The Austrian tells Paul Oberjuerge his ambitions of winning the President's Cup and why he answered the distress call to return to the UAE.
Pro League: Al Wahda's magic man Hickersberger has tough act ahead
On the eve of Josef Hickersberger's 65th birthday, last week, the telephone rang at his home in Vienna.
On the other end was an Al Wahda club official. Wahda had just lost 4-3 to Ajman, their third consecutive league defeat and, by the way, was Hickersberger interested in becoming the club's technical director?
A few minutes later, another call, this time from a member of the Wahda board of directors. How soon could Hickersberger come to Abu Dhabi? The Austrian said: "A week, maybe 10 days."
No, that would be too late, he was told, because Wahda wanted him to be in the dugout, coaching, when they met Al Shabab in the President's Cup semi-finals, barely a week away.
Within hours, Hickersberger for the third time accepted an offer to coach Wahda, replacing Branko Ivankovic, and on Sunday he was back in Abu Dhabi, embarking on the most unusual mission in his long football career: he has been tasked with capturing the President's Cup, the second-most-important competition in the country, for a club who cannot win anything else this season.
"I have been asked to save the season," he said. "I am something like a white knight."
A white knight with very little time to prepare for a very important confrontation.
The fateful call was unexpected, and yet it was not. Hickersberger had been waiting for the phone to ring since he returned to Vienna from Abu Dhabi last spring, but he did not expect the call to come from Wahda. The club he had led to the 2010 Pro League championship had been hammered in 2011/12 by injuries and weakened by the loss of players to other Pro League clubs.
He wanted to coach again, but he thought he was finished with Wahda; he had left Abu Dhabi the day after the season ended.
"I was done. Done," he said during a conversation at the Millennium Hotel. "Last season, I agreed to coach the first team and the reserve team, as well. So you have two teams. You work every day. You have to take care of 30, 32, 35 players, and you have to train them. It was exhausting. I did not expect to come back.
"I went home to rest, but it was no rest at all because when you get back to your home you have to make calls to everybody and ask 'when can we sit together and have some coffee'? And of course you want to spend time with your friends and children, and I have five grandchildren that I wanted to spend time with. You have to catch up with the things you missed most. Time was running."
He did not get a call from another football club, and he refreshed himself by pursuing his preferred pastime, golf.
He had set out to play "the best courses in the world", and that aspiration led him to travel twice to Scotland, where he played Gleneagles and the Old Course at St Andrew's, shooting 12-over. He also went to Ireland and South Africa to get in rounds at prominent clubs, and the self described "golf tourist" conceded he found himself caught up in the moment.
Had Wahda called him when he was on one of his golf excursion, he would have turned them down, he says.
Hickersberger will be in charge of Wahda for barely four weeks, but in that narrow window he could lead them to victory in the President's Cup, a trophy Wahda have won only once, in 2000.
Wahda meet Al Shabab in the semi-finals on Monday, and the winner of that match will face, on May 28, the winner of tomorrow's match between Al Ain and Al Ahli.
"I came here only one week before the semi-finals, but in three weeks time I could win silverware," he said. "For myself, I want to win the Cup. That is why I am here. This club still has a chance to do something memorable."
He notes, too, he has won the league and Super Cup in earlier stretches here, but Wahda fell 4-0 to Al Jazira in Hickersberger's only President's Cup final.
"I have won the league in four countries," he says. "But I have not done so well with cups. I hope we can change that."
What can a coach hope to accomplish in seven days? What can he do the change the direction of a club that appears to be sagging as the season runs down?
"I can give them hope, because we have won something together," he says.
"A few years ago, we were the best team in the UAE, and there are many players still who remember how we did it, and what our philosophy and strategy on the field was, what sort of tactics we used. This is still in their minds. I need just to refresh it."
He returns to a side he still knows fairly well; he previously coached Wahda for three-and-a-half seasons, and he counts more than a dozen players still in the team whom he knows well, among them Ismail Matar, Hamdan Al Kamali, Adel Al Hosani, Mahmoud Khamis, Khaled Jalal, Essa Ahmed, Mohammed Al Shehhi and Saeed Kathiri.
