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"Nothing Works Without a Strong Sense of Self- Esteem"

inside interview with Bruno Labbadia, coach of VfL Wolfsburg German soccer league team for nine months now.

Bruno Labbadia on the field behind the Volkswagen Arena. Born in Darmstadt, he has been coaching VfL Wolfsburg for nine months. He saved the team from relegation in the match against Kiel in May.

One third of the way into the season and VfL occupies 12th place in the league. What’s the way forward, Mr. Labbadia?
We are currently making several adjustments and we are on the right path for achieving stability in the team and the club – after two years, during which VfL has just managed to remain above relegation in the German Bundesliga. We shouldn’t forget that – and we shouldn’t measure the club against the time when the team was a runner-up and cup winner. Regrettably, there have been times this season when we haven’t succeeded in getting the best result from our good performance. That was the case, for example, with the 0 : 1 match against Dortmund. In spite of the defeat, we were satisfied with the way our team performed. Yet there are still many points where we must improve, above all on the attacking front.

How long will it take before the squad meets your expectations?
That could run over several transfer periods. In the last two years, you see, there were several transition phases under the responsibility of different people here in Wolfsburg. Some of the commitments we had entered into did not work out as smoothly as we’d hoped. Nevertheless, we didn’t make any radical changes to the team before this season. That’s sometimes not possible due to the contracts currently in force. But it’s often simply not necessary, as we need to give players the time to settle into their new environment or get back into great shape again after an injury.

"What the employees achieve, and the excellent cars they build with the aid of modern technology, is really impressive."

You’ve been the VfL coach for nine months now. What conclusions have you reached so far?
We need to divide my time here in Wolfsburg into two parts: I took over the team in February, in the middle of a fight to avoid relegation. I’ve been in this business for several years now, but that was the most difficult task in my career to date. We had to get it into our heads that staying up in the league was not something we could take for granted at all, even if we looked like a great squad on paper. We also had several injured players – I’d never experienced anything quite that extreme. And when the previous year’s fear of relegation again failed to materialize, the pressure was enormous. That period was definitely no fun for us. It was all about our objective of staying up in the league. Given the problems we had at the time, I consider it an huge success. This season, however, the team is on the right path. Four months ago it was still unthinkable that our team would dominate like this and that, after Bayern and Dortmund, it would be the team with the most possession of the ball.

You have spoken about the stress in the fight to avoid relegation. How did you handle this as a coach?
You should never lose your nerve with any kind of failure or annoyance and always keep calm. And you need to set an example to your team, to show you believe in them and your shared objective. I manage to do this by totally shutting out anything else. In the fight to avoid relegation, for example, I hardly watched any other football matches except those of our next opponent. In all other respects I withdrew completely, only spoke to a few people, didn’t read any newspapers, and I also stopped going out – to restaurants, for example. That’s how I managed to concentrate completely on the task at hand and to resist the pressure that, above all, I had created myself. After Volkswagen itself, a team like VfL is one of the most important elements of Wolfsburg. That’s clear to everyone, and it is a great responsibility.

You once criticized people’s disrespectful attitude towards coaches. Has your assessment changed at all?
Absolutely not! If you do this job, you need to have a strong sense of self-esteem. It won’t work otherwise. If things go well, then other people are responsible. If things go badly, then it’s the coach – that, unfortunately, is often the reality. Also, if a player is out of shape, the first thing people ask is whether the coach and the club have done everything to get the player to perform. People don’t usually ask whether the player is doing everything to get there. I believe that coach’s job has gotten a great deal more difficult over the last 15 years. At the same time, it’s amazingly exciting.

How many hours does a German Bundesliga coach work each week?
Well we consider ourselves to be on the job virtually round the clock. There’s really no alternative. After all, not only does the coach manage the team, he also shares in the responsibility for the team behind the team, with its doctors, physiotherapists, equipment managers, advisers etc. That’s almost 60 people altogether. And each of them requires your utmost attention. I admit that, at the start of my career, I underestimated how much time it would involve, as well as how many decisions I would have to make each day – decisions that could catch up with you quite suddenly, yet also had to be carefully considered. We often think in the long term with our planning, but it is clear that we cannot work in peace without short-term successes, and that a coach’s reputation can change completely. Just consider the weeks spent in the UK playing three matches. Within just eight days you can go from a being considered a messiah to a pariah and vice versa – that’s just within eight days!

Why’s that?
Well it’s due to the enormous emotions that football generates and the fast pace of our industry. A CEO once said to me that the big difference between you and me is that you have a balance sheet press conference every Saturday. That hits the nail on the head – there’s a reckoning every Saturday. And that, too, increases the pressure enormously.

What would your job be today if you hadn’t become a coach?
When I was playing for Darmstadt in the second division, I was learning to be an insurance broker. I did my apprenticeship from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and then I drove off to my training. But today I cannot imagine myself doing any other profession than that of a coach. Being a player is the best profession in the world, and coaching is the second best.  

As a child of Italian migrant workers, when you took up your office did you know that Wolfsburg is one of the biggest Italian cities outside Italy?
No, I didn’t know that, but I realized it very quickly. During training, for example, many Italians would be looking on. I like looking at the photos of Wolfsburg, of the time when the Italian migrant workers first came to the city. And I often go jogging past the place where the barracks used to be, where the migrant laborers once lived. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy decision for them to leave their homeland and start over again in a foreign country without any knowledge of the language. I have enormous respect for what these people have achieved. They were in a similar situation to my parents in the mid-1950s, when they resettled in the German state of Hesse.

You have eight siblings. What impression did living in a family with so many brothers and sisters have on you?
I’m the ninth child, in fact – something that was unusual even at that time. We didn’t exactly live in luxury, but I did have a wonderful childhood – if only because there were always other kids to play with and we could have a kick around. I quickly learned how to assert myself, when playing as the youngest in a family of elder kids. It was a good school for me.

When does that spirited southern temperament rear its head?

I carry both mental attitudes with me, though I feel more like a German than an Italian. But I sometimes need to hide my emotions as a coach. On the whole, however, I see my emotions as a strength and I also let them out.

You recently did a tour of the Wolfsburg plant. How important is the connection to Volkswagen for you?
Volkswagen is one of the biggest and best employers in Germany, and it has a big impact on the whole region. So it’s really important for us, as VfL, to get a feel for the work being done at the plant. What the employees achieve, and the excellent cars they build with the aid of modern technology, is really impressive. The whole region can be proud of Volkswagen.

Bruno Labbadia (52)

has been coaching VfL Wolfsburg since February. Prior to that he worked as a coach for Leverkusen, Stuttgart and twice for Hamburg SV, among others. As a striker he scored more than 100 goals in both the first and second division. His greatest successes were as champion and cup winner with Kaiserslautern and champion with Bayern Munich. Bruno Labbadia is married and has two children.

Either ... or

Pizza or currywurst?

Both, but only because the Volkswagen currywurst tastes so good.

Spain or Schweden? 

Spain. I like the sun.

Jogging or swimming? 

I go jogging every day. It helps me put my thoughts in order and also keeps me physically fit. Swimming does nothing for me. My wife always teases me about how I always swim at the edge of the pool.