A Sense of Belonging
Andi Herzog reflects on success at Rapid, frustration at Bayern and being assistant coach with the USA
I met Andi Herzog outside Rapid Vienna’s Allianz-Stadion in the west of the city. As we headed past the fan shop near the main entrance three men in their thirties standing in the queue at the cash desk immediately recognised him. One of them hurried up to open the door and all three greeted Herzog, one of the club’s biggest heroes.
We went into the club museum, the “Rapideum”, where each player from their Team of the Century has his own glass column. The 49-year-old Herzog stopped by the one marked with his own name. It contains two shirts and a photograph of him in Rapid colours taken when he was around 20. “This wasn’t so long ago,” he said, laughing and stroking his freshly shaven face.
We sat down by a circular hole in the wall, designed to house the Austrian Bundesliga trophy. “Der Teller gehört nach Hütteldorf,” reads a notice on the wall: the plate ought to be in Hütteldorf, the suburb where Rapid are based. The space has been empty since Rapid last won the title in 2008. The drought is starting to become a major concern.
“It’s the biggest club in Austria,” Herzog said. “It’s similar to Bayern Munich in Germany. They have the highest number of supporters, the best history. All fans of Rapid say that the club is like a religion. The only problem right now is that Rapid are not number one in the table. It’s time to get back to the level everyone is expecting.”
It seemed for a while that Herzog may be the answer. He had been sacked as Jürgen Klinsmann’s assistant coach with the USA national team in November 2016 and was among the candidates to replace Damir Canadi when he was dismissed in April 2017 but the club opted instead for Goran Djuricin. Nonetheless, he remains one of the highest-profile figures in Austrian football.
His goal against Sweden in 1997 earned them qualification for the World Cup in 1998 – the last time Austria qualified. That one moment, a beautiful shot from outside the box right into Thomas Ravelli’s top left corner, was the moment that defined him as a true football genius with an incredible left foot. “It was crazy,” he remembered. “We were one man down and Sweden had a really good team. I received the ball in my own half, then I ran and finished from 25m, and we won 1-0.”
The Austrian post office designed a special stamp to celebrate his goal. “This made me really proud,” he said. “It was the most expensive stamp, because they used some special technology, so when you looked at it from various angles, you could see the shot, then the ball flying and in the end the goal. It was a very special stamp not only for me, but for everyone.”
Herzog had football in his DNA. He grew up in Vienna and watched his father, Anton, play. “My dad was maybe better player than I was,” he said. “He was very talented, but it was in early sixties and in that time there was no professional football in Austria. He had a lot of potential and skill, but he did not work hard.”
Once, his dad was invited to play for the national team. “A couple of weeks before, he went on a date with my mum for the first time and then he got an international call-up. He came to the airport for the meeting with the national team and he went straight to the head coach. He asked him, ‘Coach, am I playing in Finland?’ The coach said: ‘I don’t know yet. Why?’ And he answered, ‘Because if I’m not starting, I’m not travelling.’ And the head coach said: ‘Thank you’. First time there and already goodbye, so it was not a great start for him.
“He was very stubborn. He was a good player, but did things his way and that didn’t work in modern football anymore. He talked to me about a lot of things. When he made some mistakes, he always wanted me not to make the same mistakes. Most of the time, it worked really well. His experience served as big advantage for me. I already knew what was coming, what could happen and he gave me a lot of advice.”
Most importantly, Andreas’s talent was exceptional. Until the age of fifteen, he played for Admira/Wacker, the last club his father had played for in the top flight. Then he moved to Rapid Vienna. “It was a dream come true for me,” he said. “The breakthrough came when I was invited to the first team’s training camp in the south of Austria.”
Herzog acknowledges he was “very talented” and made the most of the education his father provided. Even as youth player in 1980s, he could see problems in training that needed a change. “When I was maybe fifteen,” he said, “I didn’t like special training sessions when we were just running around without the ball. Even then, I asked the coach: ‘Why don’t we train with the ball?’ We could have done some exercises for endurance also with the ball. I wanted to have it at my feet. And, so coaches kept having arguments with me, but in the end I think that’s how football and training works right now. Everything is possession, not just running 90 minutes through the forest. We were doing that in the winter time here in Vienna, when it was really freezing and the pitches were covered by snow. Today, players should be happy they don’t have to do the same boring training sessions we had.”
When asked which coach influenced him the most, he mentions Ernst Dokupil. He took charge of him only briefly, when Herzog was nineteen and on loan from Rapid to First Vienna. “I played only 15 games for that team,” Herzog said, “but I was young and he just told me, ‘Play to your strength and have fun. I want you to enjoy it, with lots of dribbling and scoring goals.’ And, after three or four games, I had already played for the national team. So he gave me a lot of confidence even as a young kid. When I came back to Rapid, my coach was Hans Krankl [the legendary striker who played for Rapid and Barcelona] and he was really emotional and a very good motivator. We were a young team and we weren’t so successful as to win the title, but he was very special for Austria, among the best goal scorers ever. He inspired us a lot.”
