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Borrowed time

March 8, 2011

Taking over an underachieving team in the midst of a relegation battle is never easy. But Pierre Littbarski faces a particularly uphill struggle at Wolfsburg. DW checked in to see how he's coping with a thankless task.

Pierre Littbarski
It hasn't been an easy winter for LittbarskiImage: picture alliance/dpa

Ask a football coach one of the stock questions journalists pose and you mostly know in advance what sort of answer you'll get. But not with Pierre Littbarski.

Whereas most coaches see their jobs as the be-all and end-all of existence, Littbarski strictly distinguishes between the private and the professional.

"I enjoy life, not my work," Littbarski told Deutsche Welle. "Work has to be done and I'm very meticulous about it. I try to do it as perfectly as possible - but it's not about enjoyment. You enjoy good food, or time with your family or friends. Work just has to be done."

Given the Wolves' desultory 3-0 loss to Leverkusen last Saturday, it's perhaps good that Littbarski has that attitude.

Having been promoted from assistant to head coach when Steve McClaren was fired last month, "Litti," as he was known in his playing days, is widely regarded as a stop-gap appointment. One of his first tasks, he says, was to shed his image as a likeable joker and establish some distance between himself and the players.

He's insisted his charges address him formally and has forbidden them from using his nickname.

"I have to live with people judging me on how I was as a player," Littbarski said. "I don't blame people for it, but they still see me as a player and a clown."

Part of the reason for that reputation is the fact that as a player Littbarski decided on a number of roads not usually taken.

Andreas Brehme, Pierre Littbarski and Lothar Matthäus
Littbarski won the World Cup - so where's the respect?Image: picture alliance/dpa

Big in Japan

An offensive midfielder, Littbarski was one of the finest dribblers Germany has ever produced and a key member of the national team that won the 1990 World Cup. But unlike his teammates of that squad, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann, Littbarski has never gotten much credit as a coach.

He had his greatest coaching successes in Japan, and he was one of the first European players to ply his trade in the reformed J League. To this day, the diminutive dribbler remains something of a folk hero in Asia.

The affection is mutual.

"The Japanese have great respect for everyone, and through their hierarchies they also have a clear path through life," Littbarski said. "Their whole manner of thinking makes more sense to me and has also given me a lot of peace, because the Japanese never decide anything in haste. But once they do decide, they're very fast in making it happen."

Otherwise, his resume includes stints for teams in Australia, Iran and Lichtenstein. And in keeping with his oddball image, Littbarski has in the past confessed he was a fan of the Netherlands, and that as a boy he rooted for the Oranjes over Germany in the 1974 World Cup.

He also doesn't put too much emphasis on strategy. As an analyst during last year's World Cup in South Africa, he opined that many of the big teams were "choking on tactics."

Playmaker Diego is one prima donna Littbarski must manageImage: picture alliance/Pressefoto Ulmer

OK with egos

So if he's no great fan of abstract strategy, what is he trying to change at Wolfsburg, an outfit with lots of big-name talent that has been accused of letting individualism get in the way of teamwork?

"We need egos for the simple reason that if we had only obedient players who play according to plan, we couldn't play ourselves out of pressure situations," Littbarski said.

"My job is to steer those egos in the right direction and present them to the team so that the players respond to them. We have very hardworking players and we have some very creative ones. Every striker has an ego. Rudi Völler had the biggest one of all."

He also hopes that his experiences abroad will help get the Wolves' very diverse squad to finally gel.

"It's of course very helpful that I speak a number of languages," Littbarski said. "I also know what sort of thoughts players have who come from different cultural backgrounds…that's also very helpful because we are quite a multicultural troupe."

Rough start

Littbarski's first month in charge hasn't been a happy one, with the Wolves managing but a single win against last-place Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Any hopes the coach has of retaining his current job depend on Wolfsburg getting themselves out of the relegation battle as soon as possible. But, typically, Littbarski isn't too worried.

"I must say I didn't have these long-term goals," Littbarski said. "I've pretty much stumbled or fallen into my next job."

The signs don't look particularly positive for either Wolfsburg or Littbarski at the moment. But at least the team and its Zen master coach can say that they are trying something that breaks the usual Bundesliga mold.

Pierre Littbarski was interviewed by Kamilla Jarzina for DW-TV’s Bundesliga Kick Off! The program airs Mondays/Tuesdays.

Author: Jefferson Chase

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn