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“I demand transparency, diversity and a culture of error”

Interview with Oliver Bierhoff, Director of the German National Football Teams and Academy

Pressure to succeed, leadership culture, digitalization: there are many common themes in football and business. Oliver Bierhoff, Director of the German National Football Teams and Academy analyses the latest challenges at the DFB and the Volkswagen Group.

Mr Bierhoff, sometimes you have to weigh up decisions for a long time, sometimes you have to be quick – in sport as well as in business. How do you make decisions?

The nice thing about sport is that it gives feedback very quickly. That’s why you have to react constantly, but you shouldn’t let yourself be irritated. Personally, I only try to make decisions that I am fully convinced of. After which I don’t have to say to myself – whilst looking at myself in the mirror in the evening: You were a coward, it’ll fall at your feet. In my experience, those who consistently follow this intention have a higher chance of success.

The DFB coaching staff has to make difficult decisions, especially with regard to player nominations. Which are better: young guns or the old guard?

I am no friend of the thesis that performance depends primarily on age. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo. The question is rather: How willing is the experienced person to embrace new things? Also, older players must not block the development of younger ones. With top teams, the average age is falling, but you always need experienced players. It takes a good mix.

Topic Crisis Management: How well did it work in German football after the botched 2018 World Cup?

We were certainly a bit overwhelmed at first with all the issues that came up. The World Cup exit hugely disappointed us. We had to keep calm, draw the right conclusions and work hard so that positive news could be reported once again. The most important thing in such a situation is inner cohesion. If this is not there, you have already lost. That’s why it was important for the national team that we could look each other in the eyes and question all of us: Are we ready to tackle the necessary changes – and do we have the energy to implement these changes? And we were ready. So, we tackled it.

You are surrounded by top athletes, top trainers and managers. How do you get to the highest level – and how do you manage to stay there?

The best is always to surround yourself with the best – then you learn the most. For example, we have just organized a trip to Silicon Valley with the DFB Academy together with fifteen sports directors from the Bundesliga. We visited clubs like the San Francisco 49ers, the San Jose Sharks, went to Stanford and Nasa. Many people in the business world have probably done this before – but in football it’s not yet so common. We consciously look beyond the horizon to gain new insights and valuable input. The Max Planck Institute works with us, Stanford – and of course Volkswagen. Why shouldn’t we do a workshop with three top managers from the Bundesliga and three managers from Volkswagen, for example? Discuss and exchange ideas constructively: Football can only benefit from this.

Which values and leadership culture do you cultivate at the DFB?

Our credo in the team is: Never not working, never not having fun. For us, the fun, the joy and also the pride of being national players are important – but we want to work hard and march ahead at the same time. The entire DFB is increasingly transforming itself into a modern organization. I try to be a pioneer with my management. I’m still a friend of clear responsibilities – there are moments when you have to make a decision. But at the same time, I call for transparency, diversity and a culture of error. Everyone should be able to get involved. In football, we always demand that the players in the team’s dressing room speak their minds openly. I demand the same from my management. Loyalty and integrity are extremely important to me. I don’t want to have bad characters in the team, no matter how well someone performs. And we have to allow mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare yourself.

How do football players of today differ from the stars of the past?

The national players are much more professional than in the 90s or 2000s. What has diminished, on the other hand, is the willingness to fight in the group. In the past, you didn’t begrudge your rivals anything. Today, some people say: I’m happy when the other player scores a goal. So, I say: positive rivalry is good – but friction is not bad either.

Also, the communication with the players is quite different today...

In my time as a player, decisions were still communicated by fax. When I started as a DFB manager in 2004, I always called the players. Later I sent mails, today this is also possible via WhatsApp and other services.

Keyword digitalization: Is the data analyst becoming more important than the head coach?

Digitalization and data are extremely important in football. We are driving this forward. Not Big Data, but Smart Data. We are working intensively with Artificial Intelligence – for example, to find game patterns that help the coach prepare for the game. We make continuous heart rate measurements during training. In combination with the running data, the athletics coach can see what the players’ load is. Then they can warn the head coach during training which players shouldn’t run more than 400 meters at full speed. That is training optimization and load control with Smart Data.

How does a manager motivate a top team?

The most important thing for me is to be authentic. We give players feedback frequently and quickly. And we always have a clear vision, a big goal. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for example, our motto was: One shot, one opportunity. A good, direct line is also important. I’m a fan of small personal messages – especially for players who are injured. If you score three goals, you already have enough people to pat you on your back.

  • Oliver Bierhoff

    • since 2018 Director of the National Teams and Academies
    • from 2004 to 2018 National Team Manager
    • previously professional footballer in Germany (Bayer Uerdingen, Hamburger SV, Borussia Mönchengladbach), Austria (Austria Salzburg) and Italy (Ascoli, Udinese, AC Milan, Chievo Verona), top scorer in Italy
    • capped 70 times for the national team (37 goals), European Champion winner 1996 (scorer of the Golden Goal during the final against the Czech Republic)

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