From the very beginning, Herzog was considered to be the next big thing in Austria, described as a future star of the national team. “In 1988, I was in the national team’s squad for the first time for a game against Greece away,” he said. “My advantage was that the team’s coach was the former Under-21 coach Josef Hickersberger, so I knew him and he knew me really well, and in the end it was a lot easier for me than if I’d played under a coach I didn’t know that much. However, in that game, I was so nervous I did not play really well, because the expectations were really high.”
At the time Herbert Prohaska, Austria’s star playmaker for 15 years, was approaching retirement. “They said I was the new one, the new Herbert Prohaska,” Herzog said. “But I was only 19. I had a good game and then I had two bad ones. I was always between heaven and hell.
“There was a lot of pressure on me in every game to reach my full potential and to make everyone happy. Similarly later, when I played in Germany. It was a good thing to get used to something like that. In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes and I did not perform at my peak, because I was a little blocked. When I became a coach, my young players also made the same mistakes, but if I tell them some stories about what I did, maybe I help them a little bit.”
Once Herzog had settled in the starting line-up, nothing could stop him and he would go on to earn 103 international caps – surpassing his teammate Toni Polster (95) and the legendary midfielder Gerhard Hanappi (93). “I played 103 matches for Austria, or, as my friend Toni Polster says, ‘Only three good ones and a hundred bad ones’,” Herzog laughed. “But it wasn’t easy. I played for around 15 years in the national team, and you could have some problems with a coach or something. So, the consistency to play regularly and in more than 100 games, without big injuries and always in a good shape to get a starting place in the national team, is something I am proud of. However, in the end, the best thing was when we qualified twice for the World Cup – in 1990 and 1998.”
He describes the experience of playing at a World Cup as “great”. “When you have the whole country standing behind you and you qualify, it’s truly amazing,” he said. “We won the last qualifying game at home [4-0 against Belarus] and the whole country was celebrating. We were so proud.”
However, the tournament ended in disappointment. “At the World Cup,” he said, “we did not do the same good job. We have always gone out in the first round so it was a bad experience for us, but the same happened [at Euro 2016] in France. It’s something we have to learn from for the future. When we qualify for the tournament, we have to do better job with a different philosophy and mentality.”
Herzog experienced the best part of his career at Werder Bremen, where he arrived in 1992 and won the title in his very first season in the Bundesliga. “We had a very good team,” he said. “There were some special players, goal scorers, very good wingers, but they lacked a playmaker, a number 10, that one player for the final killer pass, able to dribble into the box. And then, [the coach] Otto Rehhagel signed me and I fit really well into this team, it was great fun for me to be there. From the beginning, the coach gave me the confidence to have the impact he wanted me to have on the team.”
Rehhagel built Werder’s system around Herzog’s vision and it worked extremely well. Herzog says there are a lot of things he took from Rehhagel’s coaching style. “He’s always smiling when all the people are talking about the tactics, but in the end he would always say this is the team I have and these are the strengths and weaknesses of my team. He said he had to build his starting line-up like a puzzle, keeping in mind strengths and weaknesses of each player so they fit together in a perfect way. The most important thing was that he acted like a human being. He treated us like sons and in the end we were fighting for him every day. I think it was a big part of his success and what we have achieved, too.”
Herzog thinks that was also Rehhagel’s key to success in 2004, when he surprisingly led Greece to victory in the Euros: “He talked to me and said that the biggest problem at the beginning when he got to Greece was that there were three groups in the national team: players from AEK, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. He was able to bring them together, create a group and win the European championship. He was a special coach, of course.”
In 1995, Rehhagel was appointed as coach of Bayern Munich. He took Herzog with him. “It was not a shock, but there was definitely a big difference,” he said. “At Bremen, we had become champions and had a good team, too, but Bayern Munich is a different level because of the media, the fans and also team spirit at that time. It was the kind of team where everyone was fighting with each other, so we did not have a good chemistry in the dressing room, even if we were a very good team on the pitch. However, in order to win a German title, you have to have a good team for the whole season. Once in a while, we had some problems with our fights and that’s why we lost some games in the Bundesliga. However, at European level, we won the Uefa Cup, so you can see we had very good players – for example, Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus, Jean-Pierre Papin – they were special.’
