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The big interview: Christian Ziege – "Liverpool was a bad move – Gerard Houllier never talked to me"

Christian Ziege

The sun is beating down in Mallorca, and Christian Ziege is being asked to gesticulate at the camera as part of his FourFourTwo photoshoot.

“You want me to be an actor, just like Vinnie Jones?” asks the former Germany star. Within seconds he’s launching into an imaginary team talk, jokingly veering off into a Godfather-esque Italian accent. “You’re going to do this and you’re going to do that, and if you don’t, then you’re dropped,” he mumbles. Although in The Godfather, one suspects they might have been sleeping with the fishes.

Ziege can look like a pretty imposing chap when he wants to but, in the final days of his spell as manager of Spanish third-division outfit Atletico Baleares, the former Milan, Liverpool and Spurs man is in a friendly mood as he sits down to discuss a trophy-laden career.

You were born in West Berlin – how close did you live to the Berlin Wall?
David Mills, Colchester
I lived in a house opposite it, and after school we would play football in front of the wall. For me it was normal, but sometimes we lost balls over the wall and they never came back! I remember the first day you could go through the Brandenburg Gate in 1989. I went over to the other side and it was amazing.


1990-97 Bayern Munich

1997-99 Milan

1999-2000 Middlesbrough

2000-01 Liverpool

2001-04 Tottenham

2004-05 Borussia Monchengladbach

Is it true you used to be a goalkeeper?
Andreas Brandt, Munich
I started as an outfield player but then we had a bad team and had no keeper, and the coach asked, ‘Who wants to go in goal?’ I said I wanted to try – I played maybe one season there – but if you’re in goal and losing 21-0, at some stage you don’t want to be in goal anymore!

What were your best and worst moments with Bayern Munich?
Dr Tenywa Costantine, Uganda
The worst moment was a bad season in 1991/92, when we came 10th, but then a year later Franz Beckenbauer came in – a fantastic person who motivated his players. The best moments were when I won the Bundesliga twice [in 1993/94 and 1996/97] and the UEFA Cup in ’96 against a fantastic Bordeaux team that had Zinedine Zidane in it. We won away at Nottingham Forest [in the last eight] and that was when I realised I should go and play in England one day – we were 5-1 up but the Forest supporters stayed and still applauded their team.

Do you remember losing to Norwich?
George Barnes, Wymondham
Yes, I remember. We lost to Norwich in the UEFA Cup in 1993 – a disappointing result. Then the week after we went out of the German Cup, too – it was a mess. We had big problems that season. The season afterwards I was the club’s top goalscorer even though I was playing left-back! I was the best striker, more or less, and was going forward a lot, which maybe wasn’t the best for our defence.

What was your career highlight?
Orally z-Ikenna, Abuja, Nigeria
Winning Euro 96 at Wembley. I scored the first goal in our first match of the tournament against the Czech Republic. We played them again in the final and I put the cross over for Oliver Bierhoff’s equaliser. When the Golden Goal went in, it was really strange. For a minute they were talking about whether it was offside or not, and it was the first time a game had been decided by a Golden Goal. But then you start realising you’ve won and you are European champions. We would sing Three Lions all of the time during that tournament – it had started when we were celebrating on the coach after we’d reached the knockout stages.

What was it like scoring in the penalty shootout against England in the semis?
Steve Harris, London
It was a lot of pressure! On the way to the ball you’re thinking that the whole country is watching you and if you miss, you’re the stupid guy who missed the penalty. But then you concentrate on trying to score. Winning the final was special, but the game against England was massive. I have seen Gazza’s miss many times since, and if he’d run onto it a little bit earlier he could have easily scored. But it was good for me because I played with Paul Ince and Gazza at Middlesbrough and could always say, “OK, you went out, we went on and lifted the trophy, so shut up!” [Laughs].

4:41 as Ziege keeps his cool

How did Germany’s successful team at Euro 96 compare to the one that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
Sean Low, Australia
You can’t compare because football is getting quicker, but I think the team from 2014 was better, football-wise. We had good team spirit – everyone was always there for his team-mates. That was the reason we won it – not because we played the best football. You were linked with Arsenal before you signed for Milan in 1997 – how close were you to signing for them?
James Linehan, Stevenage
I was linked with quite a lot of teams, but I wanted to go to Italy. Almost all of the best footballers were out there, because England had the problem with not playing in Europe for five seasons. I had offers from Barcelona, Juventus, Milan, Atletico Madrid and Newcastle – and I was talking to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United at one stage, but my decision was made. I told him it would have been better if he’d called me earlier, as United were massive at the time, but I was happy to join Milan.

Why didn’t it work for you at Milan?
Rosalia Bonomi, Monza
It’s always very difficult to go abroad as you have to adapt, and at the start you don’t speak the language. The manager is talking and you have to keep asking, “What did he say?” We had problems in my first year: the coach was telling Paolo Maldini, who’d played left-back there for 10 years, that he had to switch to the right. Paolo never said anything to me and he wasn’t angry – he was the best professional I ever met – but you could feel the pressure. He’d been playing well at left-back and if you have a few problems at the beginning, people start talking. But in the second season a lot changed and we won the league title – to go over to Serie A as a foreign player and lift the trophy was special.

Having played for Bayern Munich and Milan, how come you ended up joining Middlesbrough for a season in 1999?
Damien Edwards, Galway
When I left Milan it was a bit strange. Some people within the club – not the coaches – decided they didn’t want me there anymore. They made it clear that if I didn’t leave the club, then I wouldn’t play. I decided to stay anyway, but then so many things happened that I can’t say publicly and in the end I just said, “Enough’s enough, I want to move on”. Bryan Robson was keen to have me at Middlesbrough. I didn’t know anything about the place but I said to my wife, “Let’s see if we can live there”. I had to play football – it was a fantastic club.

What was it like playing alongside Paul Gascoigne at Middlesbrough? Any crazy stories you can share?
Andy Murphy, Lincoln
Funny, always funny! We had a really good time, we were very close and he was one of the best footballers that I ever played with. Obviously he had some problems away from the pitch, which I felt very bad about because he was just brilliant. Later, he went to Everton and I moved to Liverpool and we were living in the same hotel for about three months. When I left the hotel I said to my wife, “I’ll call Gazza to come to our house, we can watch football together” – as he was always staying in the hotel. He came to our house and stayed for a while.

Did you know you were going to use Middlesbrough as a stepping stone to a bigger Premier League club?
Chris Lofthouse, Stockton-on-Tees
Not at all. That was the best time that I had there. I had a fantastic season, lots of people were recognising that I was playing well, I got called back into the German national team and the Premier League was even more than I had expected. Even though we were fighting to avoid relegation, I enjoyed the way we played and the way that the people were behind me.

I had your name on my Boro shirt. Why did you leave us?
Crouch59, via Twitter
That was really difficult for me. Obviously it was to go and sign for Liverpool, a massive club with a massive stadium and history. But unfortunately I had some problems there, problems with the manager [Gerard Houllier] and I still don’t know what his problem was with me. He never talked to me. I realised it was a bad move because I really enjoyed my time playing for Boro. Liverpool were in the UEFA Cup, which we ended up winning that year. We won the FA Cup and the League Cup, and qualified for the Champions League, so it was a great season. However, it was the wrong decision, football-wise. I didn’t play enough.

Was there really a secret clause in your contract that Liverpool found out about? Did they tap you up?
Rik Williams, London
I didn’t really know what was going on and all of a sudden I was in the middle of a huge mess. Everyone was fighting and blaming people, and I didn’t know anything about it as people behind the scenes were talking and trying to get me to sign for Liverpool. I’m not like that. I prefer to say, ‘OK, if I can’t go, I’ll stay’. It was really a big mess and I didn’t like it at all. It was a bad time, I don’t like to speak about that move. [FFT: It ended up in court with Liverpool fined for making an illegal approach for you. Did you meet them while you were playing for Middlesbrough?] No, I didn’t meet anyone. It went to court – that’s why I’m saying I didn’t like that time. It affected me a lot because questions always came up about it and people from Middlesbrough were not happy, which I understand. I made the wrong decision. You have to learn from that.

What did it mean to you to play in Liverpool’s League Cup final win over Birmingham in 2000/01, but then not be picked for either of their FA Cup or UEFA Cup final triumphs?
Neil Sinclair, Southport
The League Cup final at the Millennium Stadium was amazing. I came on for the penalties at the end – I guess that was why I got brought on! But I didn’t even get on the bench for the UEFA Cup final in Dortmund and that was a tough one to take – but that’s football.Looking back now, are you relieved that you weren’t selected to play in Germany’s infamous 5-1 humbling against England in September 2001?
Archie Green, Kent
I was surprised because I thought I’d be playing, but Rudi Voller decided not to pick me in the end. David Beckham was playing very well on the right wing in that period, but whenever we played against each other, a lot of the time he didn’t play too well. But it was not my decision, and so Schalke’s Jorg Bohme played on the left-hand side instead. In any case, I would have been just one player, and on that day England were very good and Germany were very bad.

The Tottenham team that you were a part of in 2001/02 under Glenn Hoddle played some great football and scored some amazing goals, but struggled to put together consistent results. Why do you think that was?
Jonny Marshall, Enfield
We were a really offensive team and if you have a lot of players pushing up all at once, you also create problems in defence, too. That was sometimes the problem for our team, although it was enjoyable football. Before I joined Spurs from Liverpool, I used to meet up with Steffen Freund and we said that one day we had to play together. Then the chance came for us both to play at Tottenham. I really enjoyed playing under Glenn Hoddle, and all of my team-mates there were fantastic.

