It’s funny that on the day I finished Rafael Honigstein’s book, the great Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger returned my questions for an interview that Rafael had helped facilitate. The last chapter of the book, which is very pensive and earnest, incorporates with how Germans deal with World War II. In it he praises the sense of humor of most Britons and laments on how far behind Germans can sometimes be in the category, especially self-deprecation. Yet, Rafael helped me with garner an interview with a man who probably could have been as good a comedian as he is a writer. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did, as Uli talks to me about his books, the league and his club.
I’ve heard rumor of a new book. Any information about it?
“I’ve written three books now, one in English and two in German, but I don’t intend to let this become a habit. In fact, the third and to date last one only came out because it was a collection of weird but true stories which I had already written and published in various places. I’d have never had the time to write it from scratch.”
When it comes to Tor!, how long did it take you to research the book? I have to say, that it astounded me how much detail was in that book: including Nazi flags as uniforms, Puma vs Adidas, club naming structures, to name a few, besides the history of the league/s.
“It took almost exactly eleven months to write the book. Not so much because English isn’t my native language but because I had to try this and that until I knew how to structure the narrative, what to leave out, what to put in, whom to feature prominently, whom to discard. In fact, what you call ‘details’ is pretty much the result of all that tinkering. Because you can’t have a thorough and comprehensive history without many seemingly smaller stories and lots of people – otherwise the read will be a drag. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t really research things such as that adidas versus Puma parable with an eye towards the book. I knew the story, have known it for a long time. The question was: is this the kind of story that will help the book by keeping it lively? I decided it was. In some similar cases, I decided against using a certain story, some of them quite intriguing. So, writing: eleven months. Research: my life as a football fan.”
Having covered East German history, what do you think it will take for the region to start challenging at the highest level. It’s almost 20 years on and we now face a season without one Eastern side. Is this the chasm you spoke of and is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
“Excellent question. Will you allow me to cop out by saying that Hertha did challenge last season? Berlin, after all, is east of, say, Magdeburg or Leipzig. But I guess you really mean East German as in ‘from the territory of the former GDR’. In that case, I have no idea. First of all, I regret to say, it takes money. You may have heard that Red Bull has begun to invest in a small club from Leipzig. This annoys many fans, who feel that here’s an upstart threatening to overtake the two tradition-laden clubs, Sachsen and Lokomotive, solely because of money. But finances are very important. In fact, finances are the primary reason the big GDR clubs, the Dynamos and Madgeburg, are languishing. It was all a mess when the Wall fell. The Eastern clubs got raided, lost the best players, and were then also taken to the cleaners by con men.”
How did you come to be not only a football journalist, but a historical football journalist: after all besides the book, you gave us the SV Alsenborn piece, Brunswick/Jagermeister, Hennes the goat.
“I guess what you mean is that I’m not a beat writer, not someone who regularly covers a team or a league for a newspaper, but what is known as a feature or magazine journalist plus a columnist. Well, it’s because that’s what I like best. Transfer rumours and other speculations just bore me. And I have no idea why interviews with active players and coaches are so central to today’s sport journalism, as the vast, vast majority of them are utterly devoid of anything noteworthy.”
And what was the most interesting historical piece you came upon during your years as a journalist?
“You mean the story that fascinated me the most? Either the 1919 Black Sox scandal or Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in 1947. In case you’re asking about a German story and/or a football story, I guess the history of the Dassler family, the adidas versus Puma war, indeed is an incredible tale – and a great mystery.”
Bayern Munich: odds-on favorites or overrated? Who challenges them?
“Despite Wolfsburg’s awesome form in the second half of the season, the past campaign was more or less thrown away by Bayern. They won’t let this happen again, which doesn’t mean they’ll definitely win it, it just means they are the favourites. Wolfsburg, Hamburg and Stuttgart should be there or thereabouts again. And for some reason I think Werder will be much improved.”
Hoffenheim: are they here to stay or will they have second season syndrome?
“It’ll be both tougher and easier for them, as both the euphoria that carried them and the hatred they often encountered should subside. Which means they will be more of a normal side this year. So: no sensational winning run but no prolonged slump, either.”
Which team had the best summer in the transfer market?
“Taking everything into account, Bayern. Yes, they still haven’t solved this problem at right back, but if you get Mario Gomez and Ivica Olic, that’s pretty damn good. And I think losing Lucio will prove to be a blessing in disguise.”
Are Stuttgart good enough to challenge in Europe this year?
“They should be out of their depth in the Champions League, but making it far in the Europa League is a possibility. Provided, of course, they get there via the Champions League. Gosh, how complicated all this has become!”
How long will it take Magath to make Schalke into contenders? And you cannot answer never!
“There are two Schalke fans I know who have – independently of each other – told me there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that Schalke will win the league next season.”
How do you feel about Dortmund’s chances this year?
“I don’t think we’ll finish sixth again, but that’s no catastrophe. In the span of almost exactly twelve months, we’ve lost two proven goalscorers, Mladen Petric and Alex Frei, and have gotten a bunch of nice lads in return who’ll cover a lot of ground but will rarely score. If we finish in seventh, eighth or ninth place, that’s okay with me.”
Are you as enamoured with Jurgen Klopp as most?
“Honest answer? Yes. I’m aware he could be a complete charlatan who uses his brains, charisma and looks to con people into thinking he’s a good coach when in fact he might be totally useless. But I’ve come to suspect that this is the perfect job description for a football coach, anyway. On a more serious note, he hasn’t made any obvious blunder yet and has at the very least managed to turn a comatose, bloodless side into a team nobody really wants to play. Without completely overhauling the personnel. That’s impressive.”
Will you be able to hold onto Subotic and Kuba this year?
“I don’t worry about Kuba, he lacks consistency and is not really a key player. But Subotic … yes, that’s a problem. The day will come when he figures he’s given Klopp all he owes him. Then he’ll move on.”
What are your thoughts on the wunderkind Sven Bender?
“At Dortmund, we deeply distrust wonder kids. There was a coach, and we won’t mention names, who claimed Christian Timm was the greatest talent in all of Germany. Before that, we all were pretty sure that Lars Ricken was the most talented player of his generation. And I was at the ground when an 18-year-old Daniel Simmes scored the Goal of the Year in 1984 against Leverkusen. It was a solo across almost the whole of the length of the pitch, proving beyond, er, doubt this was a superstar in the making.”
How do you think Lucas Barrios and Rangelov will fit in with the squad? WIll they be adequate replacement for Frei?
“Like I said, both seem to be guys who are willing to track back, cover a lot of ground and help the team. Just like Valdez and Zidan, then. And unlike Petric and Frei, the two we let go. There’s quite obviously a method to this.”
What pieces do you feel that Dortmund are missing from challenging for the title?
“Sorry, did you say ‘title’? You mean as in ‘league title’? Well, er, how’s about 30m Euros?”