When Germany won the UEFA EURO 13 years ago in the old Wembley Stadium in London, their last major title to date, Berti Vogts was the man at the helm. On Wednesday 12 August 2009, the 62-year-old will again be on the touchline as the Mannschaft take to the pitch, with the 1974 FIFA World Cup™-winner having taken over the reins in Azerbaijan just over a year ago.
Vogts' charges, currently 137th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, are about to play their biggest match of the year so far, and perhaps of their careers. In the country's capital of Baku, home to just over one million inhabitants, they will play host to Germany, runners-up at EURO 2008, in Group 4 of European Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. For Vogts as well this will be a different kind of match: one with more than a hint of nostalgia. "I owe my entire career to the German Football Association," said the former Scotland and Nigeria coach on the DFB website.
'Like winning the lottery'
Azerbaijan have only managed one point from five matches so far in the campaign, putting them at the wrong end of table along with Liechtenstein. Though they have no hope of qualifying for South Africa 2010, Vogts has reason to be proud of his charges. They are yet to score a goal, but they have only let in five, which would imply that the teachings of the player formerly known as Der Terrier are bearing fruit. And how would it feel if the eastern European underdogs managed their first goal against the team Vogts represented in his prime? "Scoring against Germany would be like winning first prize in the lottery for my team," Vogts said.
Hans-Hubert, or Berti as he is always known, is not one for getting carried away and makes no bones about the fact that Michael Ballack et al are unlikely to find Azerbaijan an insurmountable hurdle on their road to South Africa."My team needs to take this opportunity to learn from Germany," said Vogts. "Germany are going to win the group, no ifs, no buts, and in my opinion are one of the real favourites for the World Cup. The team are strong from one through to 11, and in Mario Gomez they have a centre-forward who I believe really has what it takes to become a superstar."
Patience the key
Azerbaijan are still looking to unearth potential of this kind, but the well-travelled German coach is far from frustrated. "We've already made real progress. As was the case when I was in charge of Scotland, I have managed to keep bringing down the average age of the team. It therefore takes time for the team to have success on the pitch after changes like this are made," he continued. "We saw that in Scotland and we'll see it with Azerbaijan as well, if they have the patience. If you have young players and you stick to your plan, you get up to European standard within four to five years."
Vogts spends around three weeks per month in the country on the Caspian Sea, which has a population of some eight million. Football has always been in the blood of a man who made a record 419 appearances for Borussia Monchengladbach, and he believes his record with Azerbaijan stands up to scrutiny: "When we have played teams on a comparable level, we've usually managed to get a result. We drew 1-1 with Uzbekistan, 1-1 in Kuwait as well and we've not really been outclassed in any of the World Cup qualifiers."
If Azerbaijan manage to hold their own against Germany, then there is a fair chance that we will see Vogts running onto the pitch to celebrate at the final whistle. Perhaps not quite as joyously as on the night of 30 June 1996, but not far off.