You equalised for Spurs in the 2002 League Cup Final against Blackburn. Was there a sense of overconfidence after the semi-final win over Chelsea?
Darren Walsh, via Facebook
I think we played a fantastic final and Les Ferdinand had three clear chances to score – that’s not Les’s fault, but we had the chances. We didn’t manage to win the game, and unfortunately after that the team were a bit down for the final few months of that campaign.

You sported a rather questionable mohawk during the 2002 World Cup. What exactly were you thinking?!
Ralph Seelman, Heidelberg
[Laughs] I wasn’t really thinking! I was just at home one day cutting my hair and my wife said, ‘What about having hair just down the middle?’ I said, ‘OK, why not?’ Then we painted it with the German flag, too. Everyone was looking at it, and so much shit was coming my way during the tournament that I cut it off. In the end I was just happy that Ronaldo had a worse haircut than me!

Did it hurt that you only came on as a substitute in the World Cup final against Brazil with six minutes left, once the game was already lost?
Jan Willem Spaans, Ayr
The first disappointment for me was not playing in the semi-final against South Korea. I’d played in every game apart from one when I was banned, but then the manager changed from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 and I was left out. I came on in the final and had a chance to pull a goal back and make it 2-1. The final was our best game of the tournament, but we lost. Not many people play in a World Cup final, though. I did and that’s huge.

Is it true you were close to losing your leg after an injury in 2002?
Stuart Symons, Barnet
I was close to dying. I was playing for Tottenham against Charlton and I got a knock on my thigh. It wasn’t a big kick but my leg swelled up really badly after the match. I was in massive, massive pain. My wife told me to call the doctor but it was Boxing Day and I said, “I can’t call him now.” My wife called him and he said we have to look at the pressure inside the leg and I should go straight to hospital. They operated on me, and I can’t remember too much about the next few days because they put me on a lot of medication to help relieve the pain. They told me if we’d left it another 30 or 45 minutes, they would have had to cut off the leg as otherwise I would have died. It was so scary and I had to have another operation five months later because the muscle was dead. They had to take it out and I had to start again. It was a really tough time.

They told me if we’d left it another 30 or 45 minutes, they would have had to cut off the leg as otherwise I would have died

Why did you decide to leave Spurs and return to Germany in 2004?
Tom Burton, Walthamstow
When I’d come back from the injury David Pleat was the manager and he was not playing me a lot. Then I did play and he said to me, “I didn’t know that you were a left-back". I thought, ‘What?!’ I realised that if he didn’t know that, I was not so important to his plans. I was keen to play but I was settled in England and the kids didn’t want to move. But we had to move on and everything turned out fine with Gladbach. I do miss it in the UK, though.What was the best goal you ever scored?
Jimmy Gorton, Southampton
The free-kick that
I scored for Spurs at home to Arsenal in 2002. I always used to practise my long shots in training, especially with Oliver Kahn. He’d be in goal and I’d be shooting for hours. [FFT: Was Kahn as scary as he looked?] No, he wanted to win every game like we all did. He was just different in how he showed it. Even if he was losing in training he got angry!

Who gave you your best team talk?
Eric Scholz, Kiel
The best ones were always from Franz Beckenbauer or Otto Rehhagel when I was at Bayern, because they would say some funny shit that you couldn’t stay serious about! I don’t know where they got all of their stories from – we once went to a game in Portugal with Rehhagel in front of 90,000 people and he said, “When you go into the ground they will give you flowers but leave the thorns and throw them at you.” I just thought, ‘What?!’ But then I realised, ‘Ah, OK, he means they don’t like us!’

Would you rather play as a wing-back for Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, or as a left-back for Jurgen Klopp’s Reds?
Paul Stevens, South Dakota
Both – they’re fantastic coaches. I saw myself as a central midfielder. I played on the left side as that position was free when I signed for Bayern and everyone just thought I played out wide after that. However, in the final of Euro 96 I played in the middle and it was one of my best games. In 1999 I played there against Northern Ireland and scored three goals.

You have become a coach now. Is it difficult coaching players who you know are not as good as you were?
Dave Reid, Welwyn
Sometimes it can be. When you’re talking to players you expect them to have a certain level to be able to understand – but not every player understands, so you have to cope with that. Arminia Bielefeld in 2010 was difficult, there were some money problems and we had to let a lot of the players leave. Unterhaching was  enjoyable, then at Atletico Baleares they had a project with their German chairman and were looking for a new coach, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ When I retired, at first I was sporting director at Gladbach so I have gained a lot of experience in different levels. I like to have a say in what happens at a club, but I love to coach. It keeps you young, thinking about how to develop a team.

Do you want to manage in England?
Joseph Jenkins, Dronfield
If I have the chance, definitely. I love everything about England. The whole family has said to me that we would like to go back one day in the future.

This interview originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe! (opens in new tab)

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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.