"When you get knocked down, you've got to get straight
back up," says Heiko Herrlich, and the German U-17 coach
certainly knows what he is talking about. He was a fighter and a
winner on the pitch: Bundesliga top scorer in 1995, capped five
times for his country and winner of the Toyota (Intercontinental)
Cup, the UEFA Champions League and two German league titles with
Borussia Dortmund. Herrlich is a battler away from the field of
play as well, having overcome a brain tumour towards the end of his
Without a doubt, 35-year-old Herrlich has been through all that life can throw at him. Now, as of July 2007, he has a new challenge as youth coach for the German Football Federation (DFB), working to nurture young talents at the outset of their careers. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he explains his personal coaching philosophy, talks about the prodigious talent of young playmaker Toni Kroos and of course the forthcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.
FIFA.com: You've been in your new job for a short while now, and have brought the squad here to Grunberg to prepare for your first real challenge - Korea 2007. Have you already managed to settle into your role as international coach?
Heiko Herrlich: Yes, definitely. We've stopped off here on the way to Korea at a sports school with a long and rich tradition - our World Cup-winning squad prepared here before Italy 1990. I also came here with Bayer Leverkusen when I signed my first professional contract in 1989. Now I'm back here, with sporting responsibilities to fulfil, and that makes me really proud.
It is said that you ask your young charges to focus equally on both the mental and physical side of the game. What is your coaching philosophy? Being a talented player is one thing, but being a professional footballer, handling pressure from fans and the media and acquiring a status approaching that of a "living legend" is another. This is why you have to explain to the youngsters that a successful career is as dependent on your approach and your character [as your ability]. It's really enjoyable getting this across to the lads.
Your parents are teachers, as is your wife. Does your family background help you in your role as German U-17 coach?
I didn't really enjoy my time at school, but as far as getting my message across is concerned, teaching techniques can definitely help me to explain the tactical elements of the game. You need to be able to convince the kids - that's really important. To me, my role as a coach has a lot to do with the psychological aspect of things.
Is this part of the thrill of being a youth team coach?
It is a thrill, no doubt about it! As a coach, you're always an idealist. Every young player has something in their character that makes them receptive [to new ideas]. You've got to appeal to that part of them to give them the hunger to succeed, and that's what we're searching for here.
At the moment, there seems to be more in the press about
the U-17 team than their senior counterparts. Does this bother you?
Well one thing is for sure - it's all about this bunch of lads, it's their big chance. As the people looking after them, we're working like mad for the boys and we're also trying to act as a buffer for them. The only reason that we're going to Korea is because these lads qualified for the tournament - that's it! This is why I think that my predecessor, Paul Schomann, deserves a lot of praise.
Young playmaker Toni Kroos is also making headlines, having
already signed professional terms with Bayern Munich...
We have to be careful since there is such an incredible weight of expectation being built up here. Toni definitely has an unbelievable talent, there's no doubt about it. But he's still young and we need to give him the time to develop gradually and at the right rhythm for someone his age. The whole country seems to be singing his praises at the moment and saying how great he is, but for him to develop further, we need to talk with him about the things that he needs to add to his game. That way, at some point, we will have a player who is worthy of filling an important role for Bayern Munich or the full international team.
If he continues to improve his all-round game, has he got the talent to grow into such an important role?
Yes, very much so, but there are no guarantees in the future. Back when I was his age, I saw a lot of great players in the U-16s and U-17s who played maybe 20 Bundesliga matches all told and then ended up in the lower divisions. Toni of course needs to realise what an opportunity he has, but also how tough the road [to the top] will be.
Who are you building your FIFA U-17 World Cup team around? Who are the lynchpins?
I don't want to talk about individuals as being the lynchpins, since I think that it's important that the lads play as a team and develop a winning mentality. They have to be ready to do anything for their team-mates, no questions asked.
So the team you take to Korea is going to be based on typical German values then...
Yes, but we won't be the only ones, the other teams will be pinning their hopes on those fundamental values as well. The key will be to see who can actually implement them under pressure.
How convinced are you that Germany will have a greater team mentality than the other sides out in Korea?
This is what we're working on. We have a concept in place and we've brought in a psychologist who's going to work on these areas. If I weren't convinced, then I wouldn't go to all this trouble. I'd just let them play warm-up matches.
What do you think of your three group opponents?
Well, Columbia got more points than Argentina in qualifying. They always play with a lot of bite and they're technically very adept. They're a typical South American team and they're really tough to play against.
As far as Ghana are concerned, I met up with Tony Baffoe (a former Ghanaian international who played in the Bundesliga) last week in Cologne. He doesn't think that their U-17 team is that strong, but I'm not going to let Tony fool me! ( laughs) Ghana are incredibly strong, both technically and physically. They won't be an easy team to play.
Trinidad and Tobago showed at the World Cup in 2006 that they have really come on and caught up with the demands of international football. I saw their qualifier against USA and they have a lot of technically very gifted players and a lot of athletic guys who will be superior to us physically.
Sounds like you are expecting it to be a tough group...
It's definitely a tough group, but we'll try our best to qualify.
Where do you think the U-17 team are at the moment, as far as their readiness for Korea 2007 is concerned?
( Thinks for a long while) Well we've got some very talented players. Our aim is to take the lads to the limit of their personal and sporting potential. And I'm sure that we'll do ourselves really proud in Korea.
Let us be more specific, what do you hope to achieve at the FIFA U-17 World Cup?
I may be the kind of man who likes his home comforts, but I've said to the team that "We play our first match on 20 August and the Final is on 9 September. There's nothing in the rules to say that we have to fly home early." My aim is to be flying back to Germany on 10 September.
You're very optimistic then?
Of course! You should always believe in yourself and be absolutely convinced in your abilities, and then anything is possible. Just look at how well Austria did at the U-20 World Cup in Canada...