Herzog says his biggest problem at Bayern was that he had “too much respect in the beginning”: “Everything looked so big and I wanted to be quiet and see how it was all going, but I lost my confidence. I played as the number ten and there were other people fighting for the same position. There was something going on behind my back in the media and inside the club.”
In the mid-nineties, Bayern were nicknamed ‘FC Hollywood’. Herzog grinned when I mentioned the term. “FC Hollywood!” he said, insisting it was no exaggeration. “It was like that. Every day, we had some fights and it was always in the media. The coach said something in the dressing room and the next day, exactly the words he had said were in five different newspapers. He came to me and said, ‘Andi, what’s going on here in Munich? If I say something, the next day everything is in the media. I think we have a mole.’ I said: ‘Coach, I don’t think we have one mole, we have five, because it’s everywhere.’ Three years earlier – and Rehhagel was at Bremen for fourteen years – the whole club was like a family. There weren’t many journalists and they were fairly quiet. At Munich, everything changed and it was really tough for the coach, too.”
Herzog struggled to adapt to the new environment and left Bayern after only one season. “In that time, only three foreigners were allowed, but we had four: me from Austria, Jean-Pierre Papin from France, Ciriaco Sforza from Switzerland and Emil Kostadinov from Bulgaria, and everybody else was German. The Germans had a big group, a unit, and it was not easy for a foreign player to get into this group, especially as an offensive player. As a result, most foreign players struggled at Bayern. Afterwards, Ottmar Hitzfeld took over as a coach and he did a good job in splitting this group a little bit. He brought more chemistry into the team and there were even more foreign players.”
By the time Hitzfeld got to Bayern in 1998, though, Herzog was gone, as he returned to Werder Bremen and stayed there for more than five seasons. He did not add any major trophies into his collection, but he held his position as an important member of the starting line-up at both club and international level. In Austria, he was considered the most gifted player of his generation.
“In Austria, every young player respects and looks up to Herzog,” the former defensive midfielder Markus Kiesenebner said in an interview with These Football Times. “He was a leader and was technically perfect, and had the right eye for the game and its different situations. Of course, everyone talks about his fantastic left foot, but he had also an amazing quality that not everyone has: complete passion for playing the game, and maybe this was one of his greatest assets.”
In 2002, he returned to Rapid Vienna before ending his career in Los Angeles Galaxy in November 2004. Afterwards, he leapt into coaching, as he temporarily led the Austria national team (along with Slavko Kovačić and Willibald Ruttensteiner) after Hans Krankl had been sacked in 2005. Herzog would become the national team’s assistant coach and head coach of the Under-21s, but he has never been given the main job.
In 2011, Jürgen Klinsmann, his former teammate from Bayern, offered him a role of his assistant with the United States national team. “At the start, we did not have a close relationship,” said Herzog, “because he was a kind of individual. I only played one year with him and he scored sixteen goals in the Uefa Cup – and then I left Bayern. He stayed there for another year before leaving for Tottenham Hotspur.”
Klinsmann had been involved in Herzog’s move to Los Angeles Galaxy, as the former Germany international worked for a club as an adviser. “After that, our relationship became closer and that’s maybe one of the reasons why he chose me as an assistant coach to the USA national team in 2012.
“In my opinion, the good part of Jürgen as a coach is that he is a manager who has very good experts underneath him. We had a very good fitness coach from Japan, an assistant coach from Austria [Herzog himself], a goalkeeping coach from England, another assistant coach from Mexico. Our coaching staff was from all over the world. He believed that these guys were really good and they could help him to succeed. It was really fun to work with him, because he gave us a lot of freedom. I was in charge of the training sessions that were focused on tactics. We always had a lot of discussions about football. For me, as an assistant coach, it was great when I saw that he had confidence in me and asked me a lot of different things.”
However, a few months before our interview, both Klinsmann and Herzog were fired. Although the immediate cause was a pair of defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica at the beginning of World Cup qualification, Herzog is sure the problems had begun at the 2014 World Cup, at which the USA progressed from a group comprising Germany, Portugal and Ghana before losing after extra-time against Belgium. At the 2016 Copa América Centenario, the US reached the quarter-final, but were beaten by Argentina. Relations frayed between Klinsmann and the MLS commissioner Don Garber, who said it was “unfair and unwarranted” that Klinsmann preferred players based in Europe over those playing in MLS.
Herzog denied that Mexico and USA have a kind of easy run in Concacaf qualifying. “When you’re in Europe,” he said, “you don’t know Concacaf. In Concacaf, every team has something special.” He pointed out that Costa Rica got to the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, being eliminated by the Netherlands on penalties. In various countries, meanwhile, teams have to face higher temperatures, longer grass on the pitch, differences of altitude or home fans making noise by their hotel during the night. “It’s completely different to Europe,” he said, “but, for me, it was still a new experience and adventure.”
