduct were unreasonably raised by the superb Raul, whom he signed for Schalke and described to France Football in an interview as “easily” the best professional he’s ever worked with. If the Spaniard’s goal on Sunday had eventually proved the fatal blow to Magath’s second reign at the Volkswagen, he may have afforded himself a wry smile at the irony. That the provider was Jefferson Farfán, who famously commented he would rather have gone home to Peru and worked the mines rather than play for Magath again, would have been even more so.
The potential is certainly in Magath’s squad, as the first of those consecutive defeats (an unlucky loss against now-leaders Bayern Munich) showed, but their problems aren’t about money; either that lost from the pockets of miscontrolling players or the vast sums continually spent on new players. Some bridges have to be built behind closed doors if this is not to yet another false dawn, even if Magath can breathe easy for now.
Andy Brassell is an acclaimed football writer and the author of 'All or Nothing: A year in the life of the Champions League', he is also a regular presenter on BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-in. twitter.com/andybrassell