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Opinion: Rudi Völler is not the reformer German football needs

  • January 21, 2023
Rudi Völler sits in front of German football badges
Rudi Völler has a big task ahead of himImage: Anke Waelischmiller/Sven Simon/picture alliance

“Es gibt nur einen Rudi Völler!” goes the popular German football chant that has echoed around the country’s stadiums for over two decades — “There’s only one Rudi Völler!”

Völler is a popular figure in German football, celebrated for his prolific goalscoring record as a player (47 goals in 90 appearances for Germany including World Cup glory as West Germany in 1990) and for his achievements since hanging up his boots: he led Germany to the 2002 World Cup final as head coach and has since spent 18 years as Bayer Leverkusen’s director of sport.

Put simply, everyone likes Rudi. And perhaps that is why the 62-year-old has now been appointed Oliver Bierhoff’s successor as the German national team’s sporting director, with the primary task of ensuring that Germany do not disappoint on home soil at Euro 2024 in 18 months’ time, as they have done at their last three major tournaments.

“We want to form a sworn community again,” said Völler’s new boss, Bernd Neuendorf, the president of the German Football Association (DFB). “We want a strong-willed and relatable national team with the clear aim of winning back the unconditional support of the fans.”

Völler: The man who can’t say ‘nein’

After resigning from his role in Leverkusen last year, Völler had initially intended to take a step back from the daily grind of professional football. But now he’s back, not only because he is needed, but also because no one more suitable is available. But mainly because he can’t say “nein.” It’s in Völler’s character to help out when called upon.

Even his first role with the DFB wasn’t really planned. After Germany’s disappointing performance at Euro 2000, Völler was only supposed to take over from head coach Erich Ribbeck on an interim basis for a year until Christoph Daum took over. But after Daum was embroiled in a cocaine affair, Völler took on the job permanently and surprisingly led Germany to the 2002 World Cup final, where they lost to Brazil in Yokohama, Japan.

Because Daum also lost his job as Bayer Leverkusen coach, Völler filled in there for a month, too. And when Völler’s former club Roma found themselves without a head coach in 2004, Völler responded to the call and helped out at the Stadio Olimpico, if only for 26 days.

Since then, he’s been pulling the strings at Bayer Leverkusen — arguably one of the cushiest jobs in German football at a works club where money is no issue, yet where great success isn’t really expected. Leverkusen just keep trudging along, making the Bundesliga top four more often than not, but rarely making Bayern Munich break a sweat.

Rudi Völler (left) celebrates as Germany lift the World Cup in 1990 in Rome
Rudi Völler (left) celebrates as Germany lift the World Cup in 1990 in Rome. Völler has always been there when called upon.Image: Herbert Rudel/picture alliance

Völler the diplomat

Perhaps this is another reason why the DFB settled on him over their initially preferred candidates Fredi Bobic and Matthias Sammer. While the former seems happy with his work at Hertha Berlin, the latter is the polar opposite of Völler, and did say “nein.”

While Sammer, currently an external advisor to Borussia Dortmund, is difficult, demanding, never satisfied and constantly looking for improvement, Völler is a diplomat, more inclined to take a struggling player to one side for a quiet chat than to openly criticize, more likely to position himself in front of an underperforming team and take the flak on their behalf.

That, it appears, is what the DFB wants, for the next 18 months at least. Indeed, Völler will not be taking on any of Bierhoff’s wider responsibilities of youth development, women’s football, marketing and general management and networking. He is simply expected to work closely with head coach Hansi Flick in close proximity to the team, bringing his experience to bear and helping create a positive environment.

“There’s only one Rudi Völler” — and that’s all he’s expected to be.

Reforms delayed

In a short-term sense, Völler isn’t a bad appointment. After all, the European Championships are only round the corner and the multitude of issues facing the DFB cannot feasibly be fixed by then. Any attempt to do so now could result in further humiliation on the pitch, and this time on home soil.

No, that’s not Völler’s responsibility. Völler is no visionary, no reformer. That will come later. The DFB has bought itself time, but all the same problems remain.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Matt Ford

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