He remembered the trips to Honduras as being the most difficult of all. “We played in San Pedro Sula and that is the most dangerous city in the world,” he said. “However, I did not know this. We lost 2-1 and on the way back, Jürgen said to me, ‘Andi, we survived San Pedro Sula.’ I answered, ‘What do you mean? We lost 2-1 and we played badly because of the heat.’ And he said, ‘No, don’t you know? San Pedro Sula is the worst city in the whole world, the most dangerous.’ I said, ‘What? Why did not you tell me three or four days ago? Now you are telling me?’”
He laughed, remembering the conversation. “I wanted to leave the hotel and the police guy locked the front door and said I had to stay in,” he said. “Two minutes later, 300m away from the hotel, there was a robbery with three gangsters, but they did not know that the US soccer team was so close. We always had 40 or 50 police guys as security around the hotel and 20 of them went to the robbery and they took the gangsters to jail. I was looking out from my window and wondering what the fuck was going on. I was always happier when we played at home.”
The biggest disappointment in his coaching career was the failure of the USA Under-23 team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. “We killed everyone in the group,” he said. “We won every game like 6-1 or 3-0, so I thought we had a very good team. However, then we played against Honduras in Salt Lake City. That’s at altitude and it was at one o’clock. That was a disadvantage for us, because Honduras are used to playing in heat and they had two really good strikers, including Alberth Elis, who has a really good future ahead of him. We were not able to play our style of soccer with the same success we had before.”
He also complained that Honduras were playing “really brutally”. “The referee was from Panama, so he talked in Spanish and I told him, ‘Hey, you have to talk English too, because we want to understand what you’re saying to the other team.’ He was really arrogant. It sounds like an excuse, but the referee from Panama was closer to Honduras. They made some brutal fouls and he did not even give a yellow card or anything. When one of my players made a simple foul, he was given a yellow card straightaway. I was really pissed after 75 minutes and I ran onto the field to have an argument with the referee. We were 2-0 down and he gave me a red card. It was a mistake by me but you could see it was a very emotional game. We had a bad day, but the referee was not able to control the game and he was not able to deal with Honduras.”
Herzog said Europeans cannot comprehend what some referees from Concacaf are doing: “We were playing in Trinidad and Tobago and there was an assistant referee who did not care about the game. He was walking along his line, making gestures to the fans and making fun of them, with his back to the pitch, and then there was an offside and he turned back and did not have a clue and gave no offside. Unbelievable.”
During his time in the US, he saw an improvement in the country’s football culture, though: “Soccer, and not only MLS, is getting bigger and bigger in the US. There was so much euphoria and fun around the national team as well, especially before and after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But Europe is different, because football has dominated here for 100 years. In the US, when the players leave the stadium, they can go out. Now, it might have changed a little bit. Maybe 30% of supporters would spot them and say: ‘Hey, I know this player, he did a good job.’ But 70% of people don’t even care, they just want to have fun and go home afterwards. In Europe, if you lose the game, a neighbour is yelling at you the next day. The position of sports in America is clear: American football is number one, basketball and baseball numbers two and three and right now, in my opinion, soccer is around fourth or fifth place and getting better.”
He hopes the USA can win the World Cup in the near future, but said they “have to improve a lot”, especially in terms of youth education: “It’s not easy, because the country is so big. In Europe, the players from the age of eight or ten to fourteen are developed in Europe in some education centres. Kids can get there from everywhere in 30 minutes by car or train, but in the US, if you want to make such centres they have to fly from everywhere and that’s the biggest challenge for all youth national coaches, who cannot watch every single game. It’s not possible. We had some technical advisors for northern California, southern California, four or five guys for every state, but we always had to rely on the quality of their scouting. If I live in Austria or Germany, I can watch a lot of games, because I can go to every single game I want to see. But in the US, you have to fly from there to there.”
After five years in the US, Herzog decided to return to Vienna. “I have two little kids, boys aged seven and ten, and my wife, so they missed me a lot. I spent five to six months per year in the US, so after we got fired, I wanted to be with my family for a couple of months.”
Back then, Herzog was already open to new coaching possibilities, and, in the following weeks, he was reportedly a candidate for the vacant coaching positions at both Rapid and Werder. For now, though, he remains unemployed. When I asked whether he would prefer to work as a head coach or an assistant, he emphatically chose the first option.
“When I was an assistant coach with Austria, I said I would never want to become an assistant anymore.” Klinsmann changed his mind, giving him a lot of freedom and responsibilities. “I don’t want to be an assistant coach just standing, walking around and putting the cones in the right place.”
Like so many great players, though, he is finding it hard to replicate his success in coaching.