After a two-year absence, Cologne have returned to the Bundesliga, racking up four points from their first two matches. In interview with DW, club coach Peter Stöger gives us his first impressions of the Bundesliga.
DW: Last season you won the second division title, but now you have clubs like Dortmund, Schalke and Leverkusen for company, just here in the region. What are your thoughts about facing teams like these?
Peter Stöger: I think there's a lot to do: some pleasant challenges. Last year, we set out with the idea or vision of returning to the Bundesliga as quickly as possible. We were able to make that a reality. Lots of players are still with us, and we've brought in a few more on top. The chance to test yourself against the best - and I'm not just talking about German clubs, but the great many around Europe that are truly top-drawer - is really an interesting task.
Will you need to teach your team how to lose, so to speak?
Well, I don't know about learning to lose. We need to understand that we are facing opponents where we could well lose the odd game - possibly even as the clearly inferior team. We have no illusions. We've set a realistic goal of finishing 15th in the league - meaning no relegation playoff games, and no direct relegation. This task is achievable and - if all goes smoothly - realistic. But it's not an understatement either. It's a sober assessment of what's possible, and of what would be hugely important for the club.
But can the Cologne community come to terms with this underdog role?
I have the feeling that the fans are already on board. We have no problem with the great support in this city though, nor with the fans' desire to dream - that's part of what defines Cologne. What's important for us is clearly expressing what the team and the management aims to achieve. I'd then definitely prefer that the fans dream of what might be, rather than being depressive and saying that it's hopeless right from the start.
Mr. Stöger, you moved to second-tier Cologne a year ago from Austrian champions Austria Vienna. To me, in all honesty, that almost sounds like a step backwards.
At that point, there weren't many second division Bundesliga teams that I would have considered joining from Austria Vienna. But when I came here I said: For an Austrian, and in the country's football scene, Cologne is a really big deal. Even with all the problems that have accompanied the club - I could speak of the finances, the level of expectation, and indeed the coaches' short life-spans - that just helped make the job even more enticing. As an Austrian coach, you rarely get a chance to make a name for yourself at a club like this.
Why is that?
The Austrian market is sometimes overlooked. If you'd like to find something out about Austrian football, some real insider information, then you better know where to look yourself. It's simply not a high-profile league. In Germany, there are even coaches in the third division who have all the tools, where everything fits 100 percent. For them to hail from Austria, however, is rather rare. I knew that this would be an enormous challenge, but also that I could learn a lot from it. And when I said that my heart was set on Cologne, I knew: the one winner at the end of all this will surely be me. By that I don't specifically mean winning second division promotion, or becoming a Bundesliga coach. What was clear to me was the certainty of learning a lot of new things here. My great hope was just that Cologne should profit from the experience too! (Stöger chuckles)
How were you perceived in your early days as an Austrian coach in Germany?
Many people were very surprised. But at some point they started making an effort: they Googled my name, started checking up on whether this Austrian had really achieved anything, where he hailed from, checking out playing credentials. I was really warmly received here; certainly here at the club, but also in the region. Any skepticism was well concealed, is perhaps how I'd put it now. Hopes were high, as usual when a new coach steps in. I do think the hopes were a little higher than the genuine belief that it would work out, because I was such an unknown in the equation. We started last season with three consecutive draws and I believe that the way we handled that situation won us credit. We stayed sober and analytical, identifying various areas where we needed to develop and improve. Then I started to get the feeling that people believed we were pursuing an idea, that it might just take hold and work. But at the start I was of course a no-name-coach - that's obvious.
Do many of your compatriots look longingly at German football?
Yes. For many - coaches and players - the Bundesliga is top of the pile, but the German second division, the 2. Bundesliga, is pretty tempting too. My coaching colleagues and other experts absolutely understood my decision to leave the Austrian champions for Cologne. Nobody came to me to say: I don't get this at all. Even though the Champions League would have been an interesting challenge, such a task is short-term by its very nature. I can gather an incredible amount of experience from one or several years with Cologne. That's why the Bundesliga is almost every Austrian coach's ultimate goal. Even when there are some complaints here in Germany, usually it's moaning about first world problems.
Could you give an example of Germany's privileged gripes?
People complain about the conditions for football here. As an example, when a little second division stadium is sold out and attracts 18,000 spectators, then that's rather pleasant by German standards. An Austrian league game with 18,000 in attendance is usually a sold-out title clash! I also often fight back against the prevailing notion that certain luxuries should be a given, that you have a right to them, that they're just part of the professional game: that you always book a charter flight whatever the destination, things like that. I believe that the folks here in Cologne are pleased that several things, which some coaches might consider an enormous problem, don't really bother me. I think this makes life a little easier for the club's management.
Peter Stöger took up the head coach's post at 1. FC. Köln at the start of the 2013/14 season, leading the club to the title and promotion. The 48-year-old Austrian former player is making his debut as a Bundesliga coach this season.
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