The longer you live, the more you lose. Like art imitates life, the demise of man is emulated in football. Josef Hickersberger was made manager of the Abu Dhabi club Al Wahda in December while his friend Peter Persidis, a coach who helped him run Rapid Vienna and Austria, was slipping away.
Persidis was diagnosed with cancer in October. He died last month, aged 61. Without spewing rhetoric or a cracker-barrel philosophy, nothing matters in life apart from good health and being content within one's self. Hickersberger, 60, seems fulfilled. He has reached an advanced stage in professional football with much to pore over. "Hicke" remains a distinguished gentleman, a learned coach in glasses despite being ordered to the stands with the Germany coach Joachim Low during the Euro 2008 finals. It was the last meaningful sighting of him on a touchline before he turned up here.
"The fourth referee was crazy," says Hickersberger. "Me and Low both told him to relax, and let us coach our teams." Hickersberger is revisiting this region. He was in charge of the Bahrain national side, and notably managed Al Wasl in Dubai. He has played for, and managed, Fortuna Dusseldorf, but his enduring moments came in Austria, and with Austria. In club football, he tutored Austria Vienna and Rapid Vienna. A derby with Al Jazira tonight is hardly comparable.
Hickersberger played for Rapid and several German clubs in what he calls a "golden generation" of the 1970s, and the days of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller. He won the Austrian league with Rapid in 2005, carrying them into the Champions League, but he has mixed memories of Rome. Hickersberger coached Austria at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, narrowly losing their opener to the hosts and the gaping Sicilian eyes of Totò Schillaci. He recalls it as a "rich experience".
Hickersberger oversaw three group games at Euro 2008. Austria hosted the tournament with Switzerland. They failed to win a game, losing to Croatia and Germany, and drawing with Poland. "It wasn't a huge disappointment to go out early, because we are aware in Austria we are struggling with the generation of players we have," he says. "Some optimistic people in Austria expected us to win the European championship, but this was not realistic."
Austria welcomed with open arms Spain's triumph in claiming Euro 2008. Hickersberger has always admired Spanish ingenuity. He is a single handicap golfer and continues to have fond memories of Seve Ballesteros at the Dubai Desert Classic in the late 1990s. "I loved watching Ballesteros. He is my hero in golf," says Hickersberger. "At the time in 1999, he was struggling with his swing. "I remember he lost his technique, and was seeing a swing coach to try to help him.
"When I got the sack from Al Wasl in 2000, I had to wait two weeks to see Tiger Woods." The main handicap of football in the UAE is the short-term outlook. Managers come and go with more frequency than oil tankers. There is a tendency to dismiss managers without much thought. For some, a solitary defeat is one too many. The short-term culture makes it impossible to plan for the future. Al Wahda have shed Jo Bonfrere and Ahmed Abdulhaleem over the past 12 months. Hickersberger is aware of the culture.
Coaches tend to do the circuit in the Middle East, flitting between countries making large sums of money without the chance to leave behind something tangible. Hickersberger is adamant that money is not his main motivator. "As a football coach, you can never plan too far ahead. If I lose two matches here, they could sack me," he said. "I have spent 16 years as a player in the German Bundesliga and over 16 years as a coach, so the reason I come here is not for the money. Of course, I ask for money, because if you did not ask for money they would think I am stupid, but money is not the reason I am here.
"I just enjoy the way of life. It is not so busy and stressful, unlike in Europe, especially at the moment when the winter is really bad." Hickersberger played in a game at the 1978 World Cup finals that is recalled in Austria as the "Miracle of Cordoba". Austria won 3-2 against Germany, their first win over their neighbours in 47 years. "It was a big result for our country, and I finished up as a player."
A defeat to the Faroe Islands in qualifying for the European championship in 1992 was regarded as a catastrophe, and saw him depart the job. "After that, I said from now on I will think there is no easy game." He hopes his work at Wadha will continue to be far-reaching. His contract is due to expire in June. "I hope I stay healthy," he said. "In Austria, I have coached the national team twice at the World Cup and the European championship. I coached Rapid and Austria Vienna. I am happy to be here. If I get a good offer, then maybe I will coach in Austria again. But if there was something appealing that suited me, like Mauritius, then I would go there. It just depends on what is best at that time."
Hickersberger seems a stately figure, a football thinker. He also has a golf game to go with his leaning for warmer climes. firstname.lastname@example.org