Ottmar Hitzfeld boasts a clean sweep of the trophies available to a European club coach. Apart from league and cup honours in Switzerland with Aarau and Grasshoppers Zurich, and in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, his chief claim to fame is as a member of an elite group of just three men who have coached two different clubs to UEFA Champions League glory. In 1997, he masterminded Dortmund's shock victory over Juventus, before repeating the feat in 2001 with Bayern at Valencia's expense.
He is set for another career highlight now, this time as a national coach. Hitzfeld took the Switzerland job in 2008 and led his new charges to South Africa as group winners ahead of Greece. Hitzfeld is German, but his career has always been inextricably linked with Switzerland, where he learned the essentials both as a player and a coach. Speaking to FIFA, the 61-year-old explained the thinking behind his foray into international football: "I always wanted to coach a national team, but the Germany job never came up at the right time.
"Switzerland is like a second home for me, so it was perfect. I'm delighted about the decision I made. Switzerland was the only alternative open to me. Germany or Switzerland were the candidates, as I need to identify with a country, so I'd never have become coach in Greece, Austria or England."
Hitzfeld is a veteran and connoisseur of the biggest leagues and stadiums in Europe. He has seen and done it all on his home continent. By contrast, supervising a national team and contesting the FIFA World Cup finals are uncharted waters. "The expectations are enormous, but it's also a dream come true for me. I'm so looking forward to this World Cup, and especially our opening game on Wednesday evening [against Spain]," said Hitzfeld.
The coach, born just over the border from Switzerland in Loerrach, spoke of the significant differences between his old jobs and his current one. "As a national coach, you have lots of time. You can develop systems and strategies, because you're not as tied up in day-to-day details as you are at, say, Bayern Munich, where you're out on the training ground every day. It means there's much more structure to the job, and you can keep an eye on a large number of players." The casual observer might suspect the ceaseless travelling a source of stress. "Obviously, watching my players means a lot of travel, but I find it pleasant rather than stressful. So in those terms it's my dream job."
Switzerland's players have rapidly learned to place implicit trust in their boss, as young midfielder Gelson Fernandes told FIFA ahead of their Group H opener. "The special thing about him is the way he talks and communicates with the players," he said. "He's very close to the team, he has an amazing track record, and I think he's infusing us with his experience and knowledge of the highest levels of the game."
In his German Bundesliga days, Hitzfeld was nicknamed 'The Gentleman' thanks to his polite manner and even temper, and his refusal to censure his players in public, even after poor displays. That did not mean there was no criticism, but it came behind closed doors and never via the media. He has maintained this practice with Switzerland, whose muted start to qualifying with a 2-2 draw against Israel turned to shame and embarrassment after a 2-1 defeat at home by Luxembourg. Coach and players closed ranks, and Hitzfeld ultimately led his side to first place in the group.
The players appreciate Hitzfeld's quietly forceful approach. "He doesn't shout and scream, he very politely tells us what we have to do," Gokhan Inler told FIFA. "He wants mutual respect in the dressing room, and that's what he's achieved. It's a real advantage for us to have a coach like this." Central defender Philippe Senderos is also a fan. "He has vast experience at the highest levels, and you need experience at a tournament like this," he said. "I think he'll give us everything we need for our first match."
Those needs are fairly extensive, as Wednesday evening's opponents in Durban are European champions Spain, clear favourites to win Group H, and most bookies' top fancy for the Trophy itself. The Iberians sent out a clear message of intent ahead of the finals with a thumping 6-0 warm-up win over Poland, so how can they be contained? Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio is counting on the boss. "Our coach has lots and lots of experience. We have absolute faith in him. He'll decide how we take on Spain. He's won nearly everything there is to win. What impresses me most is how calm he is when he addresses us. And after he's spoken to us, every player knows exactly what's expected of him. I find it really impressive."
Inler offered a hint of Switzerland's likely tactics. "The game will show us where we stand. We have to keep our defensive discipline for 90 minutes and create the occasional decent chance. We'll have to keep it very tight in midfield, and if we can win possession there, we can make chances on the break." For his part, Hitzfeld is focused on leading his men to the next round. "We're not just here for the ride. Our publicly-stated goal is to finish second in the group and qualify. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm convinced we'll hit our target." When it comes to hitting targets, there are few better than Hitzfeld.