"But there are many new players, and I am not familiar with them. The most important thing was to give them confidence. I hope they believe, 'Oh, with this coach we have won the league, and the Super Cup one season ago, and we had many victories.'
"I hope they believe in magic."
He arrives, too, with an interesting, perhaps unprecedented financial arrangement with the club. He says he is not being paid a salary; he will be given bonuses for any successes Wahda achieve, in the Cup or in the league, while he is here.
"We didn't even talk about salary," he says. "I don't get salary. I didn't even ask. I just needed two tickets, business class; a hotel, and some bonuses if we win something.
"So, I have to win to get paid," he says with a smile. "I have never agreed to this before in my life.
"This is the first time I am doing such gambling. I call it gambling. Of course, I would like to work again on a permanent basis, and I want to do it for another 10 years, inshallah, because this is my life. But I believe in hard work. I don't believe in gambling, and what I am doing now is gambling."
He understands the difficulties. The lack of time, and without a match before the cup semi-finals, weighs heavily on him.
"It would be better to play the semi-final after at least one league game to find out what's the best formation, which players are really match-fit," he says.
"I know the potential of the players I have worked with, but I don't know exactly how is their form and their fitness. I cannot find out by trial and error because there is no time left.
"That is a situation I am not used to. I haven't done this before. I haven't heard of a coach taking over one week before a decisive match.
"The biggest problem is that some players are not really match-fit. They haven't played for a long time. After three defeats the confidence is not very high. The main focus is to form a team in which the abilities of the players fit together. And in which I have not more than three players who cannot continue for 90 minutes.
"Because I can make three changes. And we may have to go 120 minutes. I have to think about this. So far I haven't found a solution I am happy with."
In the interim, his goal is to convince the team to remain compact, in defence, and that will require Wahda's surfeit of attacking players to drop back when they lose possession. "If you have not enough players participating on defence, they are not used to doing it, you get problems sooner or later.
"Today, if you watch for example both German teams [the Uefa Champions League finalists Bayern and Borussia Bortmund], when they lose possession, everyone, whether it's Lewandoski or Goetze or Reus, they come back behind the ball immediately and press immediately. This is modern football.
"You cannot make holidays when the other team is on the ball. If we can get a compact team, it will reduce running and it will ease the work for the defenders. This is modern football."
He relishes the challenge to come, even if success seems unlikely. "I don't know how we will do; it will not be easy," he says. "But I will do my best, and the club can say they tried something."
THE MAN OF THE MOMENT
Josef Hickerberger is one of few men who played for their national side and also coached it, a group which includes Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Robson. Highlights of the Austrian’s career:
As a player
• Performing mostly as a playmaking midfielder, he won 39 caps and scored five goals for Austria from 1968 through 1978.
• He played all but 29 minutes in Austria’s six matches in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. During the competition, Austria defeated Spain and West Germany but failed to reach the semi-finals.
• He spent six seasons with Austria Wien, 1966 through 1972, scoring 28 goals in 112 matches and winning two league titles. He also played for Kickers Offenbach, Dusseldorf, Insbruck and Rapid Wien, though 1982, when he won a third league title.
As a coach
• After he led Austria’s qualifying campaign for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, his side held Italy for 78 minutes in the first game of the tournament before Toto Schillachi scored the winner for the hosts.
• He started with Dusseldorf and Austria Wien, where his team played in the Cup Winners Cup, before moving to the Gulf in 1995 to take over Al Ahli of Bahrain. He coached the Bahrain national team for a time in both 1996 and 2010.
• In 1997, he went to Egypt to coach Arab Contractors for two seasons.
• In 1999, he came to the UAE for the first time, coaching Al Shaab. The next season he took over at Al Wasl, where he “was sacked, for the only time in my career”.
• He coached in Qatar, and won a league title, and returned to Austria with Rapid Wien and the national team, before coming back to the UAE to coach Al Wahda in 